Did you know that there are over 100,000 glaciers in Alaska? They cover about 5% of the state, that’s roughly the size of West Virginia. Visiting a glacier is an Alaskan must do to better understand Glaciology!

Lucky for you, only about two and a half hours north of Anchorage lies the Matanuska Glacier, the longest glacier accessible by car. Beginning at the highest mountain in the Chugach Range, Mt. Marcus Baker, the Matanuska is over 26 miles long and 4 miles wide.  Staring at this incredible landscape you may have questions like: What exactly is a glacier? or, how is it formed? Well you have come to the right place! In this post we will be exploring the answers to these questions.

Glaciology 101

The word ‘Glacier’ originates from the French word glace, meaning ice. The simplest way to imagine a glacier is as a large moving river of ice. The river starts high in the mountains in the “accumulation zone” where snow collects year after year. Then, slowly over time, the snow condenses and squeezes out extra air, forming into ice. The glacial ice becomes so heavy that it starts to fall downhill under its own weight and gravity.

The magnitude of the glacier is best seen from high above in the seat of a helicopter. From the snow fields to the terminus (a.k.a. the end of the glacier) you can see how the Matanuska has shaped the surrounding valley.

Glaciers are classified based on where the glacier ends. For example, the Matanuska is a valley glacier, with the terminus located in the Matanuska valley. Other types of glaciers include: tidal glaciers (ending in the ocean), alpine glaciers (ending high in the mountains, sometimes spanning several peaks), piedmont glaciers (steep valley glaciers that flow out onto a broad flat area) and lastly, hanging glaciers (retreated valley glaciers end in high valleys).  Alaska is the glacier adventurer’s paradise with over 29,000 square miles of varying types of glaciers. Whether your exploring on foot or from a helicopter’s bird’s eye view, get out there and utilize your new glacier knowledge!