My climbing instructor was trapped at the bottom of a 30-foot moat just below the summit of Mt. Olympus. As a junior in high school, I knew a little about rope rescue techniques, but hardly anything about glacier moats. Had it been the other way around the entire rescue may have been avoidable, but familiarity with glacial processes is often limited to seasoned mountaineers and geologists. Yet in this age of rapid global warming and increased mountaineering activity, one does not have to be a climber or scientist to interact with glaciers. The dynamic and awesome activity disguised among distant snow-capped peaks is relevant to us all.

Glaciers are inescapable. Farmers throughout the world plow around vehicle-sized stones left behind by retreating glaciers in the middle of perfectly flat fields. In recent geologic time, glaciers have scoured 30% of the Earth’s land surface including much of North America. Currently, glaciers hold more than 75% of the planet’s fresh water supply; Florida, and other low-lying coastal areas, would be flooded by a rise in sea level if all the world’s glaciers were to suddenly melt. Global warming and the potential impact of receding glaciers in the tropics and Antarctica have received much attention from both the scientific and popular press. The current swing toward a warmer climate is a well documented and accepted fact, and a relatively small rise in temperature can dramatically shrink a local glacier at rate noticeable to the casual visitor. Thus a Minnesota soybean farmer, an owner of a coastal cabin, and a hiker passing Mount Rainier on the Pacific Crest Trail are all directly affected by glacial processes.

For many, kicking crampons into blue glacial ice, looking skyward from the bottom of a crevasse, or mapping past ablation horizons is a geographic and technical impossibility. Hikers often examine glaciers at a cautious distance. For most introductory geology students, the complicated mix of snow, firn, dirt, running water, solid ice, and rock that make up a glacier are explored only through descriptions and photographs in a geology text. However, even in the most thorough book it is often difficult to get a sense of how simple processes like accumulation and ablation interrelate. Often, one may find pictures of features associated with a process, but they may jump from one continent to another or vary in glacier type and climate. This approach often fails to illustrate how separate processes effect one another. A glacier is an integrated and dynamic system, with each detail and process connected to a greater whole. The study of the glacial environment should logically parallel this design.

This book unites the basic concepts of glaciology using the Blue Glacier of the Olympic Mountains as a case study. This glacier has been extensively studied since the 1950’s and research data from primary literature is combined with over 60 photographs to provide a complete picture of Blue Glacier as a system. No previous geology experience is assumed; the material should be accessible to an introductory geology student, someone in a beginning mountaineering course, or a coffee table browser. Glacier travel is not an experience that is open to everyone, but I hope to provide geologists and non-geologists alike the next best thing to crampons and an ice axe—a means to explore the glacier environment and glimpse the exciting real-time geologic process at work in our own backyard.

A journey to the Blue Glacier begins with a 27-kilometer walk through the wettest place in North America. The Olympic Peninsula of western Washington is famous for its old-growth firs that reach 90 meters in height, spongy carpets of moss, and incessant rain. The latter is what makes the 266 glaciers hidden among the peaks of the region so active and exciting—Blue Glacier receives more precipitation and is lower in altitude than any other glacier in the country. Ninety percent of North America’s glaciers are found here or in the nearby Cascade Range.

Blue Glacier flows down the north side of Mount Olympus (2428m) in the heart of the Olympic Mountains. The glacier begins at 2377 meters above sea level, takes a left turn, and drops 1143 meters in 4.3 kilometers to a final elevation of 1234 meters. It has a total area of 4.3 square kilometers, and a volume of 0.57 cubic kilometers or 1 trillion one-inch ice cubes. The Blue Glacier is a large contributor to the 25,000 gallons of water per second that flow down the Hoh River to the Pacific Ocean fifty-five kilometers downstream.

All photographs were taken late in the melt season during August of 2001. Many features usually hidden were exposed due to low snow accumulation the previous winter. A chicken was a member of the climbing expedition to provide an object of scale. The rooster is life size but lost both feet to frostbite.

photos on this page by Joel Reid


intro | terminology | accumulation | firn | blue | ablation | water | equilibrium | massbalance | movement | crevasse | structure | algae | moraine | debris | erosion
pdf version | glacier glossary | bibliography | about blue ice

Benjamin Drummond 2002