Cape Fairweather, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Cape Fairweather, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

by | Nov 8, 2021

Cape Fairweather is a point of land created by an ancient terminal moraine at the base of the Fairweather Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, about 131 miles (211 km) west-northwest of Juneau and 82 miles (132 km) southeast of Yakutat, Alaska. Fairweather Glacier is an ice stream 19 miles (31 km) long that starts on the western slope of Mount Salisbury, a peak in the Fairweather Range that straddles Alaska and British Columbia, 6 miles (10 km) southeast of Mount Fairweather, the highest mountain in British Columbia. The eastern slopes of Mount Salisbury feed the Johns Hopkins Glacier, which flows generally southeast into Glacier Bay. On its western side is a large cirque, shared with Mount Fairweather, Mount Quincy Adams, and Lituya Mountain, which heads the Fairweather Glacier. In 1986, Desolation Valley was an ice-filled trough between Fairweather Glacier and Lituya Glacier, and by 2010, the southern half of the valley was a lake representing a loss of 3.3 miles (5.3 km) of glacier ice. In 2013, ice in the northern half of the valley was breaking up, and by 2016 almost the entire length of the valley was a lake. The lake level dropped significantly when a glacier dam burst and released a flood into Lituya Bay. In 1984, the terminus of Fairweather Glacier was about 2 miles (3.2 km) from the ocean and a terminal lake was about 2 miles (3.2 km) wide. In 2020, the glacier terminus was about 3 miles (5 km) from the ocean. The terminus of the Fairweather Glacier will continue to retreat similar to other glaciers around the world terminating in extensive lakes. Cape Fairweather was named “Cape Fair Weather” in 1778 by Captain James Cook, presumably because of the good weather encountered at the time. However, this area is notorious for bad weather, particularly high wind speeds and precipitation.

On 14 March 1979, an intense storm associated with a deepening low-pressure system over the Gulf of Alaska made landfall just northwest of Yakutat, Alaska. A fishing boat was caught in this storm because forecasted wind speeds were 30 knots (15.5 m/s), but actual winds of 70 knots (36 m/s) were reported. During the cool season in the eastern Gulf of Alaska, extratropical cyclones over the Pacific Ocean frequently make landfall where steep coastal terrain and cold Arctic air from the Yukon interact to produce strong winds called coastal barrier jets that can reach hurricane force and are difficult to forecast. Alaskan barrier jets typically occur when there is an upper-level trough (low pressure) over the Aleutian Islands and a ridge (high pressure) over western Canada, which favors low-level southerly airflow toward the Alaskan coastal terrain. The proximity of steep mountains to the coast favors the development of coastal barrier jets which generally form in the presence of terrain heights exceeding 1.2 miles (2 km) within 62 miles (100 km) of the coast such as the coastline bordering the eastern Gulf of Alaska. Some of the coastal mountains most important to local weather are in the Fairweather Range, which is over 2.8 miles (4500 m) in elevation and within 40 miles (64 km) of the coast. The coastal barrier jets of southeastern Alaska are also influenced by the strong air outflows through the numerous near sea level mountain gaps in this region such as Cross Sound and the mountain gap created by the Tatshenshini-Alsek watershed. Gap flows occur when there is a significant pressure difference between opposing sides of a mountain range, where air from the high-pressure side over the interior is frequently drawn through the mountain gaps toward the low-pressure side over the ocean. Upon exiting the gap, this unbalanced flow can be turned northward by the Coriolis effect further exacerbating the already intense coastal winds and creating conditions that are treacherous to the aviation, commercial fishing, and marine transportation industries.

On 11 December 1938, the SS Patterson was en route from Kodiak to Seattle when she went aground in heavy surf and blinding rain 8 miles (13 km) northwest of Cape Fairweather. The first mate was washed overboard and lost trying to launch a lifeboat and a crewman drowned while attempting to rig a lifeline to get the crew to shore. The 18 survivors remained on the vessel until the tide went out, then reached the beach where they subsisted on supplies dropped from airplanes. Two men were flown out by Alaska pilot Sheldon Simmons of Alaska Coastal Airline (now Alaska Airlines) and the remaining men hiked 15 miles (24 km) southeast to Lituya Bay where they were picked up by U.S. Navy rescue planes and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Haida. Most of the cargo was salvaged by barge the next spring, but the Patterson was broken up by the surf. The Patterson was built in Brooklyn, New York for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and launched as the Carlile P. Patterson, a hydrographic survey ship in operation between 1883 and 1918. The wooden ship was rigged as a barkentine with three masts, the foremast was square-rigged with double topsail yards, and main and mizzen masts were fore-and-aft rigged. A coal-fired steam engine of 356 hp provided auxiliary power, and she could carry 133 tons of coal as fuel. In 1918, Carlile P. Patterson was transferred to the U.S. Navy for use as a patrol ship during the last months of World War I. In 1924, the Carlile P. Patterson was converted to a motor ship for operation along the Oregon coast by C.K. West Company of Portland, Oregon. The steam engine was replaced with a four-cylinder diesel Bolinder engine, and the deckhouse, bowsprit, and masts were removed. In 1925, now the SS Patterson was purchased by the Northern Whaling and Trading Company and operated as an Arctic trading ship under Captain Christian Theodore Pedersen, a famous Alaska whaling captain and early pioneer. In 1936, the ship was sold to the Alaska Patterson Company which operated a freight service along the coast of Alaska. Read more here and here. Explore more of Cape Fairweather here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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