As we sliced through the clouds, Mother Nature’s ice-ridden masterpiece unfurled beneath us, leaving our jaws unhinged and our voices silenced with awe. The chopper soared high above the Alaskan glaciers, giving us time to scope out what seemed like an endless winding ice river, before descending.
My family and I poured out of the cramped chopper and touched down on the frozen ground, so far away from civilization, to be greeted by a spectacular view. Immense snow-capped mountains protruded from unruly paths of ice and frozen snow. Twisted trails danced along the ground where we stood, tracing where water once ran. The frigid temperatures and brisk winds were simply an afterthought compared to the incredible scenery we were engrossed in. Helicopter glacier tours have become a major tourist attraction for places such as Juneau, Alaska, and while experiencing the glaciers one begins to wonder how such a captivating, stunning sight is created.
Our pilot and tour guide indulged our curiosity with some explanations of the natural beauty’s form and existence. Thousands of years ago, these glaciers began to form as a result of climate fluctuations, and perennial accumulations of ice, snow, sediment, rock and water. As in this part of Juneau, glaciers form in areas where snow falls more than melts. The glaciers flow from Juneau ice fields high in the Coast Mountains where heavy snowfall accumulates each year. Over time, different layers amass as new snow puts pressure on existing layers of snow and ice. This process, known as “firnification,” transforms snow to firn, which is a dense granular snow. Further compressed, the firn becomes ice. With the years that pass, snow collects and forms ice fields where ice flows down valleys and mountains to lower elevations where tremendous glaciers are produced.
We marveled at the moody ice patterns that inadvertently leave impressions on the surrounding Alaskan landscape as climate and weather patterns fluctuate. With melting ice, the glaciers retreat, sea levels rise, and seacoasts flood, changing glacial topography and neighboring ecological design. Often these changes affect animal migration and human settlement.
During the melting process, rocks get swept alongside the mountains, leaving evidence of their journey with jagged trails of dark debris lines, called medial moraines. Some rock is crushed and blends with the glacier’s meltwater, creating a foggy color in the adjacent glacially fed rivers. It is not rare to see icebergs break away or calve from glacier faces ending in lakes or oceans. While in Glacier Bay, at another point in our Alaskan trip, we witnessed a large chunk of ice calve, creating a roaring crack that reverberated off the surrounding ice and causing a series of fierce waves in the water.