Reflections from Two Girls on a Rocky Adventure

Two girls and a car, fresh out of grad school, with new perspectives on climate science, that was how our adventure to the Rocky Mountain region began.

Grand Teton roadtrip on Glacierhub
Starting the Grand Teton Park Loop with the Teton Ranges in sight (Source: Sabrina Ho).

A year ago, we were hauled from two different Asian countries united by a common goal. We wanted to become better climate science communicators. That was how I first met Yang Zhang, my close friend and course-mate from Columbia University’s Climate and Society master’s program, and a colleague at GlacierHub. Fast forward to now, Yang and I are about to embark on new jobs in climate science education and climate policy, respectively. But beforehand, we decided to take a 12-day road trip to Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks to experience camping under the stars and how it feels to live in a RV.

Visiting the Rocky Mountains was a dream of mine. The trip to Grand Teton National Park, a mountain range of the Rocky Mountains, rekindled memories from high school. The Rockies were a constant mention in my geography curriculum in Singapore, from their epic formation when the oceanic crust was subducted under the North American continental crust to the weathering forces affecting the mountain range until today. As we drove past the mountains, I was momentarily dazzled by their sheer size; reading about mountain ranges 4,400m (12,000ft) was nothing compared to seeing them in real life.

There are many glaciers in the Rockies, but most are undergoing rapid retreat. Mount Moran’s five glaciers in the Grand Tetons, for example, have retreated by more than 20 percent in the last 40 years. Some have even disappeared. This narrative was plastered across information boards in the park in western Wyoming. I felt the message needed little introduction: the changes were clear in the small patches of ice on the mountains that stood in stark contrast with the old photograph of a much larger ice patch from 40 years ago. These small patches of ice were once connected when they formed during the Little Ice Age.

Glaciers on Mount Moran, Grand Teton National Park on GlacierHub
Glaciers on Mount Moran, Grand Teton National Park (Source: Sabrina Ho).

In that moment, I felt how powerful it was to be present on site, to see the most obvious evidence of climate change that I had studied all year before my own eyes. I watched as a father told his teenage daughter to capture a good photograph of the landscape. “You’ll never know for sure how or when this might change,” he told them.

The core of our climate and society curriculum at Columbia University was our discussion of the interactions between humans and nature. On one hand, we examined the manipulation and misinterpretation of climate science evidence that fuels arguments from climate skeptics. On the other hand, we were exposed to the different applications of climate science information that helps us better understand and perhaps even solve real-world problems. Over the past year, I have admired the amazing work of my professors, from using remote sensing to predict the regions most prone to Zika mosquitoes in Tanzania to understanding the plight of climate refugees in Bangladesh. But standing in front of the Grand Tetons, I realized these interactions are not limited to our world’s most remote places. The national park system in the United States is a nexus for nature and social interactions, and it reflects our quickly changing landscapes under rising global temperatures.

National Parks were established to protect areas of natural, scenic or cultural significance. They are spaces where people can get close to nature for relaxation and recreation, but they are also effective classrooms. Many researchers conduct ecological, geological and hydrological studies in parks like the Grand Tetons. As Yang and I took short walks from several viewpoints, I witnessed parents pointing out different types of wildlife seen on trails to their children, while kids eagerly filled in their activity books in an attempt to get a Junior Ranger badge.

Wildlife in Grand Teton on GlacierHub
Wildlife spotted featuring the squirrel, antelope, bison and moose (Source: Sabrina Ho).

“It’s always good to bring people close to nature. But how to respect nature and the indigenous people there should be the core as well,” Yang commented during one of our walks. National parks were first established with the purpose of conservation, while at the same time displacing many indigenous communities that lived on the lands. The indigenous populations were often forbidden from carrying out their usual activities of hunting and agriculture. Land grabs also ensued. The Shoshone people, who lived in the Grand Teton region, faced such treatment. Recently, the indigenous communities of nearby Yellowstone National Park have applied for a name change of Hayden Valley and Mount Doane, which were named after perpetuators of violence against Native Americans.

Teton Glacier on Cascade Trail on GlacierHub
Yang and I on the Cascade Trail with the Teton mountain range in the background (Source: Sabrina Ho).

Before we hiked the Cascade Trail to see Teton Glacier, we were warned of grizzly bear sightings in the area. Grizzly bear activity has heightened as bears eat more furiously to prepare for their upcoming hibernation in the winter. During our adventure to Glacier National Park, we had been turned away from the Iceberg Lake Trail because it was closed for bear feasting season. Though I was disappointed, Yang said, “The trail would be the thing I feel the sorriest for missing on this trip. But I also feel glad that we wouldn’t be standing in the way of the mother grizzly bears who are trying to make sure their cubs survive this winter.” Just yesterday, the Endangered Species Act to protect grizzly bears living around Yellowstone National Park was restored.

My visit to the Rockies served as a timely reminder: it is easy to be in awe of nature’s beauty; living in harmony is harder to achieve. I remain hopeful that we will continue working in the right direction, as we learn to better read nature’s signs through technological advances and structure developments in an informed and sustainable manner.

Roundup: Microbial Mats, Hidden Heat, and Tree Infection

Benthic Microbial Mats in Meltwater from Collins Glacier

From Polar Biology: “Most of Fildes Peninsula is ice-free during summer thereby allowing for formation of networks of creeks with meltwater from Collins Glacier and snowmelt. A variety of benthic microbial mats develop within these creeks. The composition of these microbial communities has not been studied in detail. In this report, clone libraries of bacterial and cyanobacterial 16S rRNA genes were used to describe the microbial community structure of four mats near a shoreline of Drake Passage. Samples were collected from four microbial mats, two at an early developmental stage (December) and two collected latter in late summer (April). Sequence analysis showed that filamentous Cyanobacteria, Alphaproteobacteria, and Betaproteobacteria were the most abundant ribotypes.”

Learn more about the microbial mats here.

Microbial mat on a sandy depositional surface (Source: GSA).


Geothermal Heat Flux Hidden Beneath Greenland Ice Sheet

From Nature: “The Greenland ice sheet (GIS) is losing mass at an increasing rate due to surface melt and flow acceleration in outlet glaciers… Recently it was suggested that there may be a hidden heat source beneath GIS caused by a higher than expected geothermal heat flux (GHF) from the Earth’s interior. Here we present the first direct measurements of GHF from beneath a deep fjord basin in Northeast Greenland. Temperature and salinity time series (2005–2015) in the deep stagnant basin water are used to quantify a GHF of 93 ± 21 mW m−2 which confirm previous indirect estimated values below GIS. A compilation of heat flux recordings from Greenland show the existence of geothermal heat sources beneath GIS and could explain high glacial ice speed areas such as the Northeast Greenland ice stream.”

Learn more about the hidden heat flux here.

Aerial Image of Greenland Ice Sheet (Source: NOAA).


Blister Infection on the Whitebark Pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

From University of Wyoming National Park Service Research Center: “Whitebark pine is a keystone and foundation tree species in high elevation ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains. At alpine treelines along the eastern Rocky Mountain Front and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, whitebark pine often initiates tree islands through facilitation, thereby shaping vegetation pattern. This role will likely diminish if whitebark pine succumbs to white pine blister rust infection, climate change stress, and mountain pine beetle infestations. Here, we established baseline measurements of whitebark pine’s importance and blister infection rates at two alpine treelines in Grand Teton National Park.”

Read more about the blister infection on Whitebark pine here.

Whitebark pine on the Continental Divide of the the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks (Source: Taisie Design).