See a Glacier (Before It Melts)
To say that Mark Meier is fond of glaciers would be a bit like saying chef Paul Prudhomme likes to eat.
One of the world's leading glaciologists, the 81-year-old emeritus professor spent the bulk of his 50-year career studying the leviathan ice forms. He remains so enamored of them that he spends much of his time immortalizing his favorites on canvas.
The planet's glacial landscape is "so uniquely beautiful that I feel I almost have an obligation to try to share it," Meier says of the highly sculptured formations he paints in subtle blue tones.
But Meier's paintings may be about all that remains in a few decades. Research he and his colleagues conducted, which was presented in December at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting, shows thousands of glaciers are destined to go the way of the dinosaurs over the next 50 years. Montana's celebrated park, for example, "will have to be renamed Unglacier National Park," Meier says of the place pioneers once dubbed the "little Switzerland of America." The park has lost 115 of 150 glaciers in the past century.
All of which means those who want to see such natural wonders should plan to visit sooner, not later. To help do that, U.S. News asked Meier and other experts to list the most fetching. Then we matched them with outfitters offering trips to places like Washington State's Mount Olympus and Kenya's legendary Mount Kilimanjaro, which could be glacier free within a decade. You can see the list at www.usnews.com/glaciers.
Melting away. The landscape is changing just as quickly in the real Switzerland, where formations like the Rhone Glacier have long been receding. Locals have kept close track of the glacier over the centuries, piling up stone monuments that mark its withdrawal.
An equally stark contrast lies along extreme South America's Beagle Channel, so named for the ship that carried naturalist Charles Darwin on his famous voyage.
"It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow," Darwin wrote in January 1833.
The glaciers there today "are more historic than dramatic," says University of Michigan geologist Henry Pollack, who has accom-panied tours there and in Antarctica since 1991.
More impressive, he says, are the tabular icebergs that broke off from Antarctica's Larsen Ice Shelf in 2002. With sheer walls that rise as high as 40 stories, the bergs' shape lets tour boats "get right up close and see these layers that reveal three quarters of a million years of climate history," Pollack says. "It all makes you feel puny."
That is, until you consider the elective effect civilization now has on such natural wonders.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.