Global climate change seems to be in the news every week. When we think about the polar ice caps melting and the fate of the animals and the great cities built on ice, our eyes turn to the Arctic Circle. But there is any icy realm being threatened that is much closer to home. Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most incredible places in the world. It is a 12.5-mile long glacier located just 12 miles from downtown Juneau, deep in Southeast Alaska. The federally protected area includes the Tongass National Forest and Mendenhall Glacier Recreation area. Its nicknames tell the tale: “Sitaantaagu,” which means “Glacier Behind the Town, and “Aak’wtaaksit” – which translates to “Glacier Behind the Little Lake.”

An Explorer’s Dangerous Playground

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The Ice Caves are a phenomenal experience for any explorer. Although the glacier itself is one of the few glaciers in the world that visitors can drive right up to, the caves are inaccessible through normal ways like hiking a forest or disembarking from a parking lot. Instead, you must be willing to kayak across the water, then climb up and over the glacier to get a good view.

Unfortunately, this glacier is beginning to melt along with the warmer breezes from the ocean. How do we measure this melting? According to the Juneau Icefield Research Program, which has monitored the glacier since 1942, it has receded by around two miles since 1958. While that might not sound like a big deal, it had previously receded just half a mile since the year 1500!

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In some ways, we have the melting to thank for the Mendenhall Ice Caves. As the glacier slowly melted, it left behind cavities. The melting produces amazing ice formations and blue-silver colors. All of this beauty is probably temporary, however, since once the melting is over nothing will be left behind. Let’s take a tour of the entire Mendenhall area, whose blue caves resemble sapphires.



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