Melting of Alaska’s Juneau icefield accelerates, losing snow nearly 5 times faster than in the 1980s (2024)

The melting of Alaska’s Juneau icefield, home to more than 1,000 glaciers, is accelerating. The snow covered area is now shrinking 4.6 times faster than it was in the 1980s, according to a new study.

Researchers meticulously tracked snow levels in the nearly 1,500-square mile icy expanse going back to 1948 with added data back to the 18th century. It slowly shriveled from its peak size at the end of the Little Ice Age around 1850, but then that melt rate sped up about 10 years ago, according to a study in Tuesday’s Nature Communications.

“What’s happening is that as the climate is changing, we’re getting shorter winters and longer summers,” study lead author Bethan Davies, a glaciologist at Newcastle University in England. “We’re having more melt, longer melt season.”

It’s melting so fast that the flow of ice into water from now averages about 50,000 gallons every second, according to study co-author Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts.

“In fact, glacier shrinkage in Alaska from the year 2000 to the year 2020, we’re losing more ice in Alaska than anywhere else,” Davies said.

Only four Juneau icefield glaciers melted out of existence between 1948 and 2005. But 64 of them disappeared between 2005 and 2019, the study said. Many of the glaciers were too small to name, but one larger one, Antler glacier, “is totally gone,” Pelto said.

Alaska climatologist Brian Brettschneider, who was not part of the study, said the acceleration is most concerning, warning of “a death spiral” for the thinning icefield.

An icefield is a collection of glaciers, while an ice sheet is something continent-wide and only two of those remain, in Greenland and Antarctica. The most famous glacier in the Juneau icefield is the Mendenhall Glacier, a tourist hotspot. The Arctic is warming about four times faster than the rest of the globe with Alaska warming 2.6 degrees (1.5 degrees Celsius) since 1980, according to federal weather data.

“When you go there the changes from year-to-year are so dramatic that it just hits you over the head,” Pelto said.

Pelto first went to the Juneau icefield in 1981 to try to make the U.S. ski team and has continued to study it since, giving up competitive skiing for research.

“In 1981, it wasn’t too hard to get on and off the glaciers. You just hike up and you could you could ski to the bottom or hike right off the end of these glaciers,” Pelto said. But now they’ve got lakes on the edges from melted snow and crevasses opening up that makes it difficult to ski, he said.

It’s also now like a staircase of bare rocks there, Pelto said. White snow and ice reflect the sun’s heat, the dark rocks absorb it, making the ground warmer, melting more snow in a feedback effect that amplifies and accelerates the warming-triggered melt, the study said.

Key is the snow elevation line. Below the snow line, snow can disappear in the summer, but there’s snow cover year-round above. That snow line keeps moving upward, Pelto said.

The shape of Juneau’s icefield, which is rather flat, “makes it vulnerable to particular tipping points” because once the snow line moves up, large areas are suddenly more prone to melt, Davies said.

“The tipping point is when that snow line goes above your entire icefield, ice sheet, ice glacier, whichever one,” Pelto said. “And so for the Juneau icefield, 2019, 2018, showed that you are not that far away from that tipping point.”

Even if all the snow in the Juneau icefield would melt, and that’s a long way away, it would not add much to global sea levels, Pelto said. But it is a big tourist destination and cultural hot spot, Davies said.

“It is worrisome because in the future the Arctic is going to be transformed beyond contemporary recognition,” said Julienne Stroeve, a University of Manitoba ice scientist who wasn’t part of the study. “It’s just another sign of a large transformation in all the ice components (permafrost, sea ice, land ice) that communities depend on.”

Davies said the team was able to get such a long-term picture of the icefield’s melting from satellite images, airplane overflights, pictures stored away in drums in a warehouse and historical local measurements, stitching them all together like a giant jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces being nearly all white.

Five different outside experts said the research made sense and fits with other observations. Michael Zemp, head of the World Glacier Monitoring Service, said it shows “that we need urgent and tangible actions to save at least some of the remaining ice.”

“We’re 40 years from when I first saw the glacier. And so, 40 years from now, what is it going to look like?” Pelto said. “I do think by then the Juneau icefield will be past the tipping point.”

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Melting of Alaska’s Juneau icefield accelerates, losing snow nearly 5 times faster than in the 1980s (2024)

FAQs

Melting of Alaska’s Juneau icefield accelerates, losing snow nearly 5 times faster than in the 1980s? ›

(AP) -- The melting of Alaska's Juneau icefield, home to more than 1,000 glaciers, is accelerating. The snow covered area is now shrinking 4.6 times faster than it was in the 1980s, according to a new study.

How much ice has Alaska lost? ›

Alaska currently accounts for 25% of all ice loss from global glaciers, losing about 66.7 billion tonnes (gigatones, or Gt) of ice each year (Hugonnet et al., 2021).

What happens if Alaska melts? ›

If both poles melt, the sea level all over the world will rise. Cities near sea and other coastal areas will get flooded.

Is Alaska an ice sheet? ›

No--most of interior Alaska, south of the Brooks Range and north of the Alaska Range, was a non-glaciated grassland refuge habitat for a number of plant and animal species during the maximum Pleistocene glaciation. This ice-free corridor also provided one route for humans to move into North America.

What will Alaska be like in 50 years? ›

Projected Climate Change

Average annual temperatures in Alaska are projected to rise by an additional 2°F to 4°F by 2050. If global emissions continue to increase during this century, temperatures can be expected to rise 10°F to 12°F in the north, 8°F to 10°F in the interior, and 6°F to 8°F in the rest of the state.

Is Arctic sea ice increasing or decreasing? ›

Sea ice in the Arctic has decreased dramatically since the late 1970s, particularly in summer and autumn. Since the satellite record began in 1978, the yearly minimum Arctic sea ice extent (which occurs in September) has decreased by about 40% [Figure 5].

Can you drink snow in Alaska? ›

Freshly melted snow is generally considered to be safe to drink without further treatment, however it should not be assumed that because water is frozen that it is safe to drink.

Is there ice between Alaska and Russia? ›

A Technical Response

The stretch of water between these two islands is only about 2.5 miles wide and actually freezes over during the winter so you could technically walk from the US to Russia on this seasonal sea ice.

Does Alaska count as Arctic? ›

Climate. Most of northern Alaska has an Arctic climate with long, extremely cold winters and short, cool summers.

How much has Arctic ice declined? ›

The decline of sea ice in the Arctic has been accelerating during the early twenty‐first century, with a decline rate of 4.7% per decade (it has declined over 50% since the first satellite records). Summertime sea ice will likely cease to exist sometime during the 21st century.

How much Arctic sea ice has disappeared in the last 30 years? ›

We lose Arctic sea ice at a rate of almost 13% per decade, and over the past 30 years, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a stunning 95%. If emissions continue to rise unchecked, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by 2040. But what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.

How much of the ice caps have we lost? ›

Antarctica is losing ice mass (melting) at an average rate of about 150 billion tons per year, and Greenland is losing about 270 billion tons per year, adding to sea level rise.

How much of Alaska is actually ice? ›

Alaska is one of the most heavily glaciated areas in the world outside of the polar regions. Approximately 23,000 square miles of the state are covered in glaciers—an area nearly the size of West Virginia.

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