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John Hollenhorst, KSL News

Rapidly melting glaciers give Utah expert new view on climate change

By John Hollenhorst  |  Posted Oct 29th, 2013 @ 10:46pm


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ANCHORAGE, Ala. — It's no secret that glaciers around the world are disappearing. But in Alaska, the pace of the meltdown is so rapid that a glacier expert who moved there from Utah says it changed his view of climate change.

"I didn't really believe that climate change was a big enough deal to be a problem," Evan Burgess said. "But coming up here has really changed my whole perspective on that."

Say what you will about the causes of climate change; according to Burgess, the meltdown is for real in Alaska. It's rapid and it's getting faster.

Burgess recently finished his Ph.D. in geography at the University of Utah, specializing in glaciology. He has also studied glaciers in Greenland; and earlier this year he moved to Alaska to work for the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"Each year Alaska is losing about 50 cubic kilometers of ice," Burgess said, as he paddled a kayak toward the shrinking Portage Glacier near Anchorage in a recent trip with KSL News.


Each year Alaska is losing about 50 cubic kilometers of ice. ...That's (the equivalent of) about three full Great Salt Lakes draining out of these mountains every single year.

–Evan Burgess, glaciology expert


"That's (the equivalent of) about three full Great Salt Lakes draining out of these mountains every single year," he said. "So, that's a lot of ice going into the oceans."

As our two kayaks approached the active face of Portage Glacier, Burgess decided not to get too close. Occasional loud, explosive cracks could be heard as icebergs calved off the glacier into the frigid lake.

"OK, stop! Let's watch out here!" Burgess said, as he heard a wall of ice crumbling behind him. "The danger there is that's going to cause a small tidal wave that we're going to have to dodge in about two minutes."

For whatever reason, the tidal wave did not materialize in this case.

At the foot of Portage Glacier, small icebergs drifted in the lake or glittered on the shore as a torrent of meltwater poured from under the huge frozen river of ancient ice.

"You can see this is clear ice," Burgess explained, pointing at a broken chunk of the glacier. "This is snow that is compressed over hundreds of years."

But in the last century, the pace of the melting has generally been greater than the accumulation of falling snow.

"Alaska is losing about 50 billion tons of ice each year," Burgess said.

Those comments came as Burgess was standing in a place where it would have been impossible to stand just a couple of decades ago; it was hundreds of feet below the ice.

"This glacier has been retreating rapidly since the early 1900s," he said.

A century ago, the kayak expedition would also have been impossible. Portage Lake didn't exist in 1914. It was left behind as the glacier melted and retreated about 3 1/2 miles in 100 years.

"You can see this is clear ice," Evan Burgess explained, pointing at a broken chunk of the glacier. "This is snow that is compressed over hundreds of years."

On the shoreline of the lake, about a half mile from Portage Glacier, Burgess examined rocks that were under the ice not so long ago.

"You can see that all of these rocks have been smoothed out by the ice sliding over it," he said. "This happened just in the past 20 years or so."

His observations in Alaska have now convinced Burgess that climate change is happening fast enough to be a serious concern.

"The climate is affecting places all over the world. It's just harder to see" in Utah, he said. "Here, climate change is in plain sight. If you just stick around here for a couple of years you can see these glaciers disappearing because of climate change."

About 75 miles further north, the Matanuska Glacier is not retreating, but it has stopped advancing down the canyon it occupies and is losing ice every year.

According to a new study Burgess worked on with NASA and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Altimetry Program, Matanuska Glacier has lost 84 million tons of ice since 2002. Although that seems like a huge number, it's actually a bit below average for glaciers in Alaska.

Burgess hiked a short distance to Matanuska Glacier to demonstrate a steam drill. It's a simple but important tool for geologists as they study the movements of glaciers and their growth, or loss, each year. It works by shooting out a jet of steam. As the glaciologist lowers it straight down, it melts a drill hole deep into the ice so the glaciologist can insert a measuring stake.

"(The stake) will stay here for the course of a winter and this spring," Burgess said, "and we'll see how much it snowed."

In Alaska, the melting has been speeding up in recent years. It's now happening faster than scientists expected, even taking global warming into account.

"What I'm trying to do is to understand what is making these glaciers disappear as fast as they are," Burgess said.

In Utah, glaciers are of much less significance. But Burgess says scientific studies indicate that Utahns will notice important differences as climate change progresses.

"In Utah, the forecasts are for it to get quite a bit hotter," Burgess said. "We know that. But we don't really know whether it's going to get drier or wetter."

He now believes global climate change will have huge social and economic consequences for everyone.

"Living in Utah I didn't really believe that climate change was a big enough deal for me personally to be concerned about," Burgess said,'

But in Alaska it's a different story.

"You can understand how climate change is actually occurring here," he said. "You can actually see it happening with your own eyes."

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