The International Space Station may at first seem unrelated to Earth’s cryosphere—but it’s not. NASA astronauts flying in low-Earth orbit aboard the artificial satellite have captured images of America’s majestic national parks, including those shaped over thousands of years by the imperceptibly slow movements of glaciers.
While experiments on ISS often focus on robotics, the human immune system, and even methods for growing lettuce, the satellite’s cameras capture live video and still images as it orbits Earth at an altitude of 250 miles above the planet’s surface.
Take a look here at majestic views of the US National Park system captured by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams. His images depict glacier-rich landscapes such as Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Denali National Park, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and Washington’s Olympic National Park, among many others.
Denali is widely romanticized as pristine wilderness, yet over a thousand people attempt to reach its summit every year, generating waste that is sometimes left on the mountain— lost caches of food and supplies, coffee grounds and uneaten food, and of course, human waste— over two metric tons per year. This climbing season, Denali National Park is celebrating its 100th year by launching the “2017 Birthday Pack-Out Initiative,” in which climbers on the popular West Rib and West Buttress routes are encouraged to carry out all the waste they generate.
“The issue of waste and pollution in mountains is a chronic problem,” Carolina Adler, president of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation’s (UIAA) Mountain Protection Commission, said in a recent interview. “As mountaineers, it is in our interest – and our responsibility as mountain ‘stewards’ – to make sure that mountains not only continue to be safeguarded for all, but also for them to be able to continue to fulfill a crucial and healthy ecological function,” she said.
For the last decade, the National Park Service has required that climbers tote down all waste at Denali from above the high camp at 17,200 feet, but waste generated below 14,000 feet can be “crevassed”— that is, literally thrown into a crevasse. That’s the fate of 90 percent of human waste generated in the park, and research has proven that this waste is making its way out of crevasses via the hydraulic system of the glacier, into the rivers that flow out of the Kahiltna Glacier. Out of sight may be out of mind for now, but it’s certainly not out of the ecosystem— as the glacier flows down the mountain, researchers expect that buried human waste will surface after about 70 years.
Roger Robinson, a park ranger in Denali National Park and Preserve, is the head of the Clean Climbing Initiative, and has been working on the issue of human waste on Denali for over forty years. “Garbage isn’t something to be abandoned in the mountains, or anywhere. For the next thousand years, we’ll be contributing to E. coli in the outwash that comes out of the Kahiltna Glacier. The only thing to do is to start now and try to mitigate,” he said.
The key to pollution mitigation is education, Robinson says. “Denali is an international mountain with people from all over the world wanting to get up the thing,” he told GlacierHub in an interview. “Every year, climbers from thirty to forty nationalities attempt the mountain, and everyone has a different philosophy on what’s garbage and what’s sustainable. We have to drive home the fact that the mountain belongs to everybody in the U.S. and the world, and we want to leave it clean. We have to drive home that ideology.”
Toward the goal of maintaining “healthy ecological function” in Denali, the park service will ultimately require climbers to carry 100 percent of the waste they make off the mountain, a standard more stringent than most peaks in the National Park system, and most major peaks in the world, according to Robinson. In the first year of the Pack-Out Initiative, climbers are tempted to participate with a special “Sustainable Summits Denali” commemorative flag, a “Denali Pro pin,” and a “Clean Mountain Can,” a portable toilet developed by the American Alpine Club, to pack out their waste.
But Alaskan mountaineer Jason Stuckey, who is training to climb Denali after having summited several other peaks in the Alaska Range, isn’t convinced. “It’s a lot of poop to be carrying around. The clean canteens aren’t that big, and carrying around more than one would definitely be a chore,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub from Toolik Field Station, north of the Brooks Range. “Speaking from experience, making over a dozen trips and using those for weeks at a time, I would imagine those are going to fill up.”
Filling up cans is preferable to filling up crevasses; however, in December 2016, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report entitled “Waste Management Outlook for Mountain Regions – Sources and Solutions,” which focuses on mitigating problems created by urban sprawl, mining, and tourism, including mountaineering. The report points to human waste as “the most cited waste problem associated with mountaineering,” as alpine climates slow decomposition, and pathogens can sicken mountaineers and those downstream, who use meltwater streams.The broadly-circulated executive summary of the report calls improper waste disposal in mountain regions, “an issue of global concern.”
Adler believes that the Clean Climbing Initiative takes a strong step toward tackling what she called “one of the most urgent issues for mountain protection that is entirely within our control to manage.” She added, “What is particularly great about this initiative is the concerted effort, concern, support and commitment that the park administration has shown over the years to continue with this initiative and persist in its implementation.”
