It’s not hard to find dying glaciers.
In any glaciated country there is a spot to see receding glaciers, said Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist at Nichols College. The diminishing rivers of ice are perhaps the most visible consequence of the planet’s accelerating climate change.
“Glaciers provide some of the clearest evidence of climate change that is — at least in principle — understandable for everybody: ice melts in a warming atmosphere,” noted glaciologist Michael Zemp, who is the director of the World Glacier Monitoring Service.
A dead Icelandic glacier, named Okjökull, made international news a few years ago when scientists announced that a metal memorial would soon commemorate the shrunken ice mass. But before many glaciers recede beyond view in the coming decades, or die completely, there are still exceptionally accessible places to see these glorious natural phenomena, which for millennia have coursed down mountains and through valleys. It’s a poignant way to witness the profound scope of change now transpiring on Earth. The places, detailed below, don’t require mountaineering.
You can stroll over to them and see Earth’s transformation for yourself.
Yes, some may argue, with good reason, that traveling to any such places aboard fuel-guzzling airliners — which emit prodigious amounts of carbon — may hasten the disappearance of these glaciers. But human curiosity and travel aren’t going away, and the intention here is not to reprove or moralize about travel, which is just one component of Earth’s skyrocketing carbon problem. For those who find themselves in glacier country, the opportunities to see dying glaciers are rich and accessible, if somewhat bitter at times.
“What’s happening is obvious to everyone.”
“I’m trying to be more hopeful these days, but the news is not so good,” admitted Joe Shea, an assistant professor of environmental geomatics at the University of Northern British Columbia. Shea published research that projected substantial losses to Himalayan glaciers this century.
Indeed, Oddur Sigurðsson, the veteran geologist in the Icelandic Meteorological Office who declared Okjökull dead, documented some 300 smaller glaciers in the northern part of the country in the year 2000. But by 2017, 56 of those glaciers had vanished. “The last two decades have been extreme,” Sigurðsson said, noting that global warming and an amplification of this warming in the Arctic melted this ancient ice.
Sigurðsson easily sees the change, from year to year. “What’s happening is obvious to everyone,” he said.
Comprehensive new glaciology research released in 2023 concluded that, by 2100, the planet will lose a whopping 49 to 83 percent of its glaciers. But we don’t have to lose them all. Society can make the major systemic changes to our energy and industrial infrastructure to slash its enormous carbon emissions. “If there’s one thing to take away from our study, it’s that every increase in temperature matters,” Dave Rounce, a glacier researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who led the study, said online. “We, as a society, have the ability to make a difference to save a considerable amount of glaciers and lower the impacts associated with glacier loss.”
Note: There are some 27,000 (shrinking) glaciers in Alaska alone. These are just some of the world’s most accessible glaciers, according to glaciologists that know glaciers best.
Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska
Credit: Shutterstock / fon thachakul
Undoubtedly, Alaska’s receding Mendenhall Glacier is one of the best places to both witness a momentous glacial recession and learn about the diminished glacier. During the warm season months, from May through September, the U.S. Forest Service bolsters their staff of educational rangers at Mendenhall.
“Walk up to a ranger and ask a question,” suggested Laurie Lamm, acting director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
For Mendenhall staff, the retreat is conspicuous. “From one year to the next you really notice a difference,” Lamm added.
For those of us that don’t regularly gaze upon Mendenhall, Lamm recommends the Trail of Time walk, about a mile long. There are markers along the path that show where the glacier used to exist, decades ago. At the portion of the trail closest to the visitor center, you can feel ice-scarred, bare rock, uncovered by Mendenhall’s consistent retreat.
In recent decades, the glacier’s recession has varied, at times pulling back 500 feet in a single year. Between 2005 and 2009 the glacier retreated an average of 170 feet per year. Today, the glacier is also thinning, as it shrinks in on its sides. “That’s really been the most dramatic to view,” Lamm said.
Alaska versus the Lower 48
Aside from Mendenhall, Alaska is teeming with great glacier-viewing choices, noted Pelto.
Many are visible from the road, like the Portage Glacier, which has steadily retreated since 1911. Others, like the Herbert Glacier (near Mendenhall), require a hike over uneven terrain. “The key is most glaciers are not easy to get to, so determine an area you want to visit, and then a glacier that fits your accessibility criteria,” advised Pelto.
