The St. Elias mountain range, along the border of British Columbia, Alaska and the Yukon, is an area of superlatives — it contains the largest nonpolar icefield in the world, the highest number of surging glaciers, the most seismically active mountains on earth, the largest protected area on the planet, and the highest, youngest and fastest-growing peaks in Canada.
These mountains began as an area of volcanoes about 15 million years ago, when the floor of the Pacific Ocean started sinking beneath the continental margin near coastal Alaska. With this uplifting, faulting and folding of the earth's crust, the mountains now known as the St. Elias range were born. About 100,000 years ago, the growth surged when a chunk of crust, dislodged from farther south, crashed into the coast of western North America. This piece of crust, called the Yakutat Terrane, is about 200 kilometres wide, 600 kilometres long and 13 kilometres thick. Pushed by unimaginable forces like a wedge under the St. Elias Mountains, it is the main cause for the rapid rise of the range.
The fastest-rising land in this area is growing at about 4 centimetres per year, about as fast as your fingernails grow. But the growth is not steady. The mountains rise, shudder by shudder, resulting in one of the most earthquake-prone areas on earth. On average, three earthquakes a day rock the earth here. In 1899 one earthquake raised the ground over 10 metres in less than two minutes — it's just as well your fingernails don't grow like this!
Recent changes in climate have sped the melt of the glaciers of the St. Elias Mountains. The reduced pressure on the earth's crust may contribute to the rapid rise of these dynamic mountains.