Valdez Glacier Stream, Port Valdez

Valdez Glacier Stream, Port Valdez

by | Jun 16, 2022

Valdez Glacier starts on the south flank of Mount Cashman and flows southeast for about 20 miles (35 km) to its terminus at Valdez Glacier Lake, which is drained by Valdez Glacier Stream that flows generally south-southeast for 4.5 miles (7 km) to Port Valdez in Prince William Sound, about 43 miles (69 km) north-northwest of Cordova and 3.7 miles (6 km) southeast of Valdez, Alaska. The glacier was named in 1898 by Captain William R. Abercrombie of the U.S. Army after Port Valdez, a fjord about 13 miles (21 km) long from Valdez Arm in the west to the Lowe River in the east. The fjord was named in 1790 by Don Salvador Fidalgo for the celebrated Spanish naval officer Antonio Valdés y Fernández Bazán. The Chugach Mountains border the north coast of Prince William Sound and are part of a geological formation called the Southern Margin composite terrane that formed as a subduction-related accretionary complex during the Tertiary and Cretaceous period. The rocks of the terrane are represented by the Orca Group, Valdez Group, and McHugh Complex. The mountains north of Port Valdez are comprised of rocks in the Valdez Group, a widespread unit that consists primarily of deformed metasedimentary greywacke sandstone, siltstone, and shale generally considered to be deposits of turbidity currents in a deep oceanic trench. Valdez Glacier Stream is a braided river that flows through a broad outwash plain formed by the deposition of sediments eroded from the Valdez Group. The Valdez Glacier is eroding the underlying rock surface and carries the debris to its terminus where it is deposited. The glacial meltwater transports these sediments over the outwash plain and is often size-sorted with the larger boulders deposited close to the glacier terminus and the finest silt-sized particles transported the greatest distance. Valdez Glacier is a remnant of a much larger late Pleistocene ice sheet that formed a huge piedmont glacier covering the Chugach Mountains and probably extended at least to Montague and Hinchinbrook Islands and likely farther over the continental shelf. Prince William Sound apparently was glaciated longer than other areas due to the heavy snowfall and deglaciation began sometime prior to 10,000 years ago and it was not completely ice-free at lower elevations until about 9,000 years ago.

The earliest known occupation of the sound based on the archaeological record is dated to between about 4,400 and 3,300 years ago based on excavations at a village called Uqciuvit in the northwestern sound at Port Wells. Very little is known about these prehistorical people except that they hunted sea mammals, used red ochre, and were familiar with slate grinding. At least portions of the sound appear to have been abandoned during the Neoglacial interval when glaciers advanced and further limited habitable terrain. At Uqciuvit, there is a gap in the occupational sequence that corresponds almost exactly with the age of 3,200 to 2,500 years ago at the time of the first Neoglacial advance. Another prehistorical village called Palugvik in the southeastern sound was the first place occupied about 2,400 years ago when the glaciers receded and Uqciuvit was reoccupied about 2,350 to 2,250 years ago by the Palugvik people. The early Chugach Sugpiat people are most likely the direct descendants of the Palugvik. They represented the farthest southeast extension of Yup’ik Eskimos; however, their immediate neighbors to the east were Athapaskans, such as the Dena’ina, Eyak, and Ahtna, and to the south were the Tlingit. In 1741, the expedition of Danish explorer Vitus Bering landed on Kayak Island and began the period of Russian colonization of Alaska. Russian fur trading companies initially represented the economic interests of the Russian government in Alaska subsequently solidified in the chartered monopoly of the Shelikhov-Golikhov Company and eventual takeover by the government with the Russian-American Company. In 1793, the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company attempted but failed to force the Chugach people to hunt for them out of Fort Constantine in Prince William Sound. The Shelikhov-Golikhov Company subsequently took over Fort Constantine with greater trading success and the Chugach village of Nuchek grew up near the post fairly quickly. Several explorers in the 18th century commented on the low population of Prince William Sound relative to its size and abundance of resources, with consistent estimates of only about 300 to 600 people. Population decline in the 19th century was in part a result of diseases such as smallpox, measles, typhus, and influenza. As the population declined, the inhabited Chugach settlements in the sound decreased to Tatitlek, Chenega, Nuchek, and Kiniklik. There were no known settlements in Port Valdez until the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.

Prospectors had discovered gold-bearing streams in Port Valdez as early as 1898 and some had been placer mined. But the thousands who joined in the stampede over the Valdez Glacier during the Klondike Gold Rush paid no attention and many of these gold-seekers must have passed in sight of the quartz vein outcropping on the north shore of the inlet which 12 years later was developed as the very profitable Cliff mine. In 1898, steamship companies were promoting the Valdez Glacier Trail as a better route than the Chilkoot Trail from Skagway for miners to reach the Klondike gold fields. The trail leads over Valdez Summit, a mountain pass and the highest point on a trail that was used by about 3,000 prospectors heading for the Klondike. The prospectors who believed the promotion found that they had been deceived. The glacier trail was twice as long and very steep, and many men died attempting the crossing, in part by contracting scurvy during the long cold winter without adequate supplies. A town was developed on the flood plain for Valdez Glacier Stream to supply the miners, but the town did not flourish until after the construction of the Richardson Highway in 1899 that connected Valdez and Fairbanks. With a new road and an ice-free port, the community of Valdez became permanently established as the start of the first overland supply route into the interior of Alaska. In 1907, Valdez attempted to be the terminus for a railroad from tidewater to the Kennecott Copper Mine located at McCarthy in the heart of the Wrangell-Saint Elias Mountains which was one of the richest copper ore deposits on the continent. However, a right-of-way dispute led to one man being killed and several injured, and a half-completed tunnel in Keystone Canyon. A rail line to Kennecott was later established from the coastal community of Cordova. In 1964, the mining town of Valdez, located on the edge of the outwash plain, was badly damaged during the 5 minutes of shaking caused by the Alaska earthquake. Soil liquefaction of the glacial silt that formed the town’s foundation led to a massive underwater landslide which caused a section of the shoreline to break off and sink into the sea. The underwater displacement caused a local tsunami 30 feet (9.1 m) high that traveled westward. The SS Chena operated by the Alaska Steamship Company was offloading supplies at the town wharf when the earthquake occurred and 32 men, women, and children who were there to help or watch the unloading died as the dock collapsed into the ocean. The original townsite was subsequently abandoned and a new site was established on more stable ground about 4 miles (6 km) to the west. The original town site was dismantled, abandoned, and eventually burned down. Read more here and here. Explore more of Valdez Glacier Stream and Port Valdez here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (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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