Skilak Lake, shown here at the base of Skilak Glacier, is a relatively new lake, formed mostly in the last forty years or so. Located inside Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, it is 528 feet deep, 15 miles long and four mile wide.

Photo by: Ian Shive

Ian Shive

Glaciers: Icy, Magnificent Giants

When photographing glaciers, the sense of time is on a different scale. Glaciers are a slow moving giant, carving mountains and valleys as it travels along and slowly melting into the landscape. I wonder to myself, can any photo ever really truly capture this?

December 07, 2020

I was 15 years old when I saw my first glacier on a family trip to Glacier National Park, Montana, though I never really got close to one. My mother was convinced that around every corner and on every trail, a grizzly bear lay waiting to tear our great American vacation apart. This meant we didn’t ever venture terribly far from the car, and otherwise my only experience with a glacier was seeing a couple of them from quite a long distance away. I mostly just considered them beautiful snow fields tucked into the shadows of the mountain’s couloirs.

Nature In Focus | Melting Glaciers 05:43

Head to Tustumena Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska with nature photographer Ian Shive as he attempts to photograph climate change in action and find an ancient water source few people have ever explored.

It was exactly 15 years later when I turned 30 that I saw my next glacier--except this time, the small plane I was traveling in was about to use it as a runway, sliding along the block of ice with skis where wheels would normally be. It was the Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park, Alaska, and I was here to photograph one of my first major assignments about a National Park Service search and rescue team. On this trip, there were no bears, just an endless vista of snow broken only by the occasional deep blue, mile deep crevasse you’d have to cross or go around, knowing that if you fell through it would be the last thing you do. The entire two weeks I was on the mountain, we lived on this glacier, more or less.

More than a decade later, I arrived in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Alaska working with the US Fish & Wildlife Service to document this incredible refuge, including its glaciers. I no longer lived in fear of stalking grizzly bears or falling a mile down into an icy pit, but rather my energy and excitement were channeled into exploring the edge of one of these ancient icy giants, and truly understanding their magnificence.

As a photographer having documented many mountainous regions from Montana to Alaska, it’s obvious to me that glaciers are the icy heart of the ecosystems they are part of. Each drop of water finding a path through the wilderness like an artery, giving life to forests, rivers, and people. I focus on this, trying to show the water flowing out, telling a story of water, a changing climate, and an ancient block of ice. I also find myself thinking about what the world will look like without glaciers.

As a glacier retreats, the ground around it is barren for a short period of time until seeds start to sprout. This ground is often very dark colored, basically a newborn part of Earth that hasn’t been seen for tens of thousands of years until this moment. The blue of the glaciers, which comes from densely packed ice crystals, when set against the dark ground provides ample opportunities to create dramatic imagery--the juxtaposition of bright colors and a monochromatic landscape.

One of the reasons I love photographing nature is that each fleeting moment is a new challenge to photograph, whether it is a ray of sun passing through an opening in a cave, cumulonimbus clouds building towers in the sky, a wild animal cautiously entering the scene from the edge of a meadow, or perhaps a comet traveling across the sky. Each of these are the extraordinary moments I wait for, and often only to have a few seconds to get the shot. But here, the sense of time is on a different scale with a slow moving giant carving mountains and valleys as it travels along, slowly melting into the landscape. I wonder to myself, can any photo ever really truly capture this?

Ian Shive

Ian Shive is a photographer, author, film and television producer, and conservationist who has been praised as the “leading chronicler of America’s national parks.”

Next Up

A Penguin's Waddle Is More Efficient Than Your Walk (Who's Laughing Now?)

Penguins swim with speed and grace, but on land, they're an adorable mess, heaving their portly bodies to and fro to shuffle one stubby little leg in front of the other. Well, don't be so quick to judge; that cartoonish walk is actually among the most efficient in the animal kingdom. It's even more efficient than yours.

Visit Santa’s Hometown in Finnish Lapland

In the northernmost region of Finland, Lapland is the place to be to see a real winter wonderland... and Santa Claus!

A Gift Guide for Animal Lovers

If you're looking to get inspired by gift ideas, Best Friends Animal Society has some fun gifts for both people and animals this holiday season. The best part is, 100% of the proceeds from sales help to save the lives of homeless pets.

The Best Spots in the US of A for Snow Adventures

Strap on your skies, buckle up your snowshoes and dust off your sleds. Here are the best and most beautiful spots in the US to head for powder.

Top Tips for Seeking Out Nature’s Best Winter Wildlife

It might be cold outside, but that doesn’t stop some of nature’s most beautiful wildlife from venturing out. In fact, there are a number of animals who are far more active during the winter months. Here's your guide on how and where to spot them. And don’t forget your binoculars.

Time is Running Out for Maple Trees

More than one in five species of maple trees faces extinction a shocking new report has revealed, while also warning that 75% of the threatened species are “geographically restricted” in their native regions.

The 2020 Fat Bear Week Champion has been Crowned

This year's fattest bear champion is raising the bar for the jiggliest bear bod in the game. Mother Nature's out done herself with this annual hyperphagic marvel. See photos of the 2020 winner and some favorite memories from Fat Bear Week.

Everything You Need to Know About the Fall Bird Migration

It’s fall, which means one thing: the autumnal bird migration.

Wolves Work Hard to Help Our Ecosystem

Wolf Awareness Week is October 18–24. This week is dedicated to understanding wolves and their impact on the ecosystem. Let's celebrate this beautiful creature and dedicate some time to learning more about them.

Gobble Up These Thanksgiving Pet Safety Tips

With over 845,000 dogs and cats newly adopted and fostered this year amid COVID, Best Friends Animal Society offers some helpful tips on celebrating the holiday with your pet (safely).