The first time I saw a glacier was in February, when I was sailing up the Chilean coast aboard Saoirse. After a long rough night, a blue hue slowly began illuminating the dark world around us. As the sun’s rays started to glow behind the overcast sky, misty blue mountains emerged all along Caleta Olla. The light uncloaked icy peaks colored by countless shades of blue. As Saoirse continued forward up the fjord, we saw amongst the mountains a great blanket of ice: the Holanda Glacier, blue and white and jagged. This first glimpse was from afar, but it was stunning. I was captivated by the icy coastline as we made our way down the fjord.
I’ve seen many glaciers since that morning. Some from the deck of a boat, others from land, and I even walked on one. I’ve always imagined it would be incredible to see a glacier, but I underestimated their sheer power to inspire awe.
In March, my brother and I took a boat to see the Viedma Glacier on Lago Viedma Just outside El Chalten, Argentina. It was the first time either one of us had seen a glacier so close. The tour boat navigated through icebergs, pushing through the howling winds whipping across the water right up to the great wall of ice.
From afar a glacier appears, like most landscape features, to be static. You can just make out the texture and colors.
But up close, a glacier is very much alive. The word ‘frozen’ doesn’t exactly conjure up thoughts of movement, but glaciers are always in motion. Once the ice grows thicker than 160ft (50m), the pressure of the upper layers increases to the point that it breaks the molecular bonds in the lower layers of ice, causing plastic flow. The friction of this process produces heat, which, in turn, produces water that collects beneath the glacier, lubricating the land on which the glacier sits, and contributing to further movement. Through these processes, glaciers transport enormous quantities of ice, water, rock, and silt daily. Typically, glaciers move 1 meter per day, but some may move as much as 30 meters every day.
Glacial calving is the most visually striking evidence of glacial movement. In a thunderous commotion, chunks of ice or large walls come crashing into the water, hitting the surface of the water with explosive force, producing huge walls of spray and large waves. The ice creaks and crunches, cracks and rumbles. In Torres del Paine National Park, the Grey Glacier creates so much noise that even on sunny days it’s loud enough to fool you that there’s thunder rumbling throughout the park.
Up close, those colors and textures of glacial ice are revealed. The grandeur of the ice is striking: a prism of aquamarine, cobalt, teal, turquoise, and royal blues. Crevasses run deep beneath the surface; spires of ice soar skyward; jagged ridges are made distinct by the black earth and rocky terrain they uproot and carry for miles. I find the textures of the ice to be mesmerizing.
Glaciers are tremendously beautiful, powerful landscape artists. It’s heartbreaking that they are disappearing. Scientists believe that Patagonian glaciers are retreating faster than glaciers in any other region of the world. It’s crazy to realize that the photos tourists take today are preserving memories of a landscape that may soon be lost.
If you’re interested in learning more about glaciers, I recommend the documentary Chasing Ice.