New Studies Trace Glacier Dynamics in the Grand Tetons

Around the world, researchers seek to understand just how fast glaciers are melting as the planet’s climate warms. In Grand Teton National Park, two new studies are underway as researchers investigate glaciers from different, but complementary perspectives. The first is a study by National Park Service (NPS) scientists who have begun tracing the melt and movement of five glaciers in the park. The second study reflects upon research by a Washington State University biologist, who, in turn, is analyzing how these melting glaciers will affect downstream biodiversity.

Mount Owen and the Grand Teton viewed from the North Fork of Cascade. (Source: NPS Photo/J. Bonney)

Study 1: Tracking Glacial Melt

The crests and canyons of the Teton Range in the Rocky Mountains were shaped during the Ice Ace of the Pleistocene era 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago, when the earth experienced its latest period of repeated glaciations. These giant glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, and the smaller glaciers we see today are the result of the Little Ice Age that lasted from about AD 1400 to 1850. 

Glaciers tend to be highly responsive to climate change because they react both to temperature and precipitation. In 2014, NPS scientists and climbing rangers began measuring the health of several glaciers in Grand Teton National Park. They include Peterson, Schoolroom, Teton, Falling Ice, and the revered Middle Teton Glacier. Located on the eastern slope of the third highest peak in the Teton Range, Middle Teton is one of the first sights noticeable from the highway, and is a popular mountaineering route for visitors.

Park scientists record GPS locations on Schoolroom Glacier
(Source: National Park Service)

Each year, scientists busy themselves planting PVC stakes in the ice, setting up time lapse cameras, and using GPS systems to quantify ice surface change. This year, from June through September, approximately 25 feet of the snowpack melted on Middle Teton. While this certainly sounds like a large loss, it is still unclear whether this level of melting is normal given the sparse collection of historical data. Because this study has just begun, it will take about ten years before park scientists can really see how their data fits in with climate change models. 

While there has been some intermittent monitoring over the past few decades, little prior research has been done to track the rate of glacial melt in the park. Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science at Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, says this is probably because the Teton glaciers are not very large in comparison to other glaciers in the region, and thus are not as far-reaching in terms of their water contribution to the overall watershed. In contrast, said Pelto, glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park are much bigger and thus affect the surrounding ecosystems on a much larger scale, so more information has been collected regarding their melt rate.

Check out: From a Glacier’s Perspective

A blog by Mauri Pelto

Study 2: The effect of surface glaciers on downstream biodiversity

Nevertheless, the glaciers of the Grand Tetons do have a direct impact on their local environment, especially on the ecosystems located downstream. “I am very interested in the Grand Teton glacier study as it directly informs my research,” said Scott Hotaling in an interview with GlacierHub. Hotaling is a postdoctoral biological researcher at Washington State University analyzing biodiversity in high elevation alpine streams. 

Hotaling and his crew have trekked up the steep alpine slopes every year since 2015, sometimes in very bad weather, to collect diversity samples in various types of alpine streams. They examine streams fed by groundwater aquifers, permanent surface glaciers, snowfields, and subterranean ice (also called “icy seeps”). In the field, stream type can be identified by a variety of characteristics such as temperature and the specific conductivity of water, explained Hotaling.

For instance, glacier fed streams are very cold and display a rugged stream channel while groundwater streams are warmer, at 3-4 degrees Celsius. Icy seeps have lobes like a glacier so they look like a flowing mass of rock and come out at about 0.2 degrees Celsius. Moreover, streams that interact with rock have a much higher ionic content than snowmelt or glacier fed streams.

Scott Hotaling sampling an alpine stream under Skillet Glacier in Grand Teton National Park
(Source: Wyoming Public Media/Taylor Price)

Most of Hotaling’s work focuses on high-elevation stream macroinvertebrates like stoneflies. However, in order “to fully understand the breadth of climate change threats, a more thorough accounting of microbial diversity is needed.” Therefore, his recently published study in Global Change Biology focused on the diversity of microbial communities in high elevation alpine streams in both Grand Teton National Park and Glacier National Park.

He found that the microbial biodiversity of alpine streams does not differ between these two subranges of the Rockies, but does indeed differ depending on the origin of its water source. Streams fed by the parks’ iconic surface glaciers support microbes that are not found in other alpine stream types, and thus increase environmental heterogeneity. Importantly, results from Hotaling’s research show that patterns of microbial diversity correlate strongly with overall trends in biodiversity.

Should the park’s glaciers disappear, alpine stream water will warm, causing them to become more biodiverse because more organisms thrive in warmer streams than extremely cold ones. However, this diversity will instead represent warm-adapted species. Consequently, the glacier-fed streams will become more similar to the landscape, and biodiversity will therefore become more homogenous.

