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Articles Blog

Glaciers

Karyn Planett

Wet and Wild

When is a glacier not a glacier? When it is a wee flake of snow fluttering about in the frozen air drifting here and there in search of a spot to alight. When more flakes accumulate than are melted away by a sunny day, a glacier is born flake by flake by flake until the weight of it all compacts the snow into solid ice. This is when it begins its crushingly-slow grind to the sea, sculpting and scouring everything in its path resembling a sloth-like teenager on the way to study hall. 

Chile’s Amalia Glacier

For the record, some know the Amalia Glacier as the Skua Glacier. Skuas are local seabirds whose migratory patterns take them as far south as the South Pole. When checking the sea charts, you’ll notice that (by either name) this glacier is found bordering the Sarmiento Channel in Southern Chile. Visitors from around the world make their way to Bernardo Higgins National Park to stand before the powerful ice blue face of this magnificent glacier as it meets the Sarmiento Channel. Glaciologists will recite that this massive ice flow was born in what’s called the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Many of these experts express concern over the fact that it receded four miles over a 50-year period that ended in 1996. In fact, some concern continues to this day.

Visitors hope that the mist rises and the clouds part to display before them one of Mother Nature’s most remarkable miracles. Bundled up, finding a spot along the railing, they grab a cup of hot cocoa and have their cameras ready for calvings might miraculously happen right before their very eyes. If someone shouts, “Look, over there!” they’ve probably already missed the big event.

Ask Mr. Wizard

Scientists watch glaciers with rapt attention monitoring their movements, recording their sounds, photographing their sudden shifts as bits and bergs collapse and break away from the icy grip to plunge into the sea. Meanwhile, they fill tomes with facts and stats so let’s have a look at a few.

Q:            Why is glacial ice blue?

A:            Because dense ice that’s been compressed over time has few air pockets. The ice is so dense, in fact, that it reflects the color blue while absorbing the other colors of the spectrum. 

Q:            Why is some glacial ice white?

A:            This occurs when the ice is filled with miniscule air bubbles.

Q:            How much fresh water is stored in the world’s glaciers?

A:            You’ll be surprised to learn that the number is nearly 70%.

Q:            How heavy is a glacier?

A:            Heavy. Really heavy. There are places in the West Antarctica Ice Sheet where the weight is so massive that it’s pushed the land down nearly 1.5 miles below the surface of the sea. 

Q:            How thick is the Antarctic ice?

A:            Some estimates are approximately 4,200 meters in certain regions. That’s more than 13,000 feet. 

Q:            What would happen if all the glacial ice melted?

A:            You could probably surf in Kansas.

Q:            Do people drink glacial run-off??

A:            The state of Washington gets hundreds of billions of gallons of water every summer from glacial melt.

Q:            How big are ice shelves?

A:            Some are nearly 50 miles long. Fifty miles long! 

Q:            Was it really different during the last ice age?

A:            Yes. Glaciers, in fact, covered nearly one-third the earth’s surface.

Q:            How big is the tip of the iceberg?

A:            Only about 10% of the total size of the iceberg.

Q:            Any recent calvings of note?

A:            Yes. Not long ago in geologic terms, an iceberg broke off Antarctica’s Larsen Ice Shelf. It measured, they calculate, twice the size of Dallas. Not one to take these things lightly, the Texans broke off half their city and tossed it into the sea. (The last “fact” is, indeed, fiction.)       

Q:            How much of the earth is today covered by glaciers?

A:            Nearly 10%.            

Q:            Is glacial ice good in a tot of scotch?

A:            Yes. And, it fizzles.

Remember to wear your woolies when going outside for glacier-viewing. Mother Nature reminds all visitors that she, indeed, is in charge of all matters … even the weather.