Mountaineers bear huge responsibility to the environment, according to Adler. “It is entirely in our interest as a community to be proactive in upholding that responsibility as well. However, this has to be seen and enacted as a collaboration between and within other communities as well,” she said.
Collaboration between international communities is flourishing, and brings hope for the future of the world’s major summits. With the American Alpine Club, Robinson helps organize the Sustainable Summits conference, and he says the clean climbing best practices developed on Denali are likely to spread globally. “Denali is one of the mountains in the world other people look at as a role model for what they want to achieve. A lot of people watch closely here and take aspects home to their own mountain areas,” he said.
With the world’s eyes on Denali, and the initiative’s success so far— at least a third of climbers have volunteered to participate this season— cleaner mountains and downstream communities may be in the future.
It’s summer in Alaska, and for some intrepid adventurers, that means it’s mountaineering season on Denali, the iconic peak whose name means “The High One” in the Koyukon Athabascan language. According to the Denali National Park Service mountaineering blog, Denali Dispatches, there are currently 520 climbers attempting the highest peak in North America. 142 climbers have already reached the summit this season, a 34 percent success rate.
This week held some excitement for the Park Service, which on June 5th responded to two simultaneous medical incidents on the Kahiltna Glacier. One climber, suffering from “acute abdominal illness,” was assessed and helped by park personnel to Kahiltna Glacier Base Camp. More dramatically, another climber was un-roped when he fell forty feet into a crevasse on the West Buttress route, and became wedged in the ice. Rangers arrived at the accident site at 4 a.m., and after nearly twelve hours of chipping away ice with power tools, they were finally able to extract the injured and hypothermic climber, who was hastily evacuated to the hospital in Fairbanks.
The Alaska Range is a narrow, 700-kilometer mountain range defined by rugged peaks and large U-shaped glacial valleys. The range lies in the southeast corridor of Alaska and is home to Denali, the tallest peak in North America. The Alaska range is part of the American Cordillera and possesses peaks only trumped by those in the Himalayas and Andes.
For many decades, the Alaska Range has played host to an incredible variety of landscapes and ecology, with visitors traveling from all over the world to hike, climb and sight see in Denali National Park. One-sixth of Denali National Park, or approximately one million acres, is covered by glaciers, which transport thousands of tons of ice each year, according to the National Park Service. Take a look at GlacierHub’s collection of images of Alaska’s impressive peaks and low valleys shaped by glacial activity over the past million years.
From Molecular Ecology: “The rate of global glacial retreat has increased due to climate change and is projected to lead to the disappearance of alpine glaciers by 2050 if warming continues at its current rate (Fitzharris 1995). One consequence of glacial retreat is exposure of subglacial till [sediment carried and deposited by a glacier], which subsequently develops into mineral soil that supports grassland ecosystems (Anderson 1988). This process can be observed in the glacier foreland, with increasing distance from the glacier terminus used as a proxy for time since retreat: a chronosequence (Hämmerli et al. 2007)… If the sites follow the same ecological trajectory, chronosequences can provide useful insights into successional processes (Walker et al. 2010).”
Learn more about the consequences of glacier retreat here:
Drift Patterns in High Mountain Streams:
From Acta Biologica:”This study highlighted the strong seasonality of the diurnal [occurs every 24 hours] drift pattern of the different taxa. This could be explained by the seasonality that characterizes high mountain stream ecosystems in their main physico-chemical features (e.g. discharge, water temperature, suspended solid transport, etc.) (Brittain et alii, 2000)… A second reason could be the low abundance of individuals found, especially in June and August at stations g and ac and in all periods at station ng, that hindered the analysis of the daily activity pattern of most taxa.”
Interested in learning more about these studies? Find them here:
Macroinvertebrate Communities in Catchments:
From Hydrobiologia: “Groundwater-fed streams are typically hotspots of aquatic biodiversity within glacierized catchments [natural drainage areas from runoff]. Surface water physicochemistry and macroinvertebrate communities within five groundwater-fed streams were characterized across catchments in Denali National Park, interior Alaska. The main aim of this study was to assess whether hydrological controls on macroinvertebrate communities (e.g. flow permanence) identified within previous catchment-specific studies are present at wider spatial scales, across multiple groundwater-fed streams located on alluvial terraces [a river terrace made of deposits of clay, silt, sand and gravel] within glacierized catchments… The high diversity and structural heterogeneity of macroinvertebrate communities observed across alluvial terrace streams indicated the importance of these systems as biodiversity hotspots in regions under threat from climate change.”