May 1, 2016
North Fork Grand Plateau Glacier comparison in 2013 and 2015 Landsat images. Illustrating the rapid retreat and lake expansion in just two years. Pink arrow is 1984 terminus, red arrow is the 2013 terminus and yellow arrow 2015 terminus. The orange dots are the 2013 terminus.
The Alsek Glacier is a large glacier draining into Alsek Lake and the Alsek River in southeast Alaska Its neighbor the Grand Plateau Glacier has one fork flows north and joins the Alsek Glacier terminating in Alsek Lake. The USGS topographic map compiled from a 1958 aerial image indicates a piedmont lobe spread out into a proglacial lake that is less than 3 km wide, with a combined ice front of the Alsek Glacier and North Fork Grand Plateau Glacier.. There is a 10.5 km wide calving front in the lake. By 1984 the glacier had separated into a northern and southern calving front on either side of an island and had a 13 km wide calving front. Here we focus on the southern lobe, which is comprised of a lobe of the Alsek Glacier and a the North Fork Grand Plateau Glacier that merges with Alsek Glacier. From 1984 and 1999 the two lobes separated as the North Fork retreated 2.2 km. From 1999 to 2013 the North Fork retreated 1.5 km up a newly forming southern arm of Alsek Lake. The retreat over the 30 period of 3.7 kilometers averaged ~120 meters/year. Landsat imagery in 2013 and 2014 indicate extensive calving from the North Fork Grand Plateau Glacier. From 2013 to 2015 the terminus has retreated 3.0 km, 1.5 km/year. This is likely the fastest retreat rate in recent years of any Alaskan glacier. The calving front in Alsek Lake has been reduced to 5.4 km in three separate sections.
The retreat has been similar in timing to nearby Alsek River watershed glaciers Walker Glacier, East Novatak Glacier and North Alsek Glacier.. The rapid retreat is enhanced by calving in proglacial lakes, a common issue increasing area loss of Alaskan glaciers. Yakutat Glacier is an example of rapid lake expansion. In the case of Yakutat Glacier unlike the Alsek or Grand Plateau Glacier the glacier lacks any high elevation accumulation zone and cannot survive without an accumulation zone (Trüssel et al 2015). Grand Plateau Glacier and Alsek Glacier both have large accumulation areas above 2000 m, that are well above the snowline at all times. The Alsek River is a destination for sockeye salmon fishing and river rafting, see Chilkat Guides or Colorado River and Trail Expeditions. Continued expansion of lake area as glaciers retreat in the watershed, is changing the nature of the Alsek River.
USGS Topographic map of region from 1958 aerial images indicating merging of Alsek Glacier and North Fork Grand Plateau Glacier.
1984 Landsat image indicating terminus locations. Pink arrow is 1984 terminus, red arrow is the 2013 terminus and yellow arrow 2015 terminus.
1999 Landsat image indicating terminus locations. Pink arrow is 1984 terminus, red arrow is the 2013 terminus and yellow arrow 2015 terminus.
2014 Landsat image. indicating terminus locations. Orange dots indicate the ice front. Pink arrow is 1984 terminus, red arrow is the 2013 terminus and yellow arrow 2015 terminus.