New Weather Stations Aid Denali Researchers and Climbers

New weather stations provide live updates of conditions on Alaska’s Denali, the tallest peak in North America. The weather stations sit atop the mountain on the Kahiltna Glacier and provide important weather information for climbers and scientists alike. They allow scientists to track snowpack and provide the climbing community with a better sense of weather conditions on the 20,310 foot mountain.

Michael Loso, a National Park Service geologist, started the project in order to better understand weather patterns at higher altitudes. GlacierHub spoke with Loso to get a better understanding of the project and its impacts.

GlacierHub: How do these new weather stations on Denali help climbers and help researchers assess glacial retreat?

Mike Loso: We’ve established three new weather stations in the accumulation zone of Denali’s Kahiltna Glacier. These stations, at approximately 7,000, 10,000, and 14,000 feet, continuously measure air temperature and snow accumulation and melt on a year-round basis. In addition, the highest and lowest stations measure wind speed and direction, incoming and outgoing solar radiation, and send those measures via satellite telemetry back to publicly available servers on a continuous basis. They provide critical information for mountaineers, for weather forecasters, and for National Park Service climbing/rescue rangers. The fact that two of these stations are providing regular, real-time, hourly, year-round weather information means that climbers can plan their trips wisely.

Glaciologists like me use the data from these stations to understand the year-round patterns of snow accumulation and melt, and to compare those measurements with existing measurements we have been making for decades at lower elevation sites on the Kahiltna. Together, all these measurements allow us to measure not only the net shrinkage of Kahiltna Glacier, which is ongoing, but more importantly to understand how that shrinkage is controlled by the detailed changes in our climate.

GH: How are these measurements different than how researchers typically observe a glacier’s status?

ML: Most glacier mass-balance studies have traditionally focused on glaciers that are fairly small, or in the cases of larger, higher-elevation glaciers they favor measurements in the lower elevations. There are very few studies of snow accumulation and melt at high elevations of large glaciers because it is too difficult to install and maintain on-glacier weather stations in such inhospitable environments. But those high elevation sites are usually the very places where most snow accumulation occurs, even in the summertime during what would be considered the “melt season” at lower elevations. So glaciologists still have uncertainty about year-round patterns of snow accumulation, and the only way to measure that is to measure it continuously. But that’s difficult. If you place the weather station on a rocky outcrop near the glacier, then you are definitely not getting a “true” signal of snow accumulation because rocky outcrops are by definition wind-scoured and atypical of the glacier’s accumulation zone. If you place a normal weather station on the glacier itself, it will promptly get buried by ongoing snow accumulation. So our strategy is to place the stations on very tall masts that are anchored in the glacier surface and then to periodically dig the stations out and “reset” them when the snow threatens to bury the existing station. We couldn’t accomplish this without a lot of logistical support, and that is possible on Denali only because of the substantial operation run by the National Park Service mountaineering rangers. They establish and maintain rescue camps at 7,000 and 14,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier, and their presence (along with the aviation assets required to support that operation) allow us, in partnership with them, to maintain these stations.

GH: What makes the Denali glacier unique in terms of climate change?

ML: Denali is the tallest mountain in North America, and it is located in a fairly high latitude, by US standards. So the top is a really cold place, even by the standards of most glaciers. That cold (and windy) climate results in patterns of snow accumulation and snow and ice melt that are not typical of most glaciers in the US. typically glaciers accumulate more snow as you go higher with maximum accumulation near the summit. But anecdotal observations suggest that this pattern does not apply at Denali. Instead, it appears that snow accumulation is actually highest at the mid-elevations of the Kahiltna Glacier and that snowfall diminishes as you go higher. That’s unusual, and is probably due in part to the inability of very cold air to hold much moisture. Interestingly, some of our colleagues recently published findings that snow accumulation rates on nearby Mount Hunter appear to have actually increased over recent centuries. We hypothesize that some of that increase may be due to the enhanced ability of warmer air to hold and then release moisture—a process that might lead to more snowfall on the Kahiltna Glacier as climatic warming continues. Our data will allow us to test this intriguing hypothesis.

GH: Are there any other parks that are using these types of weather stations

ML: Some of the technology (sensors, power supply, data-loggers) are in common use, but this particular application in a high-glacier, snow-accumulation environment is not presently being done anywhere else that we’re aware of. That said, similar designs have been applied sporadically in the past, and we have benefitted from lessons learned during those experiences.

