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Some folk describe glaciers as "rivers of ice", and in essence that’s just what they are. It starts with a snowfall, back in the Year Dot. If that snow doesn’t melt, there’s another snowfall next year, which just lies on top of it. Repeat this process for a few thousand years, and the snow is compressed into ice. Just the same as if you squeezed a snowball really tightly, you’ll finish up with an iceball. Slowly but surely, the ice heads off downhill until it reaches a level where it can melt; on the way, it carves out those great formations that mountain-goers and fjord enthusiasts love.
If it wasn’t for the action of glaciers, most of our mountains would just be boring, featureless hills.
Most glaciers are in retreat; at many of them, you’ll see photographs or pictures of how it used to look in bygone years. And, before anyone starts yelling "global warming", I’ll just say it’s a natural process that’s been going on since the last ice age, and will probably continue until the next one. If it wasn’t for that retreat, most of Northern Europe would still be under an ice sheet.
Back in 1988, I actually walked on a glacier. That was on a Joint Services expedition to Norway’s Jordal Glacier. Officially, it was a "course", though because the "Whitehall Neddies" don’t like the idea of the troops having fun at the taxpayer’s expense. So very little time was spent just walking and admiring the view. Most of the time, we received "instruction", mainly on how to get out of a crevasse, and how to get other people out of a crevasse.
Really, we only learnt one thing, if we didn’t know it already:
‘Don’t fall into crevasses!’
Then in 2013, we visited the Svartisen Glacier in Norway. That’s the only one in mainland Europe that finds its way down to sea level. We saw it from the sea, after sailing down a narrow fjord. I wondered about the name, which translates as "Black Ice" - but was most definitely blue; that’s how we could pick it out from the surrounding snow.
We saw several glaciers on our trip to Alaska. The Mendenhall Glacier was reached by an easy coach ride from Juneau. There’s a visitor centre here, where rangers explain all about glaciers … one said "glay-seers", and the other said "glass-ears". I suppose it’s a ‘tamayto/tomahto kind of thing?
A short paved walk to the best photographic viewpoint--which leads over the rounded glacier-worn rocks so reminiscent of my native Lake District … which was, of course, carved out by glacier action back in the Ice Ages. There’s a waterfall there, too, the Nugget Falls. I wonder if it was so named because they found gold in the area?
We were warned of the danger of bears, although, again, we didn't see any. But everywhere, even in downtown Juneau, there were bear-proof litter bins. Which are the only litter bins I’ve ever seen that have instructions on them.
But there were no bears, or, indeed, much of anything else when we cruised into Glacier Bay. They did say there was a chance of seeing orcas and whales … but if they did appear, I was probably looking in the other direction. At the mouth of the bay, a boat came out from the visitor centre, and some US National Park rangers came to join us, bringing with them books and interpretative materials, as well as giving presentations and answering questions.
When Captain George Vancouver visited in 1795, he could only get about five miles into the bay. But, by 1879, the ice had retreated and conservationist John Muir was able to sail another 40 miles. These days, you can travel 65 miles up the bay.
Now I’m no scientist, but don’t these figures indicate that the retreat of the glacier … or nowadays, the glaciers (plural!) is actually slowing down?
We spent almost the whole day in the bay, sailing within yards of one of the Margerie Glacier, one of the biggest, where we remained for almost an hour. I’m told it’s ‘traditional’ for visitors to be photographed in the ship’s swimming pool, with a backdrop of glaciers and snow-capped mountains, but nobody seemed keen today. One tradition of our cruise line was observed, though, when crew members served out mugs of Dutch pea soup.
Surprisingly, ours was the only ship there. I’d have expected cruise ships to be milling around like flies around a jampot. But, the whole area is a national park, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so maybe the numbers are restricted in some way?