Mendenhall Glacier is a glacier about 13.6 miles long located in Mendenhall Valley, about 12 miles (19 km) from downtown Juneau in the southeast area of the U.S. state of Alaska. The glacier and surrounding landscape is protected as the 5,815-acre Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, a federally designated unit of the Tongass National Forest.
The Juneau Icefield Research Program has monitored the outlet glaciers of the Juneau Icefield since 1942, including Mendenhall Glacier. The glacier has also retreated 1.75 miles (2.82 km) since 1958, when Mendenhall Lake was created, and over 2.5 miles (4.0 km) since 1500. The end of the glacier currently has a negative glacier mass balance and will continue to retreat in the foreseeable future.
Given that average yearly temperatures are currently increasing, and the outlook is for this trend to continue, it is actually possible that the glacier might experience a period of stabilization or slight advance during its retreating march. This is because increasing amounts of warm, moist air will be carried up to the head of the icefield, where colder ambient temperatures will cause it to precipitate as snow. The increased amount of snow will feed the icefield, possibly enough to offset the continually increasing melting experienced at the glacier's terminus. However, this interesting phenomenon will fade away if temperatures continue to climb, since the head of the glacier will no longer have cold enough ambient temperatures to cause snow to precipitate.
It was originally known as Sitaantaagu ("the Glacier Behind the Town") or Aak'wtaaksit ("the Glacier Behind the Little Lake"), also latinized as Aakwtaaksit, by the Tlingits. The glacier was named Auke (Auk) Glacier by naturalist John Muir for the Tlingit Auk Kwaan (or Aak'w Kwaan) band in 1888. In 1891 it was renamed in honor of Thomas Corwin Mendenhall. It extends from the Juneau Icefield, its source, to Mendenhall Lake and ultimately the Mendenhall River.
The US Forest Service, which manages the Mendenhall Glacier, says "because glaciers are a product of climate, they respond to climate change." The Mendenhall glacier has been in retreat since the end of the Little Ice Age in the 1700s. In a joint article for the Juneau Empire Geologist Cathy Connor and Geophysicist Roman Motyka, both professors of the University of Alaska said "climatic warming coupled with ice loss through iceberg calving are the reasons the Mendenhall Glacier is retreating and shrinking."
The retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier and other glaciers in the area is believed by some to be a result of broader retreat and breakup of the Juneau Icefield. The Juneau Icefield is the fifth largest icefield in North America. For many populations near glacial areas these glaciers are a source of fresh drinking water. Once these glaciers are gone the people relying on this fresh water will be out of their familiar fresh water source. For example, Anchorage is one of the most populated cities in Alaska and many people in this city rely on the Eklutna glacier for their freshwater. If the recession of this glacier continues they will be out of their main source of water. However Alaska has been receiving record snowfall in the last decade. Snow is the main factor that causes glaciers to advance.
Although there are many negative effects of the recession of the Mendenhall Glacier and glaciers in general, there are also a few positive outcomes from it as well. With the retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier, the Mendenhall Lake has formed. The lake is a result of the run-off from the glacier and is increasing in size as the glacier continues to retreat. The lake began formation in 1931 and has continued to grow since then. The lake has its own unique ecosystem and is a popular location for sport fishing; fishers can find salmon and trout in the lake.
As of recently a new discovery has been made regarding the Mendenhall Glacier and its retreat. Within the past year (2012), tree stumps and logs with roots and bark still attached have been appearing from under the glacier as it has been retreating. They are being found in their original growth position, preserved by what was believed to be a protective gravel casing covering them. By uncovering these tree stumps and logs, scientists are able to uncover information on the ecosystem's past, from a pre-glacial time. Scientists observing the area are able to determine how old the trees were when they died by looking at their preserved remains. One of the scientists, Cathy Conner, was reported as finding "The most recent stumps she’s dated emerging from the Mendenhall are between 1,400 and 1,200 years old. The oldest she’s tested are around 2,350 years old. She’s also dated some at around 1,870 to 2,000 years old."
The United States Forest Service operates the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center as part of the Tongass National Forest, offering interpretive programs throughout the year for children and adults. The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and surrounding area offer stunning views of a lake-terminating, calving glacier. The center is open year-round and receives close to 500,000 visitors each year, many coming by cruise ship in summer. There are two accessible entrances – an upper entrance with a ramp and a lower entrance with elevators.
This was the first U.S. Forest Service visitor center built in the nation. Designed by Linn A. Forrest and dedicated in 1962, a restaurant originally served pie and coffee in the area of the center that now offers books, videos and souvenirs to glacier visitors. The building was expanded, renovated and rededicated in 1999. Exhibits in the center cover the history of Mendenhall Glacier showing how it covered the valley when Joseph Whidbey, master of the HMS Discovery during George Vancouver's 1791–95 expedition, toured the area in 1794 and what is happening due to climate change today. The exhibits depict the variety of wildlife in the area including mountain goats, wolves, black bears and salmon in the nearby streams. Rangers provide interpretive information and children's nature programs, point out wildlife, and answer questions about the area.
There are two small parking lots with access to several trails in the area. Photo Point Trail and the Steep Creek Trail are easy and accessible trails. Elevated boardwalks above Steep Creek provide salmon and bear viewing opportunities. Visitors can hike via the East Glacier Loop to an overlook within a half-mile of the glacier. Two routes traverse a series of wooden steps and a gradual elevation gain of 500' on this trail. The Trail of Time, which connects to East Glacier Loop, was recently updated to include new historical signs and handicap accessibility. You can also explore the recently completed 0.8-mile Nugget Falls Trail, which leads you to Nugget Falls, near the face of the glacier. Access to the area and trails is free. The West Glacier trail also offers the chance to view ice caves beneath the glacier.
From May through September, there is a $3 admission fee to go into the Visitor Center to view the exhibits and see audio-visual presentations. Activities outside the center building itself are free of charge, and visitors may use the restrooms and visit the bookstore without paying the fee. This fee provides for maintenance of the trails, programs during summer, and updating the exhibits in the center. There is no fee in the winter.
In addition to the busy summer season, the center hosts the Fireside Lecture series on Friday evenings, January through March. Programs cover ecological and cultural history and events in Southeast Alaska. Inside the Visitor Center is a natural and cultural history bookstore run by Alaska Geographic, which is a non-profit organization supporting the public lands of Alaska. Trail guides, wildlife and bird guides, children's books and other materials are available here from May through September.