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Columbia Glacier (Alaska) facts for kids

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Columbia Glacier
Columbia Glacier (Alaska) by Sentinel-2.jpg
Satellite image, September 2018
Type Tidewater glacier
Location Descending from the Chugach Mountains to Prince William Sound, Alaska
Coordinates 61°13′11″N 146°53′43″W / 61.21972°N 146.89528°W / 61.21972; -146.89528
Area 1,000 km2 (400 sq mi)
Length 51 kilometers (32 mi)
Thickness 550 m (1,800 ft)
Terminus Sealevel (Prince William Sound)
Status Retreating

The Columbia Glacier is a glacier in Prince William Sound on the south coast of the U.S. state of Alaska, is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, and has been retreating since the early 1980s. It was named after Columbia University, one of several glaciers in the area named for elite U.S. colleges by the Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899. The head of the main branch of the glacier originates at the saddle between Mount Witherspoon and Mount Einstein.

The Alaska Marine Highway vessel M/V Columbia is named after the Columbia Glacier.


Natlgeo columbia-glacier 1910 comp
An illustration of Columbia Glacier in 1910, with the District of Columbia overlaid for scale comparisons

The glacier twists its way through western Alaska's Chugach Mountains. The bald streak at the bottom of the mountains, called the trimline, shows this glacier has lost 1,300 feet (400 m) of thickness. It has also retreated 10.5 miles (16.9 km) since that measurement was taken.


The glacier's speed of retreat at the terminus reached a maximum of nearly 30 metres (98 ft) per day in 2001, when it was discharging icebergs at approximately 7 cubic kilometres (1.7 cu mi) per year; the glacier has subsequently slowed down, resulting in an increase in retreat rate. The terminus has retreated a total of 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) at an average rate of approximately 0.6 kilometres (0.37 mi) per year since 1982. The retreat has been accompanied by nearly 500 metres (1,600 ft) of thinning at the present position of the terminus. In the next few decades it is expected to retreat another 15 kilometres (9.3 mi), to a point where the bed of the glacier rises above sea level. Columbia Glacier's retreat should be completed around 2020. Tidewater glacier advance and retreat is not directly forced by climate (adjacent tidewater glaciers may be simultaneously advancing and retreating), but rapid retreat appears to be triggered by climate-forced long-term thinning.

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