This Time-Lapse Video Makes Clear How Alaska's Glaciers Are Changing

There's nothing quite like watching nearly 50 years' worth of ice as it transforms the planet's surface in the span of seconds.

Certainly, the pace of this new time-lapse video from the University of Alaska Fairbanks is anything short of glacial.

And it's anything but comforting.

Stitched together from six-second time lapses — and using data from satellites that have had their eye on the Earth since 1972 — the video shows ice glaciers in rapid retreat.

"I like to see the fluid nature of the ice," glaciologist Mark Fahnestock, who compiled the clips notes in the video. "It lets you see the ice on the land as this sort of very active participant in what's going on."

And, by every indication, that participant is exiting stage right. The time lapse focuses on every glacier in Alaska and Yukon — including the famed Columbia glacier that has been been melting at an ever-quickening pace since 1980. Then there's the massive Hubbard glacier. You can almost hear the monolith creak and crack as it surrenders part of its girth to the ocean.

"That calving embayment is the first sign of weakness from Hubbard Glacier in almost 50 years — it's been advancing through the historical record," Fahnestock notes in a NASA release. "The satellite images also show that these types of calving embayments were present in the decade before Columbia retreated."

In a way, the time lapse is mesmerizing, offering an unprecedented glimpse of nature's workings. Vast amounts of materials, from ice to rocks to trees, are swished down mountainsides, transforming the landscape.

"We now have this long, detailed record that allows us to look at what's happened in Alaska," Fahnestock said. "When you play these movies, you get a sense of how dynamic these systems are and how unsteady the ice flow is."

Photographers, too, have captured the bittersweet beauty of melting glaciers.

But this video leaves little doubt nature is being hurried along at an unprecedented rate by human hands — particularly with the record levels of carbon dioxide we're pumping into the atmosphere.

According to a report presented this month at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting, the Arctic is heating up at twice the rate of the global average temperature.

And it's already having a direct impact on people who live in the region, particularly the indigenous communities along the Bering Sea. Fish stocks are down. Shorelines are disappearing and transit routes over ice are becoming increasingly perilous.

"We have seen change coming. Now, we know it is here," elders from indigenous communities in the region noted in NOAA's 2019 Arctic Report Card. "The Bering Sea is undergoing changes that have never been observed in our lifetimes."