A glacier’s snowline marks the location where the amount of summer melting and accumulated snowmass are equal. If, over the course of a season, a glacier experiences more snowfall than melting, its snowline will advance. If melting outweighs accumulation, then the snowline will retreat to higher altitudes. Tracking the snowline gives scientists important data about how the glacier is changing.
And that change is typically slow. When glaciers stop advancing, their snowlines can remain unmoving for decades. Or, at least, they used to. In recent years, Alaska’s Taku Glacier was one of the only alpine glaciers holding out against the warming Arctic. Its slow advance stopped in 2013–the left image shows Taku in 2014–and researchers hoped the massive glacier would maintain its mass for a few decades at least. Instead, the glacier was retreating by 2018 and doing so with the highest mass loss ever recorded at the glacier. The 2019 image on the right shows the glacier’s visible losses.
For such a massive glacier–the largest in Juneau Icefield at nearly 1.5 km thick–to reverse fortunes so quickly is disturbing and serves as yet more evidence of climate change overriding natural cycles of advance and retreat. (Image credit: L. Dauphin/USGS; via NASA Earth Observatory)