Valerie Glacier, Disenchantment Bay

Valerie Glacier, Disenchantment Bay

by | Jun 17, 2022

Valerie Glacier is formed by several tributary glaciers that flow from the south flank of Mount Vancouver in the Saint Elias Mountains of the Icefield Ranges, and the merged ice streams flow generally southeast for about 14 miles (22.5 km) to laterally join with the Hubbard Glacier and terminate in Disenchantment Bay, about 154 miles (248 km) northwest of Haines and about 33 miles (53 km) north-northeast of Yakutat, Alaska. Disenchantment Bay extends northeast for about 10 miles (16 km) from the head of Yakutat Bay to Gilbert Point at the entrance of Russell Fjord. Valerie Glacier is named after Valerie F. Wood who served as an assistant to the scientific team of Project Snow Cornice of the Arctic Institute of North America and was the daughter of glaciologist Walter A. Wood. The summit of Mount Vancouver is at 15,787 feet (4,812 m) and is on the border between the United States and Canada, so the south flank is in Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve and the north flank is in Kluane National Park and Reserve. The geology of this area is represented by the Southern Margin composite terrane which consists of the Chugach and Prince William terranes. The spectacular towering peaks of the Saint Elias Mountains are represented by the Chugach terrane and are composed largely of metamorphosed rocks of the Valdez Group that were accreted to the western edge of the North American continent in the Late Cretaceous or about 67 million years ago. Rocks of the Valdez Group in this part of the Saint Elias Mountains are comprised of metamorphic amphibolite, gneiss, and schist, with granitic plutons represented by the highest mountain peaks. The Fairweather Fault is roughly aligned with the northwest-southeast axis of Valerie Glacier which separates the Chugach terrane to the north from the Yakutat terrane to the south. The Yakutat terrane is composed of a series of Jurassic and Cretaceous sedimentary rocks with minor amounts of oceanic volcanic rocks that arrived at the western margin of the North American plate about 26 million years ago and is still actively accreting to the continental margin.

Valerie Glacier forms the westernmost 2 miles (3.2 km) of the massive tidewater terminus of the Hubbard Glacier which is the largest non-polar tidewater glacier in the world with an area of 605,408 acres (245,000 ha). Hubbard Glacier descends more than 75 miles (120 km) from the flanks of Mount Logan in Yukon, Canada, to sea level in Disenchantment Bay, Alaska. The height of the calving face ranges from 200 to 330 feet (60-100 m) and it has a width of about 7 miles (11.5 km). Moraines at the seaward entrance to Yakutat Bay indicate that the glacier filled the entire bay as recently as 1100 AD. Water depths over these moraines average about 50 feet (15 m) and are no deeper than 100 feet (30 m). Retreat of the terminus was underway by 1380 AD, and by 1792, Captain George Vancouver documented the glacier terminus well inside Disenchantment Bay. Since first being mapped in 1895 by the International Boundary Commission, the glacier has advanced more than 1.6 miles (2.5 km) which is in direct contrast to the regional trend where glaciers throughout Alaska and Canada have been retreating, some rapidly, during the past century. The Hubbard and Valerie Glaciers have historically shown flow characteristics that oppose regional glacier trends and are apparently independent of climate. Hubbard Glacier has a history of blocking the seaward entrance to Russell Fjord, which has a relatively large freshwater catchment area resulting in the formation of a glacier-dammed lake. Twice in recent history, the glacier has temporarily blocked the entrance to Russell Fjord and on both occasions, the dam failed catastrophically. In 1986, ice and an emergent push moraine appeared at the glacier terminus causing calving to stop and damming the entrance to Russell Fjord. At that time, Valerie Glacier was surging with a recorded velocity of 120 feet (36 m) per day near its junction with Hubbard Glacier. In June 2002, an ice and push moraine dam once again closed the entrance to Russell Fjord. Heavy rain caused Russell Fjord to overtop the moraine dam, and rapid erosion resulted in dam failure accompanied by an outburst flood. The possibility of a sustained closure of Russell Fjord is of concern to Yakutat residents, as it may affect the flow of the Situk River which is an important fishery and economic resource.

The Arctic Institute of North America came into existence during the final stages of World War II and in 1945, the Institute was chartered by an act of the Parliament of Canada. In 1948, Walter A. Wood became director of the New York office and launched Project Snow Cornice, an ambitious glaciological study of the upper Seward Glacier in the Icefields Range. Although the field site was in Yukon, the logistic base for the project was in Yakutat, Alaska. The high-altitude base camp was a Jamesway hut erected on a nunatak on the upper Seward Glacier just west of the towering north face of Mount Vancouver. Satellite field camps were established as ground control for photogrammetric survey stations and for glaciological, seismological, meteorological, and botanical studies. Project Snow Cornice encompassed field seasons in 1948, 1949, 1950 (winter), and 1951. Along with the scientific programs, several successful mountaineering first ascents were recorded, including Mount Vancouver, Mount Hubbard, and Mount Alverstone. Wood was a member of the climbing team and reached the summits of Mount Hubbard and Mount Alverstone. The entire field operation was supported by a ski-wheel equipped single-engine Norseman aircraft, piloted by James M. King, who flew about 90 miles (145 km) from Yakutat, Alaska to a landing strip on the Seward Glacier at an elevation of about 5900 feet (1800 m). In a landing on the Seward Glacier in 1948, snow conditions were such that the Norseman nosed over onto its back, fortunately without serious injury to the occupants. However, an overturned aircraft with broken wing struts and a seriously bent propellor were a major problem as no other aircraft was readily available for rescue operations. By an ingenious arrangement of ropes and the digging of a pit under the bent propellor, the team managed to right the aircraft without further damage. King repaired the broken struts by bracing them with lumber and straightened the metal propellor with jacks stressed against two-by-fours lashed to the propellor. Five days after the accident King piloted the Norseman safely back to Yakutat for permanent repairs. In 1951, Project Snow Cornice ended tragically when the plane carrying Wood’s wife, Foresta, his daughter, Valerie, and the pilot vanished while flying from the glacier camp to Yakutat. In spite of an intensive search by the U.S Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and other official and private groups, in which Wood’s participated, no trace of the aircraft was found. Read more here and here. Explore more of Valerie Glacier and Disenchantment Bay here:

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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. 

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