• WorldView
  • 3 Min Read
  • 12 Apr 2022

Where to See Glaciers Up Close

There is perhaps no stronger symbol of nature’s power than glaciers, the unassuming sculptors of Earth’s most magnificent landscapes. These dynamic ice giants are anything but gentle—collaborating with gravity to quite literally move mountains over millennia—and yet, a profound sense of peace resonates in their presence. That is, until a sudden crackling noise crescendos into the release of a calving iceberg, sending a house-sized chunk of ice into the water with a ceremonious splash!

 

Glaciers form when hundreds of years’ worth of compressed snow and ice become too massive to stand still, beginning a slow, frozen flow toward sea level, typically traveling just a few feet per day. When their toes reach the water, these crystalline blue behemoths seem even more alive, breathing with the tides. To naturalist John Muir, glaciers were not simply animate; they bordered on divine—and to experience one was to leave with a renewed sense of being. Of Alaska’s Glacier Bay, he wrote, “We turned and sailed away… and our burning hearts were ready for any fate, feeling that, whatever the future might have in store, the treasures we had gained this glorious morning would enrich our lives forever.”

 

Though the Antarctic ice sheet harbors the majority of the world’s glaciers, it’s far from the only place where you can come face to face with their chilly thrills. From the stark coastline of Patagonia to the lagoons of Iceland, here are five regions where colossal glaciers and their captivating charisma are on full display.


Main image: Max Siegal

Alaska

Though nearly 30,000 square miles of Alaska’s rugged wilderness are draped in glaciation, the most evocative encounters await along the Southern coast, where monstrous tidewater glaciers hide beyond the bends of the fjords they have carved. In these waters, bobbing bergs and shimmering mosaics of brash ice hint at just how immense the calving activity is. For one, the six-mile-wide Hubbard Glacier, flowing 75 miles from Mt. Logan into Disenchantment Bay, is the largest calving glacier in North America. For scale, compare this to the 70-mile area of Prince William Sound where 150 glaciers meander its mountain peaks, some dipping their toes into the tide. And at Glacier Bay National Park—home to the picturesque Margerie Glacier—listen for the distant, telltale roar of what the indigenous Huna Tlingit people call “white thunder” to announce the momentous birth of an iceberg.

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Iceland

With 269 glaciers sprawling across about 11 percent of its landmass, it’s fair to say Iceland is aptly named. Notable among them is Europe’s second-biggest ice cap, Vatnajökull, standing stark in a frozen foil to the fire of the area’s active volcanoes. Here, the white and electric blue ice is marbled with black streaks of ash from centuries of eruptions. The UNESCO World Heritage site has even garnered Hollywood’s attention—starring as the setting for several James Bond films. The icy playground of Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is one of Vatnajökull’s jewels, formed around 1935 from the meltwater. The lagoon will exist in a constant state of flux until it becomes a full-fledged fjord—a prime example of the beauty of nature’s transience. What better setting for adventure?

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Chilean Patagonia

Lovers of this notoriously wild and jagged landscape owe a debt of gratitude to the massive Patagonian Ice Field, which still coats a large swath of the Andes. It’s spawned hundreds of frozen limbs, and all but one are currently retreating. The outlier, Pío XI or Brüggen Glacier, is the Southern Hemisphere’s longest glacier outside of Antarctica, reaching for about 40 miles to terminate in Bernardo O'Higgins National Park. Farther South, a berg-bedecked stretch of the Beagle Channel has earned the nickname Glacier Alley. In the words of Charles Darwin, whose first glimpse of glaciers occurred there in January 1833, “It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.”

Photo: Michael S. Nolan

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Greenland

After Antarctica, Greenland boasts Earth’s second-largest icecap, covering 80% of the island. From the air above Kangerlussuaq Glacier, one can imagine how a third of our planet’s surface might have looked during the last peak of the Ice Age 20,000 years ago. Sermeq Kujalleq or Jakobshavn Glacier, a particularly active offshoot of the 37-mile-long Ilulissat Icefjord, shows that frozen isn’t always synonymous with standing still. The 1,200-square-mile stunner flows about 100 feet each day and has consistently jettisoned 20 billion tons of ice into the ocean per year—including the berg that took down the Titanic in 1912. At times, Disko Bay resembles a floating sculpture garden, where wind and waves make modern art out of centuries-old packed snow.

Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

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Arctic Svalbard

Just 600 miles from the North Pole, this Norwegian archipelago is practically dripping with glaciers—2,100 of them span nearly 60 percent of the land. Fjords the slice into the coastline, creating endless channels for exploration amidst the sparkling ice floes. Though you’re in prime polar bear territory, the ethereal, Arctic light is its own form of wildlife, animating the water and icescapes in mystical ways. As Sven Lindblad shares, recent decades of diminishing sea ice have made these wonders far more accessible. “While we profoundly lament this march towards ice extinction,” he writes following a March 2018 trip, “Being here when we were, a time unthinkable a decade ago, was a wondrous and precious opportunity.”

Photo: Mike Greenfelder

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