Visit Wyoming Public Media.org
to learn more about Hotaling’s research on Lednia tetonica, a macroinvertebrate that can only be found in alpine streams of the Grand Teton Mountain Range

Lednia tetonica nymph found in Grand Teton alpine stream (Source: Wyoming Public Media/Cooper McKim)

Interestingly, while snowmelt-fed streams and glacier-fed streams each have their own unique biotic communities, icy seeps boast representative species from both communities. Because icy seeps are shaded from solar radiation by insulating debris cover, researchers are hopeful that some of the rare glacial species will persist even after the surface glaciers are gone. We do not know how long the subterranean rock glaciers will last, but “we do know that the Beartooth Mountains support subterranean ice blocks that have been there for a long time in places where there aren’t glaciers around them,” noted Hotaling.

Just like the NPS glacial melt study, Hotaling’s study is in its infancy. There is a lot of “noise” collecting environmental data in such high locations, and so far, his team has only collected five years-worth of data. “We are aiming for the ten-year mark,” said Hotaling, in order to determine if there is a trend in overall biodiversity over time as the glaciers of Grand Teton and Glacier National Park diminish due to a perpetually warming climate.

Conclusion

It is hard to say just how long the Tetons’ glaciers will last. While some research shows that Glacier National Park could be glacier-free within the next few decades, there is also contradicting research that suggest some glaciers are shrinking more slowly than others. Whether this is due to high altitudes, persistent shading by the mountain slopes they have retreated into, heavy avalanching, or a persistent snow accumulation zone, it seems some glaciers may hang in there a bit longer, noted Pelto. Still, the overall trend is negative.

“I monitor glaciers in mountain ranges around the world – two-hundred and fifty of them – and they’re all doing the same thing. They’re all showing the same climate signal” said Pelto. “They [the Tetons] are not unique. We are fooling ourselves if we think they are doing something differently.”

Schoolroom Glacier retreat from 1987 (left) to 2007 (right)
[Source: National Park Service/Cushman (left), National Park Service (right)]

Sarah Strauss, who lived in Wyoming for over twenty years, expressed: “I can say that people in Wyoming are very proud of the National Parks in the state, both Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and also identify strongly with being part of a mountain culture. Glaciers, as part of that mountain culture context, are an essential feature of the landscape.” Losing them will surely impact both the natural and cultural dynamic of the region.

Read More on GlacierHub:

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Photo Friday: Flashback with Historical Photos of Glacier National Park

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Tribal House in Glacier Bay Park Recognizes Huna Tlingit

A newly constructed tribal house within Glacier Bay National Park in the Southeast Alaskan panhandle begins a fresh chapter in the contentious relationship between the Huna Tlingit, a Native American tribe, and the National Park Service (NPS). For much of the 20th century, the NPS infringed on Huna hunting rights and appropriated the majority of Huna land to create a monument, and later a National Park and Preserve over 5,000 square miles in area

The recently opened 28,000 square foot tribal house coincides with the NPS’s 100th anniversary and will serve as a gathering center for the Huna, displaying artwork and cedar carvings, while also informing some of Glacier Bay’s 500,000 yearly visitors about the Huna’s rich culture. 

The house sits on the Huna’s ancestral homelands in Bartlett Cove, originally known in the endangered Huna language as L’eiwshaa Shakee Aan, which translates to “Town on Top of the Sand Hill.” It will memorialize the lost clan houses which used to dot the coast but were destroyed by the rapidly advancing Grand Pacific Glacier in the 1700s. The glacier cleared the land, including wildlife like salmon found in the streams, and destroyed Huna villages. But beginning in the 1800s, the glacier began to recede, leaving 100 miles of destruction in its wake. By the 1830s, the wildlife returned, along with the Huna, who set up seasonal camps where they fished, hunted and collected gull eggs and berries. The new tribal house will be the first permanent house since the glacier drove the Huna away to their current village, Hoonah, 30 miles south, where over 800 of them dwell.

house-front
The tribal house opened last August (Source: NPS).

Remnants of tribal dwellings and other evidence of the Huna’s presence can still be found in the park. For example, cairns are memorials or landmarks made of mounds of stones marking the highlands used to retreat from floods associated with environmental change. In addition, archaeologists have discovered old smokehouses, house pits, and culturally modified trees stripped of bark, which may have been used for markers, baskets, pitch or shelter.

Around the time the Huna returned to Glacier Bay, Westerners also arrived. Captain George Vancouver, an English Naval Officer, surveyed the area in 1794, and John Muir, often referred to as the “Father of the National Parks,” visited between 1879 and 1899. Muir is sometimes credited with the discovery of Glacier Bay, although he relied on Tlingit guides to get there. The area was proclaimed a national monument in 1925, a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, and finally, a national park in 1980.

