Primordial Splendour: The Hubbard Glacier

Hubbard Glacier in foggy skies.
Hubbard Glacier in foggy skies.

Fragments of ice up to ten stories tall began to peel off its face and crash into the sea below.

I work as a cruise ship naturalist during part of my year, giving presentations about the wildlife and geography of places like Alaska, the Baltic, and the Mediterranean. It is exciting and tremendously rewarding work, and the luxury of cruise ship life (and the international travel that goes with it) sometimes make me feel like I’ve won the world’s biggest lottery. Right now I’m on a beautiful smallish ship in Alaska, and today was glacier narration day.

I often feel a bit of pressure at times like this. Some of these guests have come a very long way, and have been dreaming of their Alaskan cruise for years. The Hubbard Glacier, at the end of Yakutat Bay at about 60 degrees of latitude, is the crowning glory of the experience. To add to that pressure, my narration is given from the navigational bridge–which is very cool, as you can imagine, but it also places me right in the thick of things when the navigation is difficult under bad weather. In the past I’ve had some pretty cranky captains to deal with. I remember one in particular who took a personal interest in my work and felt I should be talking more during the glacier visit–as in non-stop. “More spirit! More excitement! More talking!” he yelled behind me in his minimal English as I narrated. It was a bit stressful.

So imagine my humour when I awoke this morning to pouring rain and visibility of less than half a mile. Yay. I began mentally rehearsing the different ways I might describe an invisible glacier.

Ice fragments in the bay.
Ice fragments in the bay.

As it turns out, though, all my fears were for naught. The cruise director Ben, friendly and relaxed, took me up to meet the Captain, who was welcoming and easy-going. The sky lifted a bit, and as we edged closer, the magnificent Hubbard Glacier began to loom on the horizon. I had forgotten how big it is. It really is fantastic.

The Hubbard is the longest tidewater glacier in North America. It begins at about 11,000 feet of elevation, way back in the Yukon, and snakes down fully 122 kilometres (76 mi) before breaking apart at its 10 km (6 mi) wide face in the bay. When it fractures, or calves, it is absolutely spectacular, but this morning I decided I’d be more than happy with just a fog-free glimpse that lasted more than, say, four minutes.

Hubbard Glacier
Hubbard Glacier

Small icebergs began to dot our path as we approached– deep blue, gray and white, weathered into sensuous curves. The water changed from inky blue to turquoise and then to muddy gray from the debris the glacier had ground to dust and thrown into the bay. I got on the microphone and began my narration by saying that here in Alaska, the raw forces of creation are still very much at work all around us.

A glacier is simply an immense quantity of ice, powered by gravity. High up in the mountains—and here we we among North America’s highest—more snow falls in winter than can melt away in summer. Slowly it accumulates, turning to ice under pressure, and when it reaches the magic thickness of 50 metres or 160 feet, it begins to behave as a fluid, and downward it flows. It took between 100 and 400 years for the ice to make its way down to the bay to greet us. The glowing electric-blue surface is testament to the intense compression of the ice; light reflects bluer the deeper it can penetrate. I explained that the rock and mud we saw were the backbone of our continent—the bedrock of Alaska and the Yukon—being eroded away as it had for at least the last ten thousand years.

The sky brightened as we made our final approach, and we were able to get as close as a ship is permitted: one-half mile. It continued to rain hard, but I looked back along the ship and saw people all along the outer decks: couples and families huddled in blankets under umbrellas, shivering but unwilling to move indoors lest they miss something.

That's 10 km across.
That’s 10 km across.

And then, as if in acknowledgement of their attention, Hubbard let loose with a thundering boom as fragments of ice up to ten stories tall began to peel off its face and crash into the sea below. On and on it went—the ice was weakened no doubt by the heavy rainfall—as the people whooped with delight and the captain spun the ship in a slow 360-degree turn to make sure all could see.

I was overjoyed to see what could have been a pretty disappointing morning turn into a spectacle of, well, geological proportions.

Thank you, Hubbard Glacier.

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