Scientists Pam Sousanes, Dom Winski, and Michael Loso program a Denali weather station. (Source: National Park Service/Tucker Chenoweth)

GH: What inspired the project?

ML: In addition to the desire to understand glacier environments better, to better predict mountain weather, and to provide real-time information for climbers and rescue rangers, I was especially motivated to tackle this project by my own history on Denali. Fresh out of college I worked for a couple seasons as both a guide and a mountaineering ranger on Denali, and then over the subsequent 20 plus years I’ve stayed involved there as a volunteer rescue patrol member, as a scientist, and as a recreational skier and climber. Through those experiences, I’ve come to know the mountain well, but also many of the long-term professionals working on the mountain (guides, rangers, pilots). So I’ve come to really love the place and to have a fairly broad knowledge of the scientific and societal challenges posed there by climate change. In light of all that, this project really excited me and continues to be a pleasure to work on.

GH: What does the future look like for this technology?

ML: The technology itself is not anything unusual. We are just deploying that technology in a somewhat unusual way and place. I would call our work experimental, in the sense that we expect to see challenges and damages related to the extreme climate. But as we learn from those failures, I would expect that we will capitalize on opportunities to apply this technique in other places.

Read More on GlacierHub:

UNESCO-Recognized Glaciers Could Shrink 60 Percent by End of Century

Scientists Catch Tibetan Snowcocks on Camera in their High-Elevation Habitats

GlacierHub Seeks Contributors for Its New, International Feature Series

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Video of the Week: Fodar Map of Alaska’s Denali

This week, journey to Denali in Alaska, the glacier-covered peak that is the highest mountain in North America. Matt Nolan created a new high-resolution map using the software Fodar.

“This story has roots that go back nearly a decade. I’ve never had any desire to climb Denali, but I imagine my desire to map it is similar to what those climbers feel— it’s just there, daring me to test my skills against its challenges. While I’ve been an earth scientist for 25 years, my real passion has been engineering and using contraptions to allow me to make earth science measurements that no one else has made,” Nolan accounted in a blog post on the rationale for this project.

The project was made possible by Fairbanks Fodar, a service that makes maps anywhere in the world, particularly as they relate to assisting underfunded scientists and land managers on issues related to climate change or developmental pressures.

 

Discover more glacier news at GlacierHub:

Fox’s Glacier Mints Celebrates its 100th Anniversary

A Women’s Place is at the Top: Interview with Hannah Kimberley

Climate Change in the High Arctic: Lake Hazen’s Response

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Photo Friday: Black History Month & Expedition Denali

In honor of Black History Month, this Photo Friday showcases the first all-African American team of climbers to ascend the highest point in North America, the daunting and mesmerizing Denali in Alaska. Sponsored by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Expedition Denali aimed to inspire minority communities to look outdoors for life-enriching experiences. Another goal was to bridge the “adventure gap,” that is how “minority populations are much less likely to seek recreation, adventure, and solace in our wilderness spaces,” according to the Joy Trip Project.

The expedition took place in the summer 2013, 100 years after the first ascent of the mountain. By marking this anniversary, the team set out to forge a new historical moment in mountaineering and “build a legacy by paving a way for young people of color to get outside, get active, get healthy, become passionate about America’s wild places, and chase their own Denali-sized dreams,” according to the official website. Ultimately, with demographics in the United States rapidly changing, this legendary team hopes to become role models for our nation’s future generation, comprised mostly of people of color, to be the stewards of the world’s extraordinary and increasingly vulnerable landscapes. 

Members of Expedition Denali gathered for a team photo at 17,000 ft (Source: expeditiondenali/Instagram).

 

A captured moment of Madhu Chikkaraju and Stephen DeBerry ascending the Headwall’s fixed lines (Source: hudson.henry/Instagram).

 

Another image from the trek to the summit (Source: hudson.henry/Instagram).

 

An American Ascent is the award-winning documentary film that captured this historical climb (Source: hudson.henry/Instagram).

 

In 2014, directors George Potter and Andrew Adkins produced an award-winning documentary film on this groundbreaking journey titled An American Ascent. Check out the trailer for it below:

 

 

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Glaciers at Risk Over Government Shutdown

The road to Mt. Rainier (Source: @visitmtrainier/Twitter).