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Sea lions in Glacier Bay National Park (Source: Creative Commons).

When the monument decree was passed under President Calvin Coolidge, the Huna Tlingit were not consulted, leading to anger among tribal members, and in addition many tribe members did not speak English. The NPS increasingly infringed on the Huna’s hunting rights, first limiting firearms to protect brown bears in the 1930s, and then ten years later outlawing all hunting and trapping except for seals, which the Park Service later banned in 1976.  

In 1992, a Huna hunter in the Park was ordered to appear before a federal magistrate in Juneau for shooting a seal that was going to be used in a potlatch, or ceremonial feast, and his gun was confiscated. Around the same time, the Park Service began considering phasing out commercial fishing which prompted peaceful protests on the shores of Bartlett Cove by the Huna. Speeches were given by elders about Huna history and the importance of subsistence. Following the protests, constructive talks began, and in 1997, the idea for a tribal house was accepted by the Park Service.

tlingit1
A tribe member donned in the traditional regalia (Source: NPCA).

However, limited funding slowed the tribal house project down. In 2013, superintendent of Glacier Bay, Susan Boudreau, redirected concessionaire franchise fees toward the Huna Tribal House, which ultimately cost $2.9 million dollars.

Eugene Hunn, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, told GlacierHub, “This new tribal house should strengthen Huna Tlingit claims to their traditional territory within Glacier Bay National Park and provides them a long-overdue central role instructing the tourist public about their deep historic ties to the local landscape.”

The tribe hired carver Gordon Greenwald to oversee construction of the handcrafted totem poles, interior posts, and floor-to-ceiling wooden screens, which depict pictures of tribal stories. A carved screen inside the house depicts complex stories of the four clans in separate canoes, and a fifth canoe represents all other people holding their paddles vertically as a sign of friendship. 

Traditionally, each clan would build their own house but they decided on a common house, an idea that was controversial at first. The interior posts feature colorful depictions of wildlife common to Glacier Bay, many of which serve as crests of Huna’s Glacier Bay clans.

gordon
Gordon Greenwald , a Huna carver (Source: NPCA).

Last August, the Grand Opening Ceremony of about 800 people– a mix of tribal members, Park staff, and visitors– celebrated as members of the tribe ceremonially arrived in canoes donned in traditional regalia. It had been many years since the Huna paddled the 30-mile journey from Hoonah to their ancestral homeland in Glacier Bay. There was chanting, singing, and drumming while clan elders burned cedar and spruce chips and poured seal oil over themselves as gesture of thanks to the trees that gave their lives for the construction of the house and canoes.

The tribe named the house Xunaa Shuká Hít, which translates to “Huna Ancestors’ House.” They called out the name during the ceremony, a Huna tradition intended to breathe new life into the house. Later in the night, about 300 guests crammed into the house to dance and cheer for the long awaited opening.

Thomas F. Thornton, an anthropologist who has worked on issues concerning the Huna since 1991, told GlacierHub, “It was a great day of celebration in August of 2016 when the Huna Tlingit were again able to inhabit a tribal house in Glacier Bay, having been forced out, first by the glacier’s advance and then by the Park Service’s exclusionary policies.”

Park service staff and tribal members hope the new tribal house can be a model for making amends with Native people.

“These descendants of Glacier Bay should not only have the right to harvest cultural foods and other resources in the park but also to have a meaningful partnership in the interpretation and management of their traditional homeland,” Dr. Thornton observed. “Although there is still healing and work to be done, this is a constructive start to what could be a new era of mutual recognition and cooperation in curating and caring for this magnificent World Heritage Site.”

 

A New Technique to Study Seals Habitats in Alaska

One harbor seal resting on the glacier ice (Source: Jamie Womble/NPS)
One harbor seal resting on the glacier ice (Source: Jamie Womble/NPS)

There are numerous harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) living in tidewater glacier fjords in Alaska. Harbor seals are covered with short, stiff, bristle-like hair. They reach five to six feet (1.7-1.9 m) in length and weigh up to 300 pounds (140 kg). Tidewater glaciers calve icebergs into the marine environment, which then serve as pupping and molting habitat for harbor seals in Alaska. Although tidewater glaciers are naturally dynamic, advancing and retreating in response to local climatic and fjord conditions, most of the ice sheets that feed tidewater glaciers in Alaska are thinning. As a result, many of the tidewater glaciers are retreating. Scientists are studying the glacier ice and distribution of harbor seals to understand how future changes in tidewater glaciers may impact the harbor seals.  Jamie Womble, a marine ecologist based in Alaska, is one of them.

Harbor seals on the glacier ice. (Source: Jammie Womble/NPS)
Harbor seals on the glacier ice (Source: Jamie Womble/NPS).

