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Death of a Glacier

Patricia Sullivan

One of the true pleasures of working at the Washington Post is that the archives are easily available with just a few keystrokes. (It's harder outside our firewall; you have to know exactly what you're looking for, and then you have to -- egads! -- pay for it.)

While researching an obit today, I came across this lovely, lovely piece by the incomparable Henry Allen about the appearance of a glacier (actually, a growler, which he explains) on the National Mall. Be sure to follow the jump....

June 25, 1984, Monday, Final Edition
The Iceberg Cometh;
Flying in a Bit of Alaska For a Meltdown on the Mall
BYLINE: By Henry Allen
SECTION: Style; B1
LENGTH: 773 words

At last, Washington gets its very own glacier.

(Please, no jokes about the speed of Congress.)

It's the best bet for sentimental favorite at this year's Folklife Festival, which will feature exhibits from Alaska and Philadelphia.

(The glacier is from Alaska, wise guys. We don't need any more Philadelphia jokes, either. Then again, nobody ever said: "I went to Alaska last Wednesday but it was closed.")

"Actually, it's a miniature iceberg," said David Haugen, deputy commissioner of Alaska's Department of Transportation, who described how divers and a Bell-205 helicopter corralled it Thursday in Portage Lake, about 50 miles southeast of Anchorage.

"It's in eight pieces about 3 by 3, so, let's see, 27 cubic feet times 62.4 pounds times eight . . . "

That's right: almost seven tons of glacier in insulated boxes will be landing at Dulles Airport today at 3:55 p.m. (Northwest Orient Flight 78, for those interested in joining whatever schoolchildren may be going out in buses to greet it.)

On Wednesday, the glacier will join exhibitions on the Mall of everything from lumberjacking to breakdancing.

We've never had a glacier here before.

Glaciers have gone to New York and Chicago, but that was 12,000 years ago, before we had the Eastern Shuttle. Besides, La Guardia was buried under a mile of ice, according to Bloomingdale's in Manhattan, which spotted the glacier trend early this year and started selling 35-ounce bags of glacial ice from Greenland at $7 a pop.

"If there's enough demand from Washington we'll send some down," said a Bloomies spokesman, who claimed that not only is the ice "purer than water distilled in a laboratory" but that the air trapped inside it is purer than any air on earth.

But so much for shrill clamor of commerce.

Our very own glacier, or rather America's Glacier, will be exhibited in a tent near Jefferson Drive, sitting on a steel platform, cold and opaque, though some may claim to see glints of eerie blue.

It will melt, sad and brutal as that seems. But it's nature's way, according to Smithsonian geologist Brian Mason, who pointed out that our glacier won't give up without a fight. "H2O is a very remarkable compound. It takes more heat to melt ice than lead."

Technically, our glacier is neither a glacier nor an iceberg, said hydrologist Carolyn Driedger, who studies Alaskan glaciers for the U.S. Geological Survey.

It's a glacier that has "calved" into a lake, but "six tons would be too small to be an iceberg. It's either a bergy bit or a growler," she said.

She explained that the nomenclature had been devised by the English. A bergy bit is "the size of an English cottage," and a growler is a smaller piece of ice "almost awash."

Try and explain that it's just "a growler" to the kids who've been begging for days to see "the glacier."

Glaciers can move up to two feet an hour, Driedger said. At this rate, which is known as "catastrophic," our glacier would be pushing up the steps of the Arts and Industries Building in no time, leaving a shiny trail, like a snail. Or perhaps its iceberg instincts would prompt it toward the Tidal Basin, there to rupture pontoons on the paddle boats.

This could be the year of the glacier. Already we've had the movie "Iceman," about a prehistoric man trapped in glacial ice. And the Saudis have been mulling a plan to tow icebergs to the Persian Gulf to supply fresh water.

Are we in for a craze? We may see our children wearing one sequined mitten. Unscrupulous festival visitors may try to create their own glaciers at home by filching shavings from America's Glacier and dropping them into an ice tray, in the manner of starters for sourdough bread.

Pet glaciers could become the rage, with proud owners handing snapshots around the office and boasting, "All you have to do is toss a little snow on 'em every couple of days." But let them out of the house and the next thing you know, the neighbors are complaining about gravelly moraines in their azalea beds. Not to mention the hospital bills caused by badly handled "attack glaciers."

In any case, the glacier on the Mall not only will be guarded closely, but will be "covered with a thermal blanket" at night. As the agony of its melting continues, angry crowds are apt to gather, but Smithsonian officials have revealed no plans to take the glacier back to Alaska even if it survives the 10 days of Washington heat.

In fact, the Smithsonian attitude may be summed up by geologist Brian Mason, who praised the effervescent qualities of glaciers, and said: "I'll be down there at the Mall with my scotch and soda, waiting to put a block of ice in."

By Patricia Sullivan  |  December 7, 2009; 2:22 PM ET
Categories:  Patricia Sullivan  
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