Alaska News

Glaciers are alive and dangerous in Alaska

When you go to Alaska, don't go near the glaciers. They will maim you or worse.

The Internet was all abuzz this week with "ice chunks" after a calving glacier hit a tour boat near Juneau, though it's not real clear if any ice chunks did hit the boat. What is clear is that a tourist was injured as the calving ice caused a large wave that hit the boat and the boat began backing up to open some sea room to the glacier.

It could have been worse. Calving glaciers are dangerous.

In June, one such glacier killed an airplane. Luckily for the pilot and passenger, they escaped the ice that crushed their aircraft. But it was a close call. Pilot Bob Breeden described what happened this way:

...We heard some crackling in the ice. Before we could get in the plane to depart, a piece came down and instantly displaced the river beneath it, creating a 3 to 5-second blast of sand and water, comparable to an explosion. It shot across the river at us. I dropped my camera while instinctively putting my hands over my face and turning my back to the spray and blast, which swept me up the sand and gravel of the river bank. The plane slid sideways 30 feet, and was crushed up against a stationary block of ice, knocking the gear off and smashing one wing and the tail. The fuselage was twisted and the fabric open. The water sluiced back into the river and all was quiet, less than 15 seconds after it started.

Breeden and his son, Bobby, were lucky. Wet and shaken, they were able to call for help and get a pickup. Others have not been so lucky.

A tourist posing for a picture in front of the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fiords National Park was killed by falling ice in the 1980s. The glacier was later marked off so people couldn't get too close, and tourists are now warned about the danger. Land managers in Alaska generally try to keep the tourists safe, but there are no protections once off the beaten path.

Falling ice has killed Dall sheep hunters in the Wrangell Mountains. A moulin -- a hole in a glacier down which water drains -- claimed the life of a student enrolled in a class with the National Outdoor Leadership School. And the list is long of mountaineers killed either by falling ice or falls into glacial crevasses -- cracks in the glacier.

And scientists say the dangers are only growing because of climate change. Warming in Alaska has accelerated the rate of glacial retreat which causes glaciers to more actively shed ice.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.

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