Part 1 -- The Hubbard Glacier and humpbacked whales

Monday, July 18, 2016

When folks make their trek to Alaska they have certain things they want (and expect) to see and do. In the days of long ago, literally thousands were drawn to Alaska by the allure of becoming rich by prospecting for gold. Those days are long gone, and today many travelers are hunters and fishermen, who make their way to Alaska in hope of catching big fish or bagging a trophy mountain goat or bear. But by far the greatest number of Alaska visitors these days, are travelers, who are there to view the breathless landscapes (and they hope to catch a glimpse of Alaskan wildlife.) On the cruise ships this wildlife takes the form of humpback whales doing their thing (ala a Pacific Life Insurance commercial).

On a recent cruise to Alaska we were privileged to see the whales, but also had the unexpected pleasure of seeing the Hubbard Glacier, which while not a living entity, nevertheless is constantly on the move, and its sheer size was enough to take one's breath away.

The Hubbard Glacier was named after Gardiner Hubbard, the millionaire lawyer, philanthropist, father-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell. (Mr. Hubbard helped Bell to achieve his invention of the telephone.) In his acceptance speech to the National Geographic Society, Mr. Hubbard said that his election to the Presidency showed to the world that membership in the Society was not to be confined to professional scientists, but would be open, and indeed, would welcome all citizens, in all walks to life who were interested in geography and scientific advancement. It would seem that they succeeded admirably toward that end.

On the train trip from Anchorage to Seward, where we boarded the cruise ship, we saw literally thousands of "glaciers," and every one of them seemed to have a name. These undersized glaciers were like thin white streams in the cleavage between two mountains, inching to the sea. These were an interesting novelty (at first), but quickly became so commonplace that we barely looked up when yet another "glacier" was announced. They did nothing to prepare us for The Hubbard Glacier.

The Hubbard Glacier is huge! The face of the glacier, as it emerges from the valley is some seven miles across, and rises to a height of over 400 feet above the sea. It extends up the valley some 76 miles, to two sources, the 11,000' Mt. Walsh and 18,000' Mt. Logan. It covers an area about 25% larger than the state of Rhode Island.

The Hubbard is the largest of the so-called calving (sloughing off icebergs) glaciers in North America. It seems to have a mind of its own. At this time of global warming, when most glaciers are shrinking, for the past 100 years the Hubbard is advancing. During the Ice Age, when most glaciers were growing and advancing, the Hubbard was shrinking. Twice, in recent history, in 1986 and 2002, the Hubbard actually pushed enough silt to completely dam up the mouth of the Russel Fjord, making it unto the Russell Lake. All during the summer of '86, streams kept fresh water flowing into the new Lake Russell, causing the lake to rise some 82 feet, and changing the salinity of the water, to the extent that it threatened the survival of salt water fish. Then, on October 8th of that year the dam began to give way. Over some 24 hours, 1.3 Cubic Miles (!) of water came gushing out of the lake, equivalent to the output of 35 Niagara Falls, the second highest outburst of a glacial formed lake in history.

Again in 2002 the Hubbard Glacier surged forward, pushing silt to dam up the Russell Fjord. This time rains caused the lake to rise quickly to some 59 feet, before the dam gave way, allowing for the natural sea level to return. Experts say that in the future, the movement of the Hubbard could indeed dam up the Russell Fjord again, perhaps permanently. If this should happen the lake would likely overflow to the south, threatening the trout in the Situk River and a nearby airport, situated along the Situk..

Students of the Hubbard Glacier tell us that it takes some 400 years for the ice that we saw, which makes up the face of the glacier, to flow the 76 miles from its source. The ice is so densely compacted that all the colors are absorbed by the ice except blue, so the icebergs that are "calved" from the glacier appear blue, a beautiful blue, as they float in the sea. On closer inspection, this ice is a far cry from ice as we know it. It is dirty ice, filled with the silt, picked up on its 76 mile journey to the sea.

The Hubbard is an active glacier, constantly "calving" new ice bergs, some of which are the size of a ten story building. These new ice bergs break off from the glacier, and drop off into the sea with great force, sending them far beneath the surface of the water. Then, they rise to the surface, swiftly and quite dramatically. Ship's Captains have to keep a sharp lookout for these new icebergs, lest their ship becomes another Titanic. Fortunately, the new "iceberg" that calved as we sailed past was tiny, and far enough away that it posed no threat to navigation. But it was a pretty sight, seeing all those tiny little blue "icebergs" bobbing along as we sailed by.

Source: Hubbard Glacier/

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