Resurrection Bay

August 3, 2021


This is 1 of 11 log posts covering The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition.

Seward – Resurrection Bay – Thumb Cove – Caines Head – Callisto Head – Bear Glacier – Bulldog Cove – Cheval Narrows – Aialik Cape – Paradise Cove
The Endeavour at anchor in Kenai Fjords. (Photo: Author)

Departure


We pulled in the dock lines at 0800 this morning and headed out of Seward harbor, pointed south down Resurrection Bay toward the Gulf of Alaska. The weather wasn’t good for our mission. The clouds were low, mostly obscuring the mountain tops, and there was fog hanging like smoke in the canyons. But the seas were easy and the wind was light.


The Mission


The Endeavour is a 72-foot-long steel boat, built in 1954 for the US Army. My wife Patsy and I live on board and host natural history scientists on expeditions in Alaska. Today, we were headed out with three guests to precisely photograph glaciers southwest of Seward, in the Kenai Fjords.


The lead scientist is Bruce Molnia. Bruce probably knows more about Alaskan glaciers than anyone else. He worked for the US Geological Survey for 40 years and is the author of its 554-page Satellite Image Atlas Glaciers of the World: Alaska. A quick internet search on his name turns up an astonishing amount of scholarly work on glaciers. Bruce’s two companions have worked with him on glaciers for years. Kim Angeli was a cartographer (now called a GIS or Geographic Information System specialist) for the USGS. Shawn Dilles was an analyst involved in satellite imagery for various government agencies. Chris Clark-Johnson, Patsy’s post-college son, is with us as crew.


The mission is straightforward: document the effects of global warming on Alaska glaciers by going to the glaciers with old photos, find the exact spots where the old photos were taken, record the GPS coordinates, and take new photos. If the glaciers have receded far enough to be out of the photo, pick a new location with a view of the shrunk glacier for future researchers.


Bruce calls this then-and-now documentation re-photography. In the Kenai Fjords it started more than a century ago. In 1908, the US Geological Survey hired a geology professor at Northwestern University named U. S. Grant III (no relation to the former president, apparently) to come to Alaska and investigate the mineral mines on the Kenai Peninsula and in Prince William Sound. While doing this, on his own initiative and with the help of an assistant, Dennis Higgins, a geologist from a bible college in Tennessee, he took pictures and drew maps of every glacier he saw. The two of them hauled a heavy wooden box camera and glass plates around that summer and the next, taking more than a hundred images. We have those images on board now in a large white binder. We also have dozens more taken by later researchers, including Bruce on earlier expeditions.


There are older maps of the glaciers. The Russian vice admiral and governor of Alaska, Mikhail Tebenkov, drew a set of 39 charts, later published in 1852 as Atlas of the Northwest Coasts of America: from Bering Strait to Cape Corrientes and the Aleutian Islands, which showed glacier positions. In 1904, George Davidson published The Glaciers of Alaska, with charts. Davidson was past president of the California Academy of Sciences, Regent of the University of California, first professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founding member of the Sierra Club.


The old photos and charts are important, given that global warming started with the industrial revolution, which was in full swing by the 1850s, and Landsat 1, the first non-military satellite that could photograph the earth’s surface, wasn’t launched until 1972. Without the old images, we wouldn’t know how much of the glaciers are gone and when they went. This timing was key to figuring out that, yes, it was the excess carbon dioxide and methane generated by industrial humans that raised the Earth’s temperature.


Photographs from the surface are still important. Satellite imagery can now measure the retreat of glaciers by the foot, but surface photographs go back almost a century further and by continuing to take them from measured locations, we get a longer data set, providing more information. Also, seeing the changes from the human level has more visceral impact than a satellite image.


The questions all these charts and drawings and photographs and satellite images need to answer are: are the glaciers still melting, how quickly are they melting, and is the rate of melting speeding up or slowing down? If you live near a coast or depend on food from inland, there is hardly anything more important you need to know.


Which is why Bruce’s work is so valuable. The problem is, Bruce, Kim, and Shawn are all retired, and no longer have the financial support of the federal government behind them. That’s where the Endeavour comes in. We run the Endeavour to support good work in Alaska by scientists without big budgets. If the scientists work for an organization with a budget, we ask the organization to help out. Then, after the expedition, we help disseminate the scientists’ work, sharing what we learned with our members and subscribers.


