Blue glaciers

Anyone who sees a glacier for the first time usually exclaims,”look how BLUE it is!” When it calves at its face when it reaches the water beyond it it’s dark dark blue color like the evening’s summer sky. The entire glacier is shades of blue, ranging from the dark blue behind a newly calved iceberg, to the sky blue central zone where the glacier forms a river of ice flowing and carving it’s way along the path of least resistance, the fault lines, down from its birthplace beneath the mile thick ice field tens of miles to the sea, forming mountains, valleys and fjords along the way.

Blue because of all the oxygen in it! How did it get there? I’ll try to tell you. One hundred years ago that blue glacier ice stated up on top of the ice cap where it snows all year round 100 feet or more every year! Year after year and decade after decade, that 100 feet of snowflakes gets compressed into just one foot of glacier ice. The pressure under that mile thick ice sheet is tremendous. As the snowflakes get squeezed, the nitrogen in the air sneaks away, but the oxygen trapped in a hydrogen bond in the tiny delicate fingers of each crystal of ice under tremendous pressure becomes a part of the ice crystal, very similar impurities in a gemstone process. Blue glacier ice has gemstone properties!

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While driving tour bus in Alaska for the past 11 summer seasons, I was finally set straight about my story about how the glaciers get blue. For 10 years I was explaining how all the air gets squeezed out of the glaciers under the tremendous pressure under 1 mile thick of ice from underneath the ice cap. As a joke I would say well thats why its blue because all the air gets squeezed out of it you would turn blue too if the air was squeezed out of you! Hahaha . The textbooks even say the same thing.

So one time I had this tour guide on my bus from National Geographic who had been studying the glaciers for his entire life and he let me give my usual tour out to the glacier. He didn’t say anything until at the very end of the tour when all the passengers went on the ship he came back to me and he said that he had heard my tour so many times explaining how the glaciers get blue that he thought he would give me a piece of advice for my own benefit because he liked me. He said the glaciers aren’t blue because they don’t have any air in them. They’re blue because they are full of oxygen. He said when a glacier calves and they go out kayaking around it you can hear it sizzling with oxygen outgassing out of the newly exposed glacier ice. They have a special word for it. They call it berg seltzer.

The air all around the glacier is so fresh it’s got so much oxygen in it. After a brisk hike you feel so refreshed. The first thing a tourist exclaims is how fresh the air is. Lichens of all different sorts and colors grow on the newly expose rocks near the glacier. Lichen only grows where there’s high concentrations of oxygen available. Liquid oxygen in the laboratory has the exact same blue color as the glacier ice.

Research is needed to find out exactly how much oxygen is bound inside the ice crystal, and what kind of bond it is that keeps the oxygen there but allows the nitrogen to escape as that hundred feet of annual snow gets compressed over the centuries and decades into just one foot of blue glacier ice.

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