On Tuesday, national parks and glaciers received a brief reprieve from a government shutdown that threatened to indefinitely close their access. Forestalling a larger fiscal crisis, President Donald Trump signed a stopgap spending bill to reinstate funds until Feb. 8 and reopen the government. The bill allows furloughed employees to return to work for at least the next few weeks, but questions remain over the future of federal lands, with the public relying heavily on federal employees to keep the parks open and accessible.

Visitors who attempted to enter some of the 417 National Park Service sites over the weekend, including parks with glaciers, faced roadblocks and closed signs as lawmakers argued over the country’s fate. The three-day shutdown could be a preview for future, more extended closures absent a solution to the partisan gridlock, placing glaciers at increased risk.

The government shutdown comes at a critical time for national parks, as many from North Cascades to Glacier Bay face challenges from the impacts of climate change and glacier retreat.

“Grand Teton National Park includes more than 25 percent of Wyoming’s glaciers. Its iconic mountains and glacial lakes have come to symbolize the Rockies for many, not only in Wyoming but around the world,” said Sarah Strauss, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming, to GlacierHub. “The closing of this national park because of the government shutdown would be a great loss, adding insult to the existing injury of climate change impacts on snowpack in the Rocky Mountain region.”

What would an extended government shutdown look like? The NPS contingency plan for a loss of funding calls for the expeditious suspension of all park activities. Within two days of a loss of appropriations, the NPS will move to fully secure national park facilities except for those reserved for emergency operations or protection of property, blocking access to quintessential American landmarks and glaciers. Operations and staffing numbers will be reduced to minimum levels with official offices and support centers shuttered and visitor services, including check-in, restrooms, road maintenance, permits, campgrounds, and public information, discontinued. More information on the NPS contingency plan in the event of a loss of appropriations can be found here.

During the recent three-day government shutdown that began on Friday, the Trump administration kept the parks “largely open” in an effort to avert the “public-facing impact” of the crisis, according to the Washington Post. This left visitors to parks like Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier largely without the support of park rangers, while a third of the NPS sites closed completely by Saturday, according to reports from the National Parks Conservation Association.

Closed and empty national park sites were a point of public frustration during the government shutdown of 2013 that lasted for 16 days and closed 401 national sites. Before that crisis ended, the Interior Department allowed some national parks to reopen with state funding, but even this precedent spells an uncertain fate for public lands already facing budget cuts.

Some national parks are more familiar with operating at minimum levels based on seasonal weather, but these parks are still impacted by the off-season. “I think park staff is often the most heavily affected during winter shutdowns of Alaska parks,” said Jeremy Pataky, an Alaska resident who splits his time between Anchorage and McCarthy, Alaska, and has spent time in the parks.

While parks like Denali may not close officially in winter, concession services, ranger activities and buses shut down, meaning a reduction in staff and visitors. During the recent government shutdown, Denali and Glacier Bay national parks remained open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but suspended visitor services and centers. Meanwhile, an alert on the Mount Rainer National Park website indicated “entry during the federal shutdown is at visitors’ sole risk.” A reduction of park staff and services can lead to increased safety risks, evidenced most recently by a snowmobiler who came too close to the Old Faithful geyser during the three-day shutdown.

For some, the government shutdown is just the latest attack by the Trump administration on federal lands. In January 2017, Trump signed a memorandum freezing the hiring of new federal workers, including for the National Park Service, despite visitor increases at the parks. In January 2018, more than three-quarters of the advisory board of the National Park Service quit due to frustrations with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who had not called a single meeting during the year. A recent poll found some Americans believe the Democrats are equally to blame for the shutdown.

The National Parks Conservation Association, an independent, nonpartisan organization, tweeted its thoughts on the latest crisis, stating, “President Trump’s first year in office ended with a government shutdown, putting parks at risk. That’s fitting, because we’ve never seen a tougher year for public lands.”

Beyond February, the future of America’s national parks remains uncertain, with the safety of America’s glaciers hanging in the balance.

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Comment Period Still Open on Proposed Fee Hikes at National Parks

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Mt. Denali in Denali National Park peaking through the clouds (Source: Mark Stevens/Creative Commons).

Glaciers are an integral part of many national parks in the United States. They have helped shape some of the country’s most iconic landscapes like Yellowstone and enrich spectacular scenery in other parks like Mount Rainier, Denali and Glacier. However, on October 24, the National Park Service (NPS) announced a proposed increase in peak-season entry fees at 17 national parks, including at several parks with glaciers. In some cases the proposal could more than double the single vehicle entry fee from $30 to $70, creating obstacles for low and middle income visitors wanting to enjoy America’s natural splendor.

