Mendenhall Glacier. Sightseeing in Alaska

In the depths of Alaska’s blue giant

The caves in the depths of Alaska’s Meldenhall Glacier are a hidden realm of surreal blue, with frozen in motion waves and underground halls that resemble Superman’s abode, a BBC Travel correspondent tells us.

In the bowels of Alaska's blue giant BBC, Alaska, Caves, Ice, Ice Caves, Longpost

Glacier cave is less durable than ice cave: it constantly changes shape and size

Fingers of the glacier

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Since 2005, the glacier has been retreating at a rate of more than 30 meters a year, twice as fast as in 1942

Alaska’s Juneau Glacier Field covers nearly 2,500 square kilometers-the seventh-largest glacier mass in the Western Hemisphere.

It often receives more than 30 meters of snow per year, and the cold, high-altitude climate keeps it from melting during the summer months.

But the condition of the field’s most famous and accessible attraction, Mendenhall Glacier, is now deteriorating — particularly because of rising average summer temperatures in the region.

On a trip to the glacier in 2013, we watched temperatures not drop below 32 degrees for more than a week, which is very uncharacteristic for the Alaskan coast.

The leading edge of the glacier, draining from its mile-plus feeding area, has been retreating at a rate of more than 30 meters a year since 2005 – twice the rate recorded in 1942, when the Juneau Glacier Research Program was founded.

Thirsty giant.

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Water has made a hole in the side of the glacier, forming a vast cavity

In 2006, when I first visited Mendenhall, I was just beginning to become interested in glacier research.

Like many newcomers, I expected to walk for a long time across the frozen surface of the glacier, carefully avoiding dangerous crevasses and enjoying the sight of a 20-kilometer river of pure white ice originating in the distant mountains.

To my surprise, the edge of the glacier turned out to be even more interesting than its surface.

From the west side of the Mendenhall Glacier Trail, I noticed that the water had made a hole in the side of the glacier, forming a large hollow. Streams of meltwater flowed into it, as if seeking to drink the thirsty giant.

Dragon’s Lair

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One of the caves at Meldenhall Glacier resembles the home of Superman.

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If you follow the trail deep into the ice, a surprising – and totally unexpected – surreal blue world opens to view.

Water trickles, drips and collects in a cave about 100 meters long, five meters high and seven meters wide.

Water is the chief architect of most glacial caves: if you head down the stream running toward the glacier, you’ll often end up with an ice hall resembling Superman’s abode.

Self-portrait for scale

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The human figure in the frame gives you a sense of the grand scale of this natural wonder

I am a photographer, and now I lecture on glaciology from time to time – my life was changed by that first cave.

Its light and shades of blue struck my imagination, and I began to think about how I could photograph it in a way that would fully convey its beauty.

Without a person in the frame, all sense of grand scale would be lost. So I decided to take a self-portrait: I put my Nikon on a tripod, set a 20-second shutter delay, hurriedly got to the right place on the uneven and slippery cave floor, and froze there motionless, so that my figure would not blur on the three-second shutter speed.

I didn’t know then that I would return a year later to photograph these ever-changing caves again.

Frozen Wave.

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The ever-changing colors and shadows give new effects every time you take a picture

An ice cave has one fundamental difference from an ice cave. An ice cave has walls made of stone, which helps insulate the cave and keep the temperature low year-round.

Glacial caves, on the other hand, are formed in the ice column by water – for example, by a stream, which I have already told you about.

Therefore, a glacial cave is much less durable than an ice cave: it changes shape and size every month, obeying the whim of meltwater.

The constantly changing colors, shadows, and outlines can be photographed endlessly: each new shot will be different from the previous one.

Unexpected insects

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Insects breed in glacial cavities in summer and freeze in winter

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On a trip to Mendenhall in 2013, I saw something else I hadn’t noticed on five previous visits: dozens of tiny winged insects were sitting on the aquamarine walls.

Because of the high humidity of the environment, their bodies were covered with water droplets. These Vesniks were less than a centimeter long and looked as if they were frozen in place, frozen by near-freezing temperatures.

Scientists know very little about the insects that live in glacial caves. But after observing them in three other places after the 2013 trip, I concluded that they breed in glacial cavities during the summer months – perhaps trying to avoid being eaten by birds in this way.

Blue veins.

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Meltwater creates intricate patterns on glacier surface

During the warm summer months, the surface of Mendenhall Glacier becomes a patchwork of azure pools of meltwater and a blindingly white, grainy, glazed snow called firn. The size of these reservoirs varies greatly throughout the year.

A glacier is a mass of ice moving down a slope under the action of gravity. Therefore, cracks regularly appear and disappear in it, depending on the surrounding conditions.

If there is nowhere for meltwater to flow out, such a crack can fill with water in a matter of hours. But as soon as it moves a little, the water pours out somewhere lower, into the depths of the glacier, even faster than it has been arriving recently.


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Glacier mills allow the glacier to slide gently down the slope

Meltwater can flow down the side of a glacier or rush into its depths. As the water flows out, it often forms round holes at the bottom of the ice, called glacier mills.

They help lubricate the glacier’s path and movement down the slope, and also influence the shape and size of glacial caves.

These vertical openings, which have a great influence on the dynamics of the glacier, are not visible from its surface. But you can encounter them if you get into a glacial cave: that’s how I took this shot.

