In the summer of 1987, a woman visiting Alaska was crushed by a 1,000-pound chunk of ice. According to news reports at the time, Thais Grabenauer, 59, had been taking pictures with her husband at the foot of Exit Glacier, a towering wall of ice that’s one of the most popular attractions in Kenai Fjords National Park. A half-ton piece of the glacier calved off as the couple was snapping, killing Grabenauer and injuring her husband.
It was one of those wrong place, wrong time tragedies that seem unlikely to happen again. But in the three decades since Grabenauer’s death, it has happened again—in Alaska and around the rest of the world. In 2009, for instance, two brothers crossed a safety barrier on New Zealand’s Fox Glacier and were buried under a collapsing ice shelf. On a single day last July, two people were killed at separate glaciers in south-central Alaska: A 32-year-old woman was crushed by a collapsing ice ceiling on Byron Glacier, and a 5-year-old boy was hit by a rock falling from Worthington Glacier.
Deaths like these remain rare, but they’re also telling cases of a broader trend. In recent years, people have been increasingly flocking to the world’s glaciers. This boom in “glacier tourism” seems to be dually spurred, at least in part, by climate change: For one, people seem eager to glimpse the majestic monuments of ice before they melt away. And as ice sheets disappear, many glaciers are becoming more accessible—and unstable. The result is that places such as Exit Glacier are not only witnessing more tourists than ever crossing rocky, dangerous terrain; they’re also becoming better poised for those wrong place, wrong time misfortunes.