The NPS opened the proposed entrance fee hike to a public comment period that runs until December 22. Citizens are encouraged to provide feedback on the proposal to help determine if and where the entry fee increase will be put in place. The revenue generated from the entry fee increase would be used to improve infrastructure like roads and bathrooms in National Parks, the NPS said. It is estimated to add an additional $70 million in annual revenue, a 34 percent increase in comparison to the $200 million revenue total for 2016.

The 17 national parks where the proposed increase would be implemented are the busiest in the system, according to the NPS. Many of these parks, including Denali, Glacier, Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, Olympic, and Yosemite, contain glaciers or have been molded by past glaciations. The complete list of parks impacted by the fee hike can be found here.

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Mt. Rainer in Mount Rainer National Park (Source: Eric Prado/Creative Commons).

When one thinks of the birth of federal parks in the United States, they may conjure images of the geysers of Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park. Nonetheless, glaciers are rightly considered the old and faithful natural feature that led to the formation of our parks. A new paper published in Earth Sciences History by Denny M. Capps, the park geologist of Denali National Park, for example, details the role of glaciers and glacier research in the development of U.S. National Parks.

Capps documents that the history of glaciers and national parks starts with the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864, eight years before the establishment of Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park. The act, signed by Abraham Lincoln, set aside land for use by the public for recreation for the first time in the United States. Four years later, naturalist John Muir traveled to Yosemite for the first time and was deeply enthralled with the landscape. During his time at Yosemite, Muir conducted some of the first research on glaciers and fought to preserve the park by founding the Sierra Club. Next, in 1872, came the signing of the Yellowstone Act by Ulysses S. Grant establishing Yellowstone National Park. The act states that the area was “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” And although there is a history of entrance fees, these fees were historically kept low and affordable.

Photo of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park (Source: Wayne Hsieh/Creative Commons).

The next significant moment for glaciers and national parks came in 1916 with the formation of the NPS through the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 signed by Woodrow Wilson. Capps writes that the Organic Act focused on conserving scenery, natural objects, historic objects, and wildlife, four elements he argues are supported by geology and glaciers. Glaciers embody the definition of geologic heritage put forth by the NPS Geologic Resources Division, according to Capps. The definition states that noteworthy geologic features are preserved for the values they provide to society including scientific, aesthetic, cultural, ecosystem, educational, recreational, and tourism, among others. The natural beauty of Yosemite and the educational value of the recession of glaciers in Glacier are two examples Capps provides.

Glaciers continue to enhance some of the most iconic landscapes in the United States, providing natural beauty for the public to enjoy. The NPS’s proposed entry fee hike could impact American citizen’s accessibility to these parks. Since its announcement the proposal has been met with mixed reviews. Some news outlets like Slate have voiced support for the increase, citing perpetual underfunding and overcrowding, while others like the Denver Post call it a “slap to the face to low income families.”

In response to the proposal, the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) stated, “We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places – protected for all Americans to experience – unaffordable for some families to visit. The solution to our parks’ repair needs cannot and should not be largely shouldered by its visitors.” Nick Janssen, who has climbed Denali and owns a packraft rental company in the area spoke to GlacierHub about the proposed fee hike. Janssen echoed the NPCA’s view stating that although park fees are not new, an increase of this magnitude “prohibits those of lower means from enjoying what should be a basic privilege for all.”

Glacier National Park (Source: Seth King/Creative Commons).

While the entry fee proposal would raise needed funds and possibly reduce overcrowding that negatively impacts sensitive areas, there are other options available. One of these options is the National Park Service Legacy Act of 2017. The bipartisan act, introduced to Congress in March, would direct revenue from annual oil and gas royalties into a restoration fund until 2047. The NPCA has endorsed the act, with its president Theresa Pierno stating that the “bipartisan, bicameral proposal makes a strong investment that our parks desperately need and deserve.”

Is a restoration fund the solution? Or are park entry hikes the right way to fund improvements? Ultimately, it is up to the American public to voice their opinions before the comment periods ends on December 22 at 11:59pm.

If interested in commenting on the proposal you can do so here, and when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner and reflect on what you are thankful for, you might reflect on living in a democracy where one person can submit a comment and positively impact a nation.

