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Sun Jun 6, 2021, 07:05 AM

An Alaska glacier hurtles downhill in a rare exhibition of 'this amazing science'

By Emily Schwing
June 5, 2021 at 7:00 a.m. CDT

ANCHORAGE — The hummocky hills of ice at the "toe" of Alaska's Muldrow Glacier have sat undisturbed and covered by tundra for more than 60 years. Soon they will be overtaken by a force that scientists are scrambling to understand — even as they wonder whether climate change will one day halt it completely.

The rare phenomenon began last fall some 12 miles uphill. That’s where the glacier initially started sliding, its smooth surface ice cracking under tremendous, hidden stresses. New crevasses opened and ice cliffs were pushed up in a chaotic jumble. The first witness was a pilot who spied the scene in March as he flew around the north side of Denali, the continent’s tallest mountain.

The Muldrow has been “surging” forward ever since, at speeds up to 100 times faster than normal.

“That’s like Mach 4,” said glaciologist Sam Herreid, who has worked extensively in the Alaska Range. “Imagine you drive to work through a school zone, and it’s 30 miles per hour. Then one day, out of nowhere, you’re sitting in your Honda Civic, and all of a sudden you start to go 3,000 miles per hour.”

He and others are racing to keep pace. Surges are one of the last mysteries for those who study glaciers, in part because they happen so infrequently and in just a fraction of places around the world. The activity is different from a glacier actually growing in size, and it can take decades for the right conditions to develop.


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