Into the glacial depths.

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Alan Gordon has descended into the depths of the glacier dozens of times and made movies about his adventures

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The variety and beauty of the glacier ice attracts a variety of visitors, and some are willing to return again and again.

Juneau resident Alan Gordon (pictured) has descended deep into the Mendenhall Glacier dozens of times, documenting his adventures in films. He filmed Blue Obsession and Aperture of Ice.

Mendenhall Glacier. Sightseeing in Alaska

This far northern region is very diverse and its landscape is impressive. While Alaska is not rich in individual attractions, it is a region that, as a whole, brings a special emotional experience. Highlighting any specific attractions here seems somehow inappropriate: Alaska is magnificent with its desolate glaciers, super high mountains, numerous active volcanoes, endless forests, and deep canyons. Caves in the glaciers are quite common. But most of them are not easily accessible. The Mendenhall Glacier Caves, for example, are accessible after a few hours of long hiking, and they are some of the most beautiful glacial caves in the world.

Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier. Attractions of Alaska - Photo 2

Mendenhall Glacier.

Upon arrival at Juneau Airport, visitors can take the route that leads southeast to the nearby town of Juneau. But there is another route – north – and after about 7 km the road ends at Lake Mendenhall. Here visitors finally have an unobstructed view of a beautiful natural landmark – Mendenhall Glacier or, in the local Tlingit language, Sitantaagu or “Glacier Out of Town.” This glacier ends in a lake, and there are numerous icebergs floating around it with the characteristic blue color of glacial ice. On the right you can see the mighty, noisy Nugget Falls. The mountains are covered in thick, lush green forests, and their peaks are covered in ice and snow – it’s incredibly beautiful here!

Mendenhall Glacier. Attractions of Alaska - Photo 3

Mendenhall Glacier.

But there’s a note of sadness in this landscape: the effects of global warming. Like almost any other glacier in the world, Mendenhall Glacier is melting and retreating. Mendenhall Glacier got its European-American name in 1891 from Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (1841-1924): this eminent scientist defined the border between Alaska and Canada. At that time, the glacier extended further south, at the site of present-day Lake Mendenhall. It has now retreated about 3 km and continues to melt. The length of the glacier is 21.9 km. Currently, the glacier ends in the lake – but soon it will retreat even farther and emerge from it. Then there will be no more floating icebergs in Lake Mendenhall.

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Walk to the ice caves

Visitors can admire the beauty of the glacier and the surrounding landscape from different angles. There is the East Glacier Loop, a trail that allows you to climb higher up the hills and view the glacier from above. The Nugget Falls Trail leads along the eastern shore of the lake to Nugget Falls without crossing it.

Mendenhall Glacier. Alaska Sights - Photo 4

A walk to the ice caves.

But if a hiker wants to get to the glacier (and the caves in it!), you must take the West Glacier Trail. It begins on the western shore of the lake, and after a hard walk through the hills for about 5-6 km and a variety of wonderful views, the visitor finally ends up at the glacier. You should not go there alone: the trail is long and, if it starts to rain, the rocks become slippery. In addition, a bear may appear, and as darkness falls, it is easy to get lost.

Caves in the blue ice

The ice caves on Mendenhall Glacier are not unique. Ice is an excellent material for cave formation: it is hard, rigid, but also easily transforms into water. And there is plenty of water at the contact of glacial ice with the ground. Beneath each mountain glacier there are countless smaller and larger streams. Each of these streams gradually forms a cave at the outlet of the glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier. Alaska Sights - Photo 5

Alaska, Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier, hiking, exploring ice cave, interior view Caves in blue ice

Glacial caves in mountain glaciers are fairly short-lived and change quickly. In late summer, the stream becomes more powerful, the ice melts and crumbles, the entrance to the cave collapses, but deeper, thanks to the stream new passages are formed. In winter it is quieter: the stream freezes or flows quietly under the ice. But the glacier still moves, and the ice creaks and cracks. Therefore, winter is the best time to explore the caves, if the visitor dares to climb the hills during the short hours of the winter day. The caves are not very long: a few hundred or sometimes a few tens of meters. But even this is more than enough: the fantastic beauty of the ice cave strikes at once, right from the first meters.

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The most unusual feature is the blue color. Everything here is blue: at first lighter shades, and further, inside, the color gets darker and darker, and finally, just black darkness. The physics of this effect is the same as in deep water: when sunlight passes through extremely transparent ice, the molecular structure of the water (ice) filters out the longer light waves one by one. The shortest wavelengths of blue go much deeper into the ice than any other color.

In search of the ice caves of the Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier. Attractions of Alaska - Photo 6

In search of the ice caves of Mendenhall Glacier

After walking the Western Trail, the visitor reaches the glacier. The walk on touching the steep glacial moraine (a mixture of soft gravel and clay) and ice is not easy. Everything is wet, and there are many small pools and streams with icy water. Caves will be found by following the streams to the glacier. Sometimes the caves are farther up the glacier, not along the edge of the glacier. And sometimes there are no caves available at all.

If a visitor is lucky, he or she will find a suitable entrance in one ice cave or another. The incredible blue color, the sounds of the moving glacier inside the cave is an unforgettable experience. Walking through the glacier and caves is dangerous and at any time (especially on warm days) the ice can collapse. So if possible, it is better to ask for help from the special tour firms.

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