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Roll Model: Clean Climbing for Denali’s Centennial

In 2017, climbers who pack out all their waste receive a commemorative flag (Source: NPS).

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.

One of the first guided parties to volunteer for the Clean Climbing Initiative poses with their Clean Mountain Cans (Source: Roger Robinson).

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.

Crevasses like this one on Denali will no longer be waste repositories (Source: NPS).

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.

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Roundup: Clean Climbing, Subglacial Discharges, and Nepali Youth

Denali NPS Encourages ‘Clean Climbing’

From the National Park Service: “A decade of scientific research has produced conclusive results – human waste left behind by climbers is polluting the streams and rivers that flow out of the Kahiltna Glacier. Our ultimate goal is to require 100% removal of all human waste from Denali, and we will continually strive to develop practical, working solutions to achieve this goal. We will be learning from your participation how to best to manage this next phase of ‘Clean Climbing’ on Denali.”

You can read more about how the Park Service is encouraging these practices here.

Climbers who remove all of their own waste will receive this flag from the Park Service as a reward (source: National Park Service).

 

A Forager’s Paradise for Seabirds

From Scientific Reports: “We found that tidewater glacier bays were important foraging areas for surface feeding seabirds, kittiwakes in particular. Such sites, rich in easily available food and situated in the fjord close to colonies, are used as supplementary/contingency feeding grounds by seabirds that otherwise forage outside the fjord. For kittiwakes these areas are of great significance, at least temporarily. Such an opportunity for emergency feeding close to the colony when weather conditions beyond the fjord are bad may increase the breeding success of birds and buffer the adverse consequences of climatic and oceanographic changes.”

Find out more about why these areas are so abundant here.

Researchers mapped the foraging hotspots of Kittiwake seabirds (source: Scientific Reports).

 

Nepali Youth Appeal to Trump

From The Himalayan Times: “Nepali Youth and Mountain Community Dwellers have appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump to take back his decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. An appeal letter was submitted to the U.S. embassy here on Monday by Nepali youth representing people living in the foothills of the Himalayan peaks, including the tallest Mount Everest.  The letter was handed over to deputy political and economic chief of the U.S. embassy Stephanie Reed.”

Read more about why Nepalese people are so concerned over Trump’s decision here.

President Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate Accord (source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr).

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Photo Friday: A look at the 2017 Denali Mountaineering Season

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.

 

Rangers camp above the toe of the Ruth Glacier (Source: Dan Corn/NPS).

 

Looking down the Kahiltna Glacier. A heavily crevassed area is visible in the lower left of the photo (Source: Tucker Chenoweth/NPS).

 

Park Service personnel practice crevasse rescue skills near Kahiltna Basecamp (Source: Steve Mock/NPS).

 

Bundled-up climbers watch the small planes that bring people to and from Kahiltna Basecamp (Source: Steve Mock/NPS).

 

Low winter snow pack and cold spring temperatures create weak, sagging snow bridges over crevasses, which are seen as stripes outside this camp on Denali (Source: NPS).

 

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Photo Friday: The Glacial Alaska Range

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.

 

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An aerial view of the high altitude peaks of the Alaska Range (Source: Matt Verso/Creative Commons).

 

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Road entering Denali National Park on the east edge of the Alaska Range (Source: Arthur Chapman/Creative Commons).

 

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The U.S. Army flies a helicopter toward Kahiltna Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alaska Range (Source: Defense.gov/Creative Commons).

 

Moving toward the Harper Glacier in Denali National Park (Source: Mikep/Creative Commons).
Moving toward the Harper Glacier in Denali National Park (Source: Mikep/Creative Commons).

 

An aerial view of the Upper Muldrow Glacier, Denali National Park (Source: Pete Klosterman/Creative Commons).
An aerial view of the Upper Muldrow Glacier, Denali National Park (Source: Pete Klosterman/Creative Commons).

 

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Looking south across the Monahan Flat (Source: Albert Herring/Creative Commons).

 

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Looking east across the Monahan Flat (Source: Paxon Woelber/Creative Commons).

 

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Southern edge of the Alaska Range (Source: Denali National Park/Creative Commons).

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As Temperatures Rise, Poplars Replace Alaskan Tundra

In Alaska’s Denali National Park, summer temperatures have risen 2 degrees Celsius over the past century, with the majority of change occurring since the 1970s. The glaciers that cover 1 million square miles of the park are melting rapidly, exposing bare earth where there once was ice.

