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Glacier and Ice Caves

Is it an ice cave or glacier cave? What’s the difference? Let’s take a look and see why it’s possible to have an adventure at either one year-round.

Ice Caves

An ice cave can be any type of cave that has ice in it year-round. They are most often limestone caves or lava tubes. The reason they have ice in them year-round is because they are always cold. This is because cold air settles down while warm air rises.

In the winter, freezing cold air enters the cave and is trapped, keeping the cave cold  ̶  even during the summer. I’ve been in a small lava tube in Lava Beds National Monument that had a large amount of ice in it while it was 80˚F outside.

To have ice, you also need water. Limestone caves are usually formed by water from underground rivers and water seeping in from the surface. So it’s easy to see how this water would freeze once it enters the cave. Lava tubes can get water in them by rain water entering through the entrance or through cracks and fissures in the ceiling.

Ice can also form temporarily in sea caves. In some areas during the winter, it can get so cold that sea water (or lake water in the case of the Lake Superior Ice Caves) can freeze inside the caves, forming icicles and other formations.

The largest ice containing cave in the world is Eisriesenwelt in the Austrian Alps. It’s name is German for “world of the ice giants.” It’s over 42 kilometers long and as it’s name implies, it contains very large ice formations.

Glacier Caves

Glacier caves are caves that are made entirely of ice. They form inside of glaciers by the ice melting and running under or through the glacier, melting more ice and allowing air to flow through, which can enlarge it even more. Because the glacier is moving and the ice is melting, these caves are very unstable.

Paradise Glacier on Mt Rainier in Washington once contained the longest glacier caves in the world. Today, they are gone. Because of their unstable nature, most glacier caves are best left to avid mountain-climbers. However, while not true glacier caves, Big Four Ice Caves in Washington allow the average adventurer to see caves that are entirely made of ice.

Big Four Ice Caves
Big Four Ice Caves

Whether you want to cool off in the summertime or brave a frozen landscape in the winter, ice or glacier caves offer a chilling adventure any time of the year.