Columbia Glacier on the south coast of Alaska •

Columbia Glacier on the south coast of Alaska

Today’s Image of the Day from the European Space Agency features the Columbia Glacier, a tidewater glacier located in Prince William Sound on the south coast of Alaska. It is one of the most rapidly changing glaciers in the world and has been closely studied for the insights it provides into glacial mechanics and climate change impacts. 

“Since the early 1980s, the Columbia Glacier has retreated more than 20 km and lost about half of its total volume. This one glacier accounts for nearly half of the ice lost in the Chugach Mountains,” noted ESA.

“The changing climate is thought to have caused its retreat. Until 1980, when its rapid and constant retreat began, the glacier’s terminus was observed at the northern edge of Heather Island, which lies near the end of Columbia Bay, the inlet into which the glacier currently flows before draining into Prince William Sound.”

“This satellite image, acquired in September 2023, shows instead the deep mostly ice-free Columbia Bay dotted with numerous icebergs and fragmented sea-ice.”

The Columbia Glacier is known for its dramatic calving events, where large chunks of ice break off from the glacier’s terminus and fall into the sea, becoming icebergs. This process has been particularly active as the glacier has retreated, contributing to hazards for shipping in Prince William Sound.

The glacier has been the focus of extensive scientific research, serving as a case study for understanding the dynamics of tidewater glaciers and their responses to climate change. Studies have used satellite imagery, field observations, and modeling to track its changes over time.

“Columbia is just one of the many glaciers suffering from the effects of climate change. Most of the glaciers around the world are losing mass. However, before the advent of satellites, measuring their retreat and studying their vulnerability to climate change was difficult considering their size, remoteness and rugged terrain they occupy,” said ESA.

“Different satellite instruments now can gather information systematically and over large areas, providing an effective means to monitor change, keep track of all calving stages and quantify the melting rate and their contribution to sea-level rise.”

Image Credit: ESA 

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