An Ecosphere study, published July 19, finds that the rising temperatures impacting the glaciers are also affecting the plant communities that grow in newly exposed areas, fundamentally altering the Alaskan landscape and ecosystems.

View of Denali from Stony overlook (Credit: NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank)
View of Denali from Stony overlook (Credit: NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank)

The research team, led by Carl Roland and Sarah Stehn, investigated how the Alaskan landscape near Denali’s Muldrow Glacier changed over time by recreating a study conducted 54 years ago by Leslie Viereck. In 1966, prior to the 2 degree temperature rise, Viereck set out to determine the plant succession in the area. Succession is the process of an ecosystem evolving over time. In mountain regions, it can occur when a glacier retreats or a river forms an outwash plain, and a new community of vegetation can grow.

Viereck studied the outwash plain of the McKinley River, which flows west out of Muldrow Glacier, and examined areas ranging from 1 to roughly 5,000 years old. Based on his observations, he determined that the bare rocky plain would transition into a meadow, followed by small shrubs and eventually becoming a tundra ecosystem, with thick moss and a low canopy of shrubs.

Half a century later, Roland, Stehn and their colleagues were able to replicate Viereck’s study to see if the temperature change has impacted the successional path laid out by their predecessor. Using a series of photographs, GPS, field notes and re-measured areas of land, the team found surprisingly different results. The newly exposed areas were not transitioning into meadows, but instead covered in balsam poplar trees. The new Alaskan landscape showed signs of succeeding into a forest rather than tundra—representing a completely different biome change.

Photographs of the Muldrow Glacier study area from the original and current study (source: Ecosphere)
Photographs of the Muldrow Glacier study area from the original and current study (source: Ecosphere)

According to the study, the temperature rise fundamentally altered the climatic conditions of the ecosystem, and as time passes, the differences become increasingly larger. Like an archer shooting an arrow hundreds of meters away, even a small shift in the starting point can change the trajectory completely, and yield a very different outcome in the ecosystem structure and function.

The poplars began to grow in the early succession landscape because they thrive in the warming climate, and require warmer soils to grow. Once the trees were established, they had the competitive advantage over other plant species—they produce seeds early and abundantly, and are able to thrive in bare soil when other species are not yet present. Once the trees begin to grow, they alter the landscape by blocking the sun from smaller plants, and allowing a different range of species to thrive. Both plants and animals that prefer woodland instead of tundra move to these newly formed forests. The trees also block the wind, allowing snow to build up where it previously would have been blown away. The thick layer of snow prevents permafrost from forming, keeping the soils warm. This one species, through a series of chain events, is able to colonize the area and alter both the species and climate of the region.

Balsam Poplar canopy (source: Adam Jones, PhD)
Balsam Poplar canopy (source: Adam Jones, PhD)

While the newer areas of exposed land showed a dramatic shift in the projected succession, the older, more established areas of the landscape followed the path as predicted by Viereck. The areas located farther from the river and the end of the glacier plain had begun to grow before the temperature increase. Once the ecosystem had begun to develop, it is much more difficult to change its course. While poplars were still found in these areas, they had a much smaller impact on the ecosystem as a whole.

As temperatures continue to rise and glaciers continue to retreat in Alaska, there will be large areas of land exposed which will be colonized by vegetation. Ecosystems will form in place of the ice, and when they do, they will be woodlands rather than the iconic Alaskan tundra.

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Photo Friday: The Glaciers of Denali National Park

Denali National Park spans a vast six million acres in central Alaska, and contains the tallest mountain on the continent that gives the park its namesake: Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley. The summit reaches over 20,000 feet above sea level, and is one of the most isolated mountain peaks in the world—following only Mount Everest and Aconcagua. Glaciers cover an incredible one million acres of the park, making up one-sixth of the total land area.

View of Denali from Stony overlook (Credit: NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank)
View of Denali from Stony overlook (Credit: NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank)

The park contains hundred of glaciers, but the largest flow from the peak of Denali. Kahiltna Glacier is the not only the longest glacier in the park, but at 44 miles it is the longest glacier in the entire Alaskan Range.

Kahiltna glacier, on the southwestern slope of Denali (Swisseduc)
Kahiltna glacier, on the southwestern slope of Denali (Swisseduc)

Most Denali mountain climbing expeditions start on Kahiltna glacier at Mount McKinley basecamp–or, as its called by climbers, “Kahiltna International Airport.”

