Vassar Glacier, College Fjord

Vassar Glacier, College Fjord

by | Jul 14, 2022

Vassar Glacier flows southeast for 4.3 miles (7 km) from the eastern flank of Peak 8080 in the Chugach Mountains to the western shore of College Fjord near the confluence of Harvard Arm and Yale Arm and 2 miles (3.2 km) west of College Point, about 52 miles (83 km) west of Valdez and 42 miles (68 km) northeast of Whittier, Alaska. The glacier was named in 1899 for Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. College Fjord is a glaciated estuary located in the northwestern sector of Prince William Sound between Point Pakenham and College Point. The fjord was explored in 1899 by the Harriman Alaska Expedition which included professors from elite colleges. The fjord now contains five tidewater glaciers, or glaciers that terminate in seawater, five large valley glaciers, and dozens of smaller glaciers, most named after renowned east coast colleges with women’s colleges on the northwest side, and men’s colleges on the southeast side. The Chugach Mountains are the northernmost of the several mountain ranges that make up the Pacific Coast Ranges of the western edge of North America. The range is about 250 miles (402 km) long and 60 miles (97 km) wide and extends from the Knik and Turnagain Arms of Cook Inlet in the west to Bering Glacier in the east. The highest peak is Mount Marcus Baker with an elevation of 13,094 feet (3,991 m). The Chugach Mountains receive more snow than anywhere else in the world, with an annual average of over 50 feet (15 m) because of the juxtaposition of the mountain range along the northern Gulf of Alaska coastline. The Chugach Mountains are part of the Southern Margin Composite terrane one of the world’s largest accretionary complexes. The bedrock along the northern coast of Prince William Sound consists mostly of rocks in the Valdez Group of partially metamorphosed sedimentary rocks that formed during the Late Cretaceous. The metasedimentary rocks surrounding College Fjord and underlying Vassar Glacier are highly deformed turbidites, including sandstone, siltstone, argillite, slate, and phyllite that were deposited in a deep ocean trench and subsequently lithified.

The name ‘Chugach’ comes from the Chugach Sugpiaq word ‘Cuungaaciiq’ which refers to the people inhabiting the area. The Chugach are descendants of the Alutiiq people and speak the Chugach dialect of the Alutiiq language. Captain James Cook entered Prince William Sound in 1778 and initially named it Sandwich Sound, after his patron the Earl of Sandwich. Later that year, the Sound was named to honor George III’s third son Prince William Henry, then aged 13 and serving as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. In 1786, the Russian Lebedev Company established a trading post called Fort Constantine at Nuchek on Hinchinbrook Island, and at that time there were Chugach villages or fish camps along the north coast of Prince William Sound. In 1790, the Spanish explorer Salvador Fidalgo entered the Sound, naming many of its features. Some places in the Sound still bear the names given by Fidalgo such as Port Valdez, Port Gravina, and Cordova. The explorer landed on the actual site of Cordova and took possession of the land in the name of the king of Spain. In 1794, Captain George Vancouver entered Prince William Sound and sent two survey parties in small boats to explore. Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey led one party and began surveying the western side including present-day College Fjord, and Lieutenant James Johnstone led the other party, which set off to chart the eastern side. In 1887, College Fjord was explored again by Samuel Applegate, a fur trader and fox farmer, on his schooner Nellie Juan. In 1899, Edward H. Harriman, a railroad magnate and one of the most powerful men in America, chartered the steamship George W. Elder and financed a two-month expedition to explore the coast from Seattle to Alaska and Siberia with an interdisciplinary team of scientists. The venture, now called the Harriman Alaska Expedition, resulted in the discovery of nine new species of algae and 240 species of plants, the collection of an array of faunal specimens, and the naming of many glaciers and other geographical features.

On the west side of College Fjord is a prominent peak with a summit elevation of 5,022 feet (1,531 m) named Mount Emerson after Professor B.K. Emerson who was a member of the Harriman Alaska Expedition. Within a short distance northeast of this peak, several glaciers descend to College Fjord and are named, from south to north, Wellesley, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, and Smith glaciers. Vassar Glacier has an area of 2,368 acres (958 ha) and most of the snow accumulation area is between 3,500 and 5,000 feet (1,067-1,524 m) in elevation. The terminus is heavily covered with ablation moraine that probably provides some solar insulation, and the front has a very low-angled slope, which makes it difficult to determine the ice margins. In the past, the glacier terminus was tidal, but now there are several hundred meters of scattered vegetation between the buried ice front and tidewater. All the historical observations of this glacier, except one, have been made at a distance and were primarily concerned with the extent of exposed ice versus ice buried by surface moraine. Vassar Glacier was observed by Whidbey in 1794, and by Applegate in 1887, but it was not until 1899 that it was described and named by Karl G. Gilbert on the Harriman Expedition and at that time it was a tidewater glacier. In 1909, Ulysses S. Grant and Daniel F. Higgins of the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the front of the glacier was about 200 feet (60 m) high and covered with rock debris to such an extent that the underlying ice could be seen only by close examination. Aerial photos taken by Bradford Washburn in 1934, and by the U.S. Armed Forces in 1941, 1947, and 1950 indicate that during this period the moraine-covered terminal lobe had significantly diminished in volume. By 1957, almost the entire glacier, as far as could be seen, was buried by debris. When the glacier was observed in 1978, vegetation was well established at the terminus and it was impossible to tell if any ice remained underneath the rock debris. In 2004, continuing retreat and thinning were apparent along the bare ice margins of the glacier. Read more here and here. Explore more of Vassar Glacier and College Fjord 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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