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Climate Change

Glaciers in Alaska have shrunk up to three miles in less than four decades

The scientists analyzed 38 years of data.


An arctic glacier coast in the mountains in Alaska
(Oakland Images via Shutterstock)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Glaciers in an Alaskan wonderland have shrunk by up to three miles in less than four decades, reveals new research.

The rate of melting in Kenai Fjords National Park may be faster than anywhere else on the planet.

It is a 'stunning jewel' just two hours south of Anchorage - attracting hikers and kayakers from across the world.

The nutrient-rich waters lure whales, porpoises orcas, otters, sea lions and seals - as well as migratory birds.

There are also land mammals such as black and brown bears, lynx, mountain goats, moose, porcupines, wolverines and marmots.

But the roof of the world is warming twice as fast as anywhere else. Fish and other animals are harder to find. Rising sea levels are forcing villagers from their homes.

Lead author Taryn Black, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, said: "These glaciers are a big draw for tourism in the park - they are one of the main things people come to see.

"Park managers had some information from satellite images, aerial photos, and repeat photography but they wanted a more complete understanding of changes over time."

They need to prepare for what is on the horizon. Black and colleagues analyzed 38 years of data.

They found that 13 of the 19 glaciers have been reduced "substantially". Those that terminate in lakes are vanishing.

Bear and Pedersen glaciers retreated three and two miles (5 and 3.2km), respectively, between 1984 to 2021.

The park outside Seward spans nearly 670,000 acres. Other glaciers end at the ocean's edge, others on land.

Black said: "In Alaska, much glacier retreat is being driven by climate change. These glaciers are at really low elevation."

"It is possibly causing them to get more rain in the winter rather than snow in addition to warming temperatures, which is consistent with other climate studies in this region."

ice float breaking off glaciers in sea of Alaska, USA
(Structured Vision via Shutterstock)

Bucking the trend is Holgate, a tidewater glacier that finishes at the ocean. Local boat operators had reported seeing newly exposed land near its edge in 2020.

The analysis shows it has been spreading for about five years - going through regular cycles of advance and retreat. Other tidewater glaciers were relatively stable.

Six land-terminating glaciers retreated in the summer months - but at a slower rate than their lake counterparts.

They include Exit Glacier, famously visited by then-president Barack Obama in 2015 to raise awareness about climate change.

Paguna Glacier is covered in rock debris from a landslide caused by an earthquake that hit Alaska in 1964. The debris insulates the glacier surface from melting.

Black used satellite images from autumn and spring to trace about 600 outlines of the glaciers. She visually inspected each one to map the edge.

It sheds fresh light on how warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation will continue to affect maritime glaciers.

Co-author Deborah Kurtz, of the US National Park Service, Seward, added: "We can't manage our lands well if we don't understand the habitats and processes occurring on them.

"Interpretation and education are also an important part of the National Park Service mission.

"These data will allow us to provide scientists and visitors with more details of the changes occurring at each specific glacier, helping everyone to better understand and appreciate the rate of landscape change we are experiencing in this region."

The study was published in the Journal of Glaciology.

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