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The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords

Photographing climate change

Dr. Bruce Molnia and three glaciers: Anchor, Ogive, and Reconstituted. (Photo: Author)

We cleared the breakwater at Seward harbor right at 0800, headed out Resurrection Bay to Thumb Cove, where we hoped to get a clear view of the first three glaciers. It was early August 2021. The weather here in the Gulf of Alaska wasn’t good for our mission. The clouds were low, mostly covering the mountain tops, and there was fog hanging like smoke in the canyons. But the seas were easy and the wind was light.

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 are headed out with three researchers to photograph glaciers southwest of Seward, in the Kenai Fjords.

The lead researcher 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. Bruce’s two companions have worked with him 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 to document the effects of global warming on Alaskan 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 a glacier has shrunk back far enough to be out of the photo, we’ll pick a new location closer to it for a new photo, 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) to investigate the mineral mines on the Kenai Peninsula and in Prince William Sound. While doing this, with the help of an assistant, Dennis Higgins, 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 copies of those photos on board now in a large white binder. We also have dozens more taken by later researchers, including Bruce himself on earlier expeditions.

The old photos are important. Global warming started with the industrial revolution, which was in full swing by the 1850s, but 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 retreated.

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 is: are the glaciers still melting, how quickly are they melting, and is the rate of melting speeding up or slowing down? There is hardly anything more important you need to know if you live near a coast or depend on crops for food. This is important work.

“Why do you keep taking these photos, Bruce?” I asked. “No one’s paying you anymore, right? And you’ve been doing it for over 20 years.”

“Because these photos are a simple, unambiguous, non-confrontational way to show anyone what’s happening to the surface of the Earth,” he said. “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.

“There is a name for what’s going on,” Shawn said. “It’s called landscape amnesia. So, say 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," he went on. "They are non-confrontational because nobody owns them, nobody lives here. And so, people they get it. ‘Yeah, those glaciers changed,’ they say. Yeah, well, so did everything else.”

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 now we couldn’t see enough of anything.

I pushed the throttle forward and we went on, hoping the weather would be clear a week from now, when we would pass this way again. With luck, we could get a shot then.

— William Urschel


Cold As Ice, An Introduction to Glaciers and Glacier Processes - Molnia (2017) This deck by Bruce Molnia describes the world’s ice fields and glaciers in general, but most of the deck is a pictorial dictionary of terms relating to glaciers. It drives home the realization that glaciers are so much more than just rivers of ice. This is an excellent place to start an understanding and appreciating glaciers. 128 slides, 51 mb.

Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World, Alaska - Molnia (2008) This is the definitive study of Alaska Glaciers, edited by Bruce Molnia with contributions by many others. This is a masterpiece of science and history. This isn’t the first book or deck one should read on glaciers (“Cold as Ice” is a good place to start), but everyone with an interest in Alaska glaciers should download this work. It is very large. 554 pages, 92 mb.

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