Base Camp: It's a 35 minute flight from Talkeetna in a ski equipped aircraft. Most climbers land at Base Camp on Kahiltna Glacier. (Alaska.org)
Base Camp: It’s a 35 minute flight from Talkeetna in a ski equipped aircraft. Most climbers land at Base Camp on Kahiltna Glacier. (Alaska.org)

In addition to offering mountain climbing, Denali is the only U.S National Park with a working kennel. Sled dogs are used throughout the park to reach isolated locations within the wilderness area, and park visitors also have the chance to mush for themselves.

The Climbing Routes Litter Dog sled team in Denali National Park (NPS)
The Climbing Routes Litter Dog sled team in Denali National Park (NPS)

 

The park is also home to the world’s deepest glacier, the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier. The ice is a staggering 3700 feet deep, and is tucked between 4000 foot tall walls of the gorge.

Plane flying through the Great Gorge, to the right of Mount Dickey (Alaska.org)
Plane flying through the Great Gorge, to the right of Mount Dickey (Alaska.org)

 

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Mt. McKinley’s Name Changed Back to Denali

Denali (source: National Park Service)
Denali (source: National Park Service)

United States President Barack Obama announced this week he would officially change the name of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, back to Denali, the original Native American name for the mountain.

Mount McKinley was named after Republican President William McKinley more than a century ago, but the name Denali has older roots in the language of the Athabascan people of Alaska. The name means “the high one,” or “the great one.” Denali’s summit reaches 5,500 metres and is covered by five large glaciers.

Disputes over the mountain’s name began in the 1970’s when the Alaskan legislature requested that the mountain’s official name be changed back to Denali. A stalemate was reached in 1980, when, as a compromise, McKinley National Park was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve, but the mountain’s name remained unchanged. Now, 40 years later, the renaming remains controversial. Though many Alaskans celebrate the name change, politicians from Ohio — President McKinley’s home state — are not happy. In a tweet, Ohio Governor John Kasich said Obama had “overstepped his bounds.”

In defense of Obama’s decision, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said President McKinley had never visited Alaska, adding that the deceased president had no connection to the mountain. Native Americans across the country have applauded the decision.

“Yes, we are truly excited about it- it’s a long time coming since Alaskans have wanted the change for  a long time,” Malinda Chase, from the Association of Interior Native Educators, told GlacierHub. “On the home front, it’s a definite celebration for our People, our Languages, and the ever-present guiding strength of our Ancestors, whom I’m sure will be celebrating in all their glory in the early morning sunlight shining on the high and stunning peaks of our wondrous Denali!”

First publication of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (source: University of South Carolina library)
First publication of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (source: University of South Carolina library)

Other major glaciated peaks have also had their indigenous names restored. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in East Africa, had a German name, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze (Emperor William Peak) from 1889 to 1918, the date at the end of World War I when German East Africa became the British colony of Tanganyika, though some Germans kept using the name until 1964, when the colony, together with the island of Zanzibar, became the independent country of Tanzania. Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” first published in Esquire Magazine in 1936, may have contributed to removing any lingering attachment to the mountain’s German, rather than its KiSwahili, name.

Aoraki-mount-cook-header-image
Commemorative New Zealand dollar (source: NZ Post)

New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook, was given a double name in 1998, Aoroki/Mount Cook, placing the indigenous  Maori  name first.  This decision came after some decades of negotiation, in which the indigenous groups of southern New Zealand pressed their land claims under nineteenth century treaties. A commemorative non-circulating dollar coin was issued some years later.

And some mountains have names which remain unresolved. Mount Everest is known as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan, and many have pressed to eliminate the colonial name. The highest peak in Tajikistan seems unlikely to retain its principal Soviet name, Pik Kommunizma, or its alternate Soviet name, Mount Stalin, but several others names are in use, including  Garmo and Ismoil Somoni, the latter being a leader of a 9th and 10th century dynasty in the region. The complex topography and difficult access of the Pamir Range contribute to the multiplicity of names which individual mountains receive.  

Nonetheless, a number of glacier-covered mountains around the world continue to be internationally known by the name given by colonial explorers. It seems likely that they will join Denali and Kilimanjaro in shaking off their colonial names–names used, it must be remembered, for only a small fraction of the history of human settlement in these mountains, or, at least, like Aoraki/Mount Cook, their double, hybrid status could be acknowledged.

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