Columbia Glacier Calving

Posted by lwpetersen | August 11, 2018 | photo-blog, travel alaska
Glacier Calving. Splashback from a chunk of the Columbia Glacier breaking off into Columbia Bay.

Tidewater glacier calving is an extremely powerful event that everyone should get a chance to witness. If you haven’t ever seen this, it’s time to hop on a plane to Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, or Antarctica and find a way to go watch it happen. If you’ve never heard of glacier calving before, it’s simply the breaking away of ice from the edge of a glacier. In tidewater glaciers (that terminate in water) chunks of ice fall frequently due to tidal forces from the water and waterline melting. Sometimes these chunks can be quite large, such as in the noticeably detached block below.

Columbia Glacier

Approaching the enormous Columbia Glacier from Columbia Bay. Link to photo in gallery.

I should preface this by describing how much I typically hate touristy things. I’d rather get far away from people in the backcountry than try to shoulder my way through a crowd all trying to see the same thing. I like being different, I want to see the things that nobody else is seeing. I feel like that’s my primary purpose in my photography. I can also be a little bit of a social anxiety nut job in cramped quarters, so there’s that too.

Yet, I’ll happily set these feelings aside for a few things, and one of those things is the glacier cruises out of Valdez. We’ve now done four Valdez cruises with two different operations, and every trip has been awesome. Three of those excursions were to the Columbia Glacier, a little over 20 miles away from Valdez the way the crow flies or about 50 miles by boat.

Our last trip to Columbia Bay was on the Lulu Belle, and we saw an entire block collapse on the glacier. We’ve seen some smaller events before, but they’ve always been difficult to photograph because you don’t see them until you hear the ice crack and crash. Usually, by the time I spot the location all I see is the resulting splash. The face of this glacier is absolutely enormous, you simply can’t look at the whole thing.

The Lulu belle cruise ship in front of the Columbia Glacier


For a sense of scale, here’s the Lulu Belle in front of an eastern small tributary glacier into Columbia Bay. You are literally surrounded by ice out here. Link to photo in gallery.

Lulu Belle at the Columbia Glacier


Here’s the Lulu Belle set against the Columbia Glacier. These photos were taken during on a Stan Stephens cruise a few years ago. Link to photo in gallery.

The nice thing about the Lulu Belle tour is that you stay at the glacier terminus for an hour. A cold hour. Seriously, bring a jacket, hat, and gloves! This summer as we approached the glacier terminus there was a large, detached block that was already starting to crumble. Small chunks were frequently breaking and over a few minutes it looked like the cracks in the ice were widening. After about 20 minutes, it went.

Calving – gif of a large block collapsing on the Columbia Glacier.
I did my best to stabilize this – taken handheld with a telephoto on a moving boat.

We really lucked out on this one because so much started to break and crack for a few seconds before it collapsed. I love the gif of this because you can see small chunks start to break below and during collapse a large split form on the left side. I wish I had a video of it because the sound is incredible. A deep, sharp, loud, thunder-like crackling. The height of the glacier varies by a few hundred feet at the waterfront, so I don’t know exactly how large this block is, but it was certainly over 100 feet tall.

Glacier Calving

Splash from the block crashing. Link to photo in gallery.

The Cruises

If you’re interested in either of these tours out of Valdez, check these links:
Stan Stephens Cruises
Lu-Lu Belle Glacier Wildlife Cruises
I have opinions on both of them, but honestly, both tours are great. Stan Stephens is probably a bit more comfortable because it is a larger boat with more seating and tables. But, the Lu-Lu Belle gets you closer to the glacier for longer and is less “on a schedule”, so you may end up spending more time viewing wildlife or calving if the opportunity presents itself. I’m sure I’ll find myself on both again. And again.

More links:

Drive to Valdez and Stan Stephens Cruse – blogpost (2014)
Vacation from Fairbanks – blogpost (2011)
Glacier Photo Gallery
My photos from the Columbia Glacier

Iceberg

A massive iceberg flows away from another glacier calving event at the Columbia Glacier. Link to photo in gallery.

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