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Glaciers of North America - Glaciers of Alaska

October 25, 2008

Glaciers cover about 75,000 km2 of Alaska, about 5 percent of the State. The glaciers are situated on 11 mountain ranges, 1 large island, an island chain, and 1 archipelago and range in elevation from more than 6,000 m to below sea level. Alaska's glaciers extend geographically from the far southeast at lat 55 deg 19'N., long 130 deg 05'W., about 100 kilometers east of Ketchikan, to the far southwest at Kiska Island at lat 52 deg 05'N., long 177 deg 35'E., in the Aleutian Islands, and as far north as lat 69 deg 20'N., long 143 deg 45'W., in the Brooks Range.

During the 'Little Ice Age', Alaska's glaciers expanded significantly. The total area and volume of glaciers in Alaska continue to decrease, as they have been doing since the 18th century.

Of the 153 1:250,000-scale topographic maps that cover the State of Alaska, 63 sheets show glaciers. Although the number of extant glaciers has never been systematically counted and is thus unknown, the total probably is greater than 100,000. Only about 600 glaciers (about 1 percent) have been officially named by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN). There are about 60 active and former tidewater glaciers in Alaska. Within the glacierized mountain ranges of southeastern Alaska and western Canada, 205 glaciers (75 percent in Alaska) have a history of surging. In the same region, at least 53 present and 7 former large ice-dammed lakes have produced jokulhlaups (glacier-outburst floods). Ice-capped volcanoes on mainland Alaska and in the Aleutian Islands have a potential for jokulhlaups caused by subglacier volcanic and geothermal activity. Because of the size of the area covered by glaciers and the lack of large-scale maps of the glacierized areas, satellite imagery and other satellite remote-sensing data are the only practical means of monitoring regional changes in the area and volume of Alaska's glaciers in response to short- and long-term changes in the maritime and continental climates of the State.

A review of the literature for each of the 11 mountain ranges, the large island, the island chain, and the archipelago was conducted to determine both the individual and the regional status of Alaskan glaciers and to characterize changes in thickness and terminus position of representative glaciers in each mountain range or island group. In many areas, observations used for determining changes date from the late 18th or early 19th century. Temperature records at all Alaskan meteorological recording stations document a 20th century warming trend. Therefore, characterizing the response of Alaska's glaciers to changing climate helps to quantify potential sea-level rise from past, present, and future melting of glacier ice (deglaciation of the 14 glacierized regions of Alaska), understand present and future hydrological changes, and define impacts on ecosystems that are responding to deglacierization.

Many different types of data were scrutinized to determine baselines and to assess the magnitude of glacier change. These data include the following: published descriptions of glaciers (1794-2000), especially the comprehensive research by Field (1975a) and his colleagues in the Alaska part of Mountain Glaciers of the Northern Hemisphere, aerial photography (since 1926), ground photography (since 1884), airborne radar (1981-91), satellite radar (1978-98), space photography (1984-94), multispectral satellite imagery (since 1972), aerial reconnaissance and field observations made by many scientists during the past several decades, and various types of proxy data. The published and unpublished data available for each glacierized region and individual glacier varied significantly. Geospatial analysis of digitized U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) topographic maps is used to statistically define selected glaciological parameters in the eastern part of the Alaska Range.

The analysis determined that every mountain range and island group investigated can be characterized by significant glac

Publication Year 2008
Title Glaciers of North America - Glaciers of Alaska
DOI 10.3133/pp1386K
Authors Bruce F. Molnia
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Professional Paper
Series Number 1386
Index ID pp1386K
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization U.S. Geological Survey