Our man John at the shrinking Mendenhall Glacier
All around me was the sound of rushing water as droplets turned to streams then raging torrents, carving new fissures in the Mendenhall Glacier – a staple of Alaskan cruise ship itineraries. From its base, the soot-covered glacier looked like a dirty whipped meringue on a giant Baked Alaska. But the state of Alaska is indeed being baked, with the Mendenhall Glacier – and 95 percent of all others – in rapid retreat.
To get to Mendenhall, we had to kayak 2½ miles across Lake Mendenhall in freezing winds.
But until 1903, the lake did not even exist as it was covered by the glacier.
On the way, we passed the US Forest Service Visitor Center which, when it opened in 1962, was right next to the mouth of the glacier, but we still had another 1.5 miles of lake to navigate.
We also paddled past Nugget Falls – a waterfall higher than Niagara, which only began flowing in the mid-1980s.
Overall, since 1765, Mendenhall has shrunk back about three miles.
In those days, the glacier was retreating around 1ft a year but thanks to climate change, today’s figures are far more terrifying.
Ranger Griffin Pelaia said: “By the 1950s, this had risen to about 60ft a year. In 2011 it retreated a record 437ft – or eight times faster than it should.”
Mendenhall is one of more than 30 glaciers fed by the Juneau Icefield, which – at 1,500 sq miles or an area the size of Kent – is the fifth largest in the US.
The Mendenhall Glacier
The icefield itself is reducing by around 20ft in height every year.
A documentary by the US Forest Service tells visitors that glaciers are retreating at an “unprecedented speed”.
Small wonder, then, that Mike Brown – our guide from Above & Beyond Alaska – said he moved to the area from Baltimore because he “wanted to see the glaciers before they die”. Mendenhall is melting so rapidly that the US Forest Service is considering building a mobile visitor centre that can gradually follow the glacier as it retreats up the slope.
There are real fears that Mendenhall could disappear completely within the next 30 years. Bob Janes, who runs whale watching tour specialist Gastineau Guiding Company, took me to the spot where the glacier mouth stood when he first moved to Juneau as a 16-year-old in 1964.
Now, it is open water and the glacier mouth is roughly 1½ miles away. Bob, now 70, said: “We are at Ground Zero in Alaska when it comes to climate change.We see its impact in our everyday life.”
Mendenhall is not the only glacier retreating in the state – dubbed “America’s icebox”.
About 80 miles up the coast is Glacier Bay, one of the most popular destinations for cruise ships. At the time of the American Revolution, in the 1700s, there was no bay, just glacier – but it has retreated about 40 miles since the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.
Schoolgirls at the same spot in 1965 in an image which reveals just how much ice has melted away
The crisis in Alaska has been heightened by one of the state’s hottest summers.
In July, Anchorage experienced 90F (32C) temperatures for the first time ever and the month went on to be Alaska’s warmest on record. More than 2½ million acres of forest have also been burning as a result of the heat.
Dr Brian Brettschneider, from the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said high pressure, sea surface temperatures and high humidity were “basically off the charts” in Alaska this year.
He said: “We had 115 consecutive days where temperatures were above average – probably the longest period in a century.
“This is an extreme year but instead of this being a ‘once every 100 years’ event we could expect it to happen every 20 years or so.
“In Alaska, 2016 was – by a wide margin – the warmest year, 2018 was the second warmest and 2019 is a certainty to be in the top five in records going back at least to 1900.”
Eran Hood, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Alaska Southeast, added: “By the end of this century, the Juneau Icefield could have lost about two-thirds of its mass and volume so almost all of Mendenhall Glacier will be gone by the end of this century.
“This retreat is very likely to be irreversible because projections are for temperatures to get warmer.”
John at heart of glacier
COMMENT BY GARETH REDMOND-KING
The climate crisis is showing itself everywhere – including here in the UK.
Last year, we saw the effects bring in extreme cold periods and extreme hot periods.
Globally, 2016 was the hottest year on record and 2019 is going to be one of the hottest.
It’s entirely likely that 19 out of the 20 hottest years will have taken place in this short century.
One effect of this is that our seasons have become more unpredictable, which can be very disruptive for native wildlife.
The earlier arrival of spring, for example, may mean that plants and trees are flowering sooner and upsetting feeding and breeding patterns for insects, birds and mammals.
Rising sea levels and increasingly frequent and intense storms have sped up coastal erosion around the UK.
Warmer seas are also being blamed for breeding failures among populations of guillemot, puffin and kittiwake, as the fish and sand eels they rely on for food decline.
A river runs through melting ice
UK rivers are seeing periods of drought followed by extreme flooding.
There are fears that we may also eventually lose white-beaked dolphins from the coasts of Scotland, as marine creatures are pushed further north.
Earlier this year, WWF demonstrated that the UK’s CO2 emissions in 2018 equated to the loss of more than 1,000 sq km of Arctic sea ice.
That is an area greater than Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham combined.
Here in the UK, concern about the climate emergency is at its highest ever level.
People demand and expect action from their leaders to avert climate catastrophe.
We have the solutions, but what we’re missing is the political driver to deliver them in time.
The UK has become one of the first major economies to commit in law to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, as required by the Paris Agreement.
That’s great news – but we now need the Government to deliver that by committing five per cent of public spending each year to make this happen.
Gareth Redmond-King is WWF-UK’s Head of Climate Change