SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Storm exposes unknown glacier on Alaska coast


December 18, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO - Last August, a group of scientists flew to Kaktovik, Alaska, hoping to catch a flight from the small village to study permafrost features off the Jago River. But foggy weather pinned them in the village, and their change in plans led them to a glacier that no one knew about.

Torre Jorgenson of ABR Inc. was one of the scientists who wandered the beach near Kaktovik to check out a massive chunk of shoreline that fell into the sea during a storm on July 1, 2008. The storm exposed about 1 kilometer of ice and soil.

jpg ancient glacier

An ancient glacier that scientists recently found exposed off Alaska's northern coast near Kaktovik.
Photograph by Torre Jorgenson

"The Kaktovik residents had never seen such undercutting of the bluff," Jorgenson said in San Francisco, as he discussed the buried glacier at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which draws dozens of scientists from Alaska and thousands more from the rest of the world.

While Jorgenson and his colleagues from the University of Alaska Fairbanks-Yuri Shur, Misha Kanevskiy, and Matt Dillon-walked along the fresh ice bluffs 15 minutes from the village, they saw masses of dirty brown ice with little rocks embedded in it. It looked like glacier ice, but they knew that geologists claimed that glaciers were never in that part of Alaska.

"At the end of the first day, we thought (the ice) was weird stuff," Jorgenson said. "We thought it might be glacial ice, but then said, 'No, it can't be.'"

But the more the researchers looked at the ice, the more they thought of glaciers. Kanevskiy had studied ice formed at the base of Matanuska and Muldrow glaciers, and the ice in the bank at Kaktovik was the same type, with plenty of the sand and silt and pebbles that glaciers usually carry along.

"By the second day, we were convinced (it was glacier ice)," Jorgenson said.

The crew cancelled their plans to fly to the Jago River and concentrated on the discovery of Alaska's northernmost glacial ice.

Jorgenson said that scientists have since the early 1900s wondered about polished pebbles they'd found on Alaska's northern coast, and many other clues that suggested a great icefield once existed where Alaska touches the Arctic Ocean. While working on Alaska's North Slope since the late 1970s, Jorgenson has seen and heard about many clues that suggested the area might have been under ice-including gouge-marks on the ocean floor off the coast and sand deposits in unusual areas. But it wasn't until last August that he had proof.

"Once we found basal ice (the type formed by glaciers), we found our smoking gun," Jorgenson said.

He envisions the northern glacier as a giant ice sheet that extended from Arctic Canada to west of the Colville River, burying most of Alaska's Arctic Ocean coast. He said the absence of any signs of early humans along the coast northeast of the famous Mesa Site is probably because that area of the North Slope was under ice.

The discovery was yet another example of scientific serendipity, in this case when a plane couldn't fly because of bad weather, the researchers said.

"This trip was originally designed to be pretty different," Dillon said. "(The glacier ice) was definitely a freak encounter."

"It was a fortuitous combination of a big storm, getting weathered in, and having some of your colleagues there who were studying the same thing in mountain glaciers," Jorgenson said.

The storm that exposed that ancient ice for the first time in thousands of years might foreshadow a period of extreme loss of land along Alaska's northern coast, Jorgenson said.

"It wasn't that big a storm, but the (sea) ice was completely out to Russia," he said. "It's the harbinger of a new regime, I guess."


This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute,
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [] is a science writer at the institute.


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