End-Times Tourism in the Land of Glaciers
The rangers confirmed what I was hearing from my fellow passengers: Uncertainty, if not grief, is now part of the Alaska traveler’s experience. Most visitors, the rangers told me, still ask the questions they always have: Does the bay freeze over in winter? Is that a seal or an eagle on that iceberg? Like generations of tourists before them, they have come to see the wild planet, not some sad memorial to its passing. A few ask how the glaciers are doing. They want to know why Alaska is warming so much faster than other places. A young family told me they had come now before it was too late.
On the other hand, one ranger told me, certain travelers really want to argue. They tell her that technology will fix the problem, or they explain why fixes proposed so far would be too expensive. Or, frequently, they declare that the park’s warming trend is a natural planetary thing.
A difficulty the National Park Service faces, trying to tell the story of today’s science, is that the park’s own brochure maps show lines and dates of a glacial retreat that do indeed make it look like a natural planetary thing. At Glacier Bay, the retreat — really more of a rout — began around 1750, when the glacial advance during a centuries-long period of cooler temperatures know as the Little Ice Age had reached its maximum extent. The entire bay was covered by a glacier more than 4,000 feet thick. The British Navy captain George Vancouver mapped the outer edge when he visited in 1794. By the time the naturalist John Muir arrived, in 1879, the ice had already retreated 40 miles up the bay. The smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution had only just started spewing carbon into the atmosphere.
Today, cruise ships must travel 65 miles into the bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to reach the last few majestic faces of ice. These ballyhooed encounters draw even nature-averse passengers onto their balconies, where they squint through their phones and listen for the famous “white thunder” of calving icebergs, as great towers of ice peel off the glacier’s face into the water. In a stable ice field system, each rumble and splash is exciting evidence of forward movement, of Nature’s dynamic equilibrium. With the system now breaking down, each crashing iceberg felt like another loss.
Here’s how the park’s scientists had explained it to me: Tidewater glaciers like those at Glacier Bay, when healthy, advance slowly over centuries toward the sea, pushing before them a shield of rocky moraine scraped from the mountainsides. Eventually such a glacier extends into the ocean. The rock armor tumbles into the deep. Exposed to the forces of the sea, the ice face begins breaking apart and the glacier retreats to the mountains, where it begins to gather new moraine for its next slow advance.