The rapid retreat of the Columbia Glacier • Earth.com

The rapid retreat of the Columbia Glacier

11-27-2022

Today’s Video of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory reveals the evolution of the Columbia Glacier in southeastern Alaska. Columbia is among the fastest shrinking glaciers in the world, and the video documents its rapid retreat over the years. 

Columbia Glacier is a large, multi-branched calving glacier that flows out of the Chugach Mountains to the Prince William Sound. 

According to USGS, Columbia had a long history of stability prior to 1980, with a length 41 miles, and small, short-lived advances or retreats.

In the years since 1980, however, satellite images have captured Columbia’s alarming retreat. By using false-color images, scientists can distinguish between snow and ice, open water, vegetation, and rocky debris on the glacier’s surface.

The series of false-color images featured in today’s video were acquired over the span of 35 years. You can see that by 2021, the glacier’s main branch had retreated about 15 miles from its initial position.

The Columbia Glacier has also lost more than 50 percent of its volume, mostly due to calving. NASA reports that while climate change likely started the retreat, mechanical processes kept the disintegration going.

The NASA images are provided by Jesse Allen, Robert Simmon, Joshua Stevens, and Lauren Dauphin using data from Landsat satellites, from the U.S. Geological Survey, and data from MODIS on NASA’s Terra satellite. The structure of Columbia’s moraine played a large role in the stability of the glacier before 1980.

Like other tidewater glaciers, the Columbia built up a moraine over time, and the mixture of ice and rock functioned like a dam keeping out the sea. It was supported on one end by the shoreline and by the underwater terminal moraine at the other.

Video Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/  NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

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