Compared to the Lower 48, Alaska has profoundly more accessible glaciers to view. Even Montana’s Glacier National Park notes as much online, in bold font: “Hoping to see one before they are gone, many visitors come to the park to see a glacier. Ironically, Glacier National Park isn’t the easiest place to see an active glacier.”
“Massive glaciers can be viewed with relative ease in Alaska’s national parks,” the park adds.
Glacier experts agree. “Most [Lower 48] glaciers have receded from view,” noted Andrew Fountain, a professor of geography and geology at Portland State University.
Indeed, Glacier National Park, which in 1966 had 35 named large, active glaciers, had only 26 by 2015. “The trend of glacier retreat is expected to continue as temperatures rise,” the park noted online.
Grinnell Glacier in 1926.
Credit: University of Montana / Morton J. Elrod, K. Ross Toole Archives
Grinnell Glacier in 2008.
Credit: Lisa McKeon / USGS
But, for those able and interested in hiking, glaciers certainly abound in the Lower 48. Fountain notes that there are hikes of varying degrees of difficulty in national parks, like Mount Rainer, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain. For example, the glaring vanishing act that is the Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park can be seen via a “very challenging day hike from the Many Glacier area,” according to the park.
Athabasca Glacier, Canada
Credit: Shutterstock / Kevin_Hsieh
Glacier scientist Shea suggests seeing Athabasca Glacier, right off of the 114-mile Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies.
“It’s an amazing spot,” Shea said. “You can just get out of your car and look.”
In the early 20th century, the glacier once existed where the road runs today. The recession there is extreme, Shea noted. The glacier has lost half of its volume over the last 125 years, receding back about a mile.
Grosser Aletsch, Switzerland
Credit: Shutterstock / Oleg V. Ivanov
“Nothing is more impressive than visiting glaciers in real life,” said the World Glacier Monitoring Service’s Zemp. He suggested a few accessible places in Switzerland, including the longest Swiss glacier of them all, Grosser Aletsch.
The glacier is over 14 miles (23 kilometers) long. But it has lost about 2 miles of length since 1870, according to Glacier Monitoring Switzerland.
“Climate change is global, but we feel the impact locally,” writes Kulturbärg (in translation), a Swiss cultural organization that educates Grosser Aletsch visitors. “If we trust the glacier as a witness of our climate, we must take seriously the observed increase in extreme melting events.”
Credit: Oddur Sigurðsson
“Icelandic glaciers are among the most easily accessible glaciers in the world,” said Iceland’s Sigurðsson. “You can drive to the edge in some places.”
Of note is Sólheimajökull, Iceland’s southernmost glacier. Sigurðsson has documented it receding for decades:
Sólheimajökull photographed in 1997.
Credit: Oddur Sigurðsson | 1997
Sólheimajökull photographed in 2010.
Credit: Oddur Sigurðsson | 2010
If warming trends continue as they are — meaning carbon emissions continue largely unchecked — Iceland glaciers will likely decrease in number by 40 percent by the century’s end, and “virtually disappear by 2200,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
This ice would be gone, and so would a valued part of Icelandic culture.
“[The glaciers] are beautiful,” said Sigurðsson. “They are a very interesting natural phenomenon. They contain history. They contain the entire history of the entire Icelandic nation.”
Mer de Glace, France
Credit: Shutterstock / Radoslav Stoilov
Mer de Glace, France’s largest glacier, is shrinking.
The glacier is quite accessible, noted Nichols College’s Pelto. A train brings you right to it.
In 1988, it took just three stairs-steps to reach the ice, according to Helene Fouquet, a Bloomberg reporter in France. Now, visitors take some 370 stairs down to reach the ice.
Over the last century, Mer de Glace’s surface has melted down by around 100 meters (or about 328 feet).
Glacier melting trends are expected to continue, unabated. “We’re not trying to figure out whether the glaciers will melt in the future,” Alex Gardner, a NASA glaciologist, told Mashable in 2019. “We’re just trying to find out how much and how fast.”
Temperatures are projected to keep rising, relentlessly, specifically because atmospheric levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide are now skyrocketing. What’s more, the rate of this carbon increase is unprecedented in both the historic and geologic record.
Ice will melt, both at sea and on land. Though some glaciers will vanish this century, civilization’s efforts to slow carbon emissions in the coming decades can still play a critical role in curbing much of this melt, noted the University of Northern British Columbia’s Shea.
“The choices we make now will make a difference,” he said. “But we need to start mitigating [carbon] 20 years ago.
This story, originally published in 2019, has been updated with new projections about how fast Earth’s glaciers will melt.