Their Arrival


With Chris’s help, we spent the last week at the dock in Seward getting the boat ready, which included repainting the entire hull from the waterline up to the gunwale. The paint was still tacky when our guests showed up in their rental car from Anchorage.


We all went to dinner at the Mermaid Grotto, a short walk from the dock, and ate outside in the Alaska evening sun. Bruce is compact with a clipped mustache and almost a military bearing. Shawn is a giant of a man with a head of blond hair, glasses, and a gentle smile. He came wearing bright yellow boots, which he said made him look like the Paddington Bear. Kim has a grey ponytail, glasses that darken in the sun, and a green baseball cap.


First Glaciers


About 7.5 miles south of the harbor (all miles in my logs are nautical miles, which are roughly 15% longer than the statute miles we use on land), we came to Thumb Cove.


From Thumb Cove we should have been able to see three small glaciers in the steep mountains around it: Prospect, Spoon, and Porcupine Glaciers. Kim pulled out a large white binder with copies of the old photos, each in a plastic sleeve. The oldest photos of the glaciers in Thumb Cove were taken in July 1908 by Grant and Higgins. Others in the binder were taken in 1990 by Park Service rangers Mike Tetreau and Bud Rice. The most recent photos were taken by Bruce at different times between 2000 and 2007. Some of the older photos had pre-GPS coordinates written on them, but we knew these would be, at best, suggestions. Finding the exact spots was core to our mission.


I put the recorder I use for my logbook on the pilot bench between us and asked Bruce and Shawn if they would mind if I recorded us. I had questions. I’ve edited the transcription here for clarity and length:


———


Bill: Why do you, personally, care about a warming Earth?


Bruce: I care because I need to understand what’s happening to the place I live and about the consequences – not only to me – I won’t be here much longer – but to my grandkids and to their children – if we don’t understand what’s happening and learn how to cope, or adapt, or change.


Bill: Why is this glacier photography work important?


Bruce: The work is important because these photos are a simple, unambiguous, non-confrontational way to show anyone what’s happening to the surface of the Earth. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what are two pictures worth, taken at the same place at different times?


There are so many people who have no science background but are convinced that nothing is happening, and that the basic science and the physics of why we understand the Earth is warming is, to them, all lies and fabrications.


But anyone can look at these pictures and see the landscape has changed. They have to ask why, and what does it mean. I let the pictures sink in, then I respond to whatever questions or comments or curses they have. I started this more than 20 years ago.


Shawn: There is a name for what’s going on. It’s called landscape amnesia. So, you live in a town and they build a gas station on the corner. For your son, that’s normal. They build another road or street and it creeps on through. We don’t psychologically register it. We don’t think about it. As a consequence of not thinking about it, we don’t think it matters. It’s just another gas station. But it does matter that we just made the town a third bigger, and chewed up a bunch of land, and rezoned everything.


These photos are a tool that helps us think more clearly about where we are and where we’re going. And these glaciers are better subjects than a town. They are non-confrontational because nobody owns them, nobody lives here. And so people they get it. “Yeah, those glaciers changed.” Yeah, well, so did everything else.


Bill: Why should we care that the glaciers are melting?


Bruce: The simple answer is that glaciers are the single largest reservoir of fresh water on Earth, and if the glaciers melt, where do you think that water is going to go? It goes into the ocean. If it goes into the ocean what happens? Sea level rises. If you live near the coast, guess what, your house is flooded. So, yeah, it may not be important to you because the ice is in Alaska or Greenland or Antarctica, but when there is no longer any ice in Alaska or Greenland or Antarctica, your house is going to be 50 feet under water.


Plus, why is it that the glaciers are disappearing? Why, because the Earth is warming. Why is that important? Because it means there are going to be massive changes to the ecosystems and to the types of weather we’re used to. Look at the weather in the west over the last five years, the fires, the storms in the east and south. That’s all due to the same forces that are causing the glaciers to melt. There will be no temperate glaciers left below 2000 meters in 50 years.


———


But here, at Thumb Cove, we failed. The weather was still rotten, with low clouds hiding the ridgeline and fog covering the glaciers down lower. Peaks and ridgelines are critical reference points for triangulating the location of the old photographs, and right then we couldn’t see enough of anything for accurate locations.


Moving On


I pushed the throttle forward and we went on, hoping the weather would be clear a week from now, when we would be on our way back. We could get the shots then.


- William Urschel


Take note! We have two expeditions scheduled for March: The Bubble Feeders of Sitka Sound and the Star of Bengal. Both are listed on the Expeditions page, and both still need sponsors!