April 21, 2017

Yakutat Glacier Terminus Collapse, 10 km retreat 1987-2016

Posted by Mauri Pelto

Landsat images from 1987 and 2016 with terminus indicated by yellow dots. Point A indicates the 1987 terminus location and Point E the 2016 terminus location. 

The Yakutat Glacier during the 1894-1895 Alaskan Boundary Survey ended near a terminal moraine on a flat coastal outwash plain. By 1906 the glacier had retreated from the moraine and a new lake was forming. Harlequin Lake. Surveys of the terminus of the glacier indicated a retreat of 1 kilometer in that decade. From 1906-1948 the glacier retreated an additional 5 km. From 1948-1958 the glacier retreated 3.6 km. The retreat is evident in comparing the Yakutat B-3 quadrangle, from 1958 photography, and Landsat imagery from 1987, 2010, 2013 and 2016. Points A-E are the same in each image and the yellow dots are the terminus. In 1987 the terminus was just retreating from a peninsula marked A, the valley at D was filled with ice, there was no break in the surface at C and B was well inland of the terminus. By 2010 the glacier had retreated from A, the valley at D was deglaciated, a small strip of bedrock-sediment was exposed at C from what had been beneath the glacier, and B was still well inland of the terminus. By 2013 the northern arm of the glacier had retreated 6.4 km from the peninsula at A toward the peninsula at B. The central arm of the glacier toward C had retreated 7.5 km and the retreat on the southern edge of the glacier was 6.5 km. The glacier had retreated on average more than 6.6 km in 27 years, a rate of 240 m/year.  From 2013 to 2016 the glacier had retreated from Point B to Point C on the northern side and to Point E on the southern side this is a distance of 10.2 km in thirty years 340 m/year. 

Recently the glacier has been the focus of a study by the University of Alaska, Faribanks they have set up a time lapse camera to record frontal changes. The goal is to understand the controls on calving into Harlequin Lake of this glacier. More amazing than the retreat has been the observed thinning of the glacier. The glacier has thinned by more 200 m on average according to the preliminary thickness change maps from the UAF project (Truessel et al 2013) and updated by Truessel et al (2015). The Yakutat Glacier does not have a high accumulation zone and the recent increase in the snowline elevation and thinning of the glacier have led to a substantial shrinking of the accumulation zone and thinning of the glacier in the accumulation (Truessel et al 2013). This glacier does not have a persistent significant accumulation zone and cannot survive (Pelto, 2010), Truessel et al (2015). modelling suggests the glacier will disappear between 2070 and 2110 depending on the warming scenario.  For a calving glacier to be in equilibrium it needs to have at least 60 % of its area snowcovered at the end of the summer. The glacier is in the midst of a large ongoing retreat. The retreat rate and calving mechanism is similar to that of Grand Plateau Glacier, Bear Lake Glacier and Gilkey Glacier. However, unlike these Yakutat Glacier lacks an accumulation zone, a better analog is East Novatak Glacier, which also has a lower elevation accumulation zone.

Yakutat terminus map

2010 Landsat image with terminus indicated by yellow dots.

2013 Landsat image with terminus indicated by yellow dots.