Assessing the influence of Alaska glaciers is slippery work

Release Date: 
Thursday, May 26, 2011



CONTACT: Anthony Arendt, UAF Geophysical Institute research professor, 907-474-7427, or via e-mail at

Fairbanks, Alaska—With an estimated 34,000 square miles of ice, about the size of Maine, Alaska’s multitude of glaciers have a global impact. 

Anthony Arendt, an assistant research professor at the GI, has outlined the complexity and influence of Alaska glaciers in the current issue of Science, a weekly international journal. In his article, the scientist explains how an integration of observations and more precise glacier simulation models are still needed and extremely important.

“We have used satellites to measure the mass changes of all of Alaska’s glaciers, but there are also many glaciers that need to be measured in the field,” Arendt said. “We need these field observations to better understand the processes that are controlling glacier changes.”

Glacial patterns are difficult to predict — even for current computer models. Alaska glaciers often behave independently of one another. There are glacial retreats and surges, volcanic and oceanic influences, in addition to changes in precipitation and warming temperatures. Data collected in the field will help refine existing models, so that a more accurate picture of changing sea levels can be drawn. 

In the article, Arendt states, “Alaska glaciers have been losing mass more rapidly since the mid-1990s than they were several decades earlier. Understanding whether this trend continues will require an integration of observations across disciplines, as well as the development of robust glacier simulation models.”

According to the scientist, glaciers and ice caps make up a mere three percent of the ice on our planet, yet they account for about half of the sea level contribution. These dynamic chunks of ice are tremendously influential on future coastlines. 

“There are many people living very close to the sea in areas where even a small change in sea level would be devastating,” Arendt said. “Developing countries don’t have the resources to deal with this change.”

To create the best forecast of what sea levels will be in time, measurements need to be integrated and data gaps in current models must be filled by what is witnessed of glaciers in the field. With thousands of glaciers in Alaska, scientists have much more work to do. However, this research will ultimately help the global community better adapt to sea level change.

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Amy Hartley, UAF Geophysical Institute Information Officer, at 907-474-5823 or via e-mail at 

Marmian Grimes, UAF public information officer, at 907-474-7902 or via e-mail at