As Womble put in her recently published paper in PLOS One, “The availability and spatial distribution of glacier ice in the fjords is likely a key environmental variable that influences the abundance and distribution of selected marine mammals; however, the amount of ice and the fine-scale characteristics of ice in fjords have not been systematically quantified. Given the predicted changes in glacier habitat, there is a need for the development of methods that could be broadly applied to quantify changes in available ice habitat in tidewater glacier fjords.”

Map of Wombls's study area(source: Robert W. McNabb).
Map of Wombles’s study area (Source: Robert W. McNabb).

To conduct her research, Womble has used a variety of analytical tools including geospatial modeling (GIS), multivariate statistics, and animal movement models to integrate behavioral and diet data with remotely-sensed oceanographic data. Most recently, she has worked with object-based image analysis (OBIA).

“OBIA is a powerful image classification tool. Many people studying forests and urban areas use it,” Anupma Prakash, a colleague of Womble and professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska, told GlacierHub. “In our case, we could not use the satellite images because the satellite images did not have the details we required. We flew our aircraft quite low so we saw a lot of detail and could identify individual icebergs.”

OBIA offers an enhanced ability to quantify the morphological properties of habitat. Satellite imagery, on the other hand, is not a viable method in Alaska as there are few cloud free days.

 

“We wanted to classify our images into water, iceberg, and brash-ice (small pieces of ice and water all smushed together),” Prakash added. “The color and smoothness of water helped us isolate it. For icebergs the color, shape, and angular nature helped us isolate it, and the rest was bash-ice.” So it is now feasible to quantify fine-scale features of habitats in order to understand the relationships between wildlife and the habitats they use.

Harbor seals on the ice (source: Jamie Womble/NPS).
Harbor seals on the ice (Source: Jamie Womble/NPS).

Thanks to the work of scientists like Womble and Prakash, OBIA can now be applied to quantify changes in available ice habitat in tidewater glacier fjords. The method can also introduced in other geographic areas, according to professor Prakash.  Now that there is a more advanced method to study the harbor seals in Alaska, the hope is that other researchers will use the OBIA method to make further discoveries about key ocean habitats.

Could Glacier Retreat Cause Seals to Wander?

Though populations of harbor seals – the captivating species seen in almost every zoo – are stable in other areas of the world, they are seeing declines in southeastern Alaska. These particular seals use icebergs calved from nearby glaciers as a place to rest and breed, but changes in ice availability are affecting these behaviors, crucial to their survival and reproduction.

Two separate studies, one by the National Park Service (NPS) and one by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), have independently found that seals may be changing their distribution and behavior to match the shifting locations of ice, as glaciers retreat.

Seals taking a break on top of a flat ice berg. (Courtesy of : Jamie Womble/National Park Service))
Seals taking a break on top of a flat iceberg. (Courtesy of: Jamie Womble/National Park Service)

Jamie Womble, leading the NPS research in Glacier Bay, is providing a new way of relating glacier ice extent and harbor seal territory, both in location and seasonality. Womble and her team aim to find the exact distribution and movements of these Alaskan harbor seals. Aerial tracking– flying above the ice and counting the seals–is a method that works effectively in the region. They also glue GPS transmitters to the seals, and track their movements on land-based monitors. These transmitters come off safely during the next summer’s molt, so they present only minimal risk to the animals.

Womble and her team found that “[d]espite extensive migration and movements of seals away from Glacier Bay during the post-breeding season, there was a high degree of inter-annual site fidelity (return rate) of seals to Glacier Bay the following pupping/breeding season.”

Harbor seal wearing GPS tracking device used in NPS research. (Courtesy of :National Park Service))
Harbor seal wearing GPS tracking device used in NPS research. (Courtesy of: National Park Service)

In addition to studying the distances which the seals traveled, Womble and her group also examined the patterns of seal movement in relation to the glacial ice. The team studied the ice distribution within John Hopkins Inlet, which they coordinated with aerial tracking data to examine the relationship between the ice extent and the harbor seals.

John Hopkins Inlet, the main area of research for Womble, is home to Johns Hopkins Glacier and Gilman Glacier which are among the few advancing glaciers in this region. Seals were found to congregate in areas with the highest percentage of ice.

Aerial image of harbor seals. (Courtesy of :National Park Service))
Aerial image of harbor seals. (Courtesy of: National Park Service)

“Tidewater glacier fjords in Alaska host some of the largest seasonal aggregations of harbor seals in Alaska,” Womble told GlacierHub in an interview. Many of these tidewater glaciers – glaciers that run into the sea and calve frequent icebergs – are thinning, and a few have begun retreating.

In particular, rapid retreat on the east side of Glacier Bay is leading to decreased seal pupping. During this critical season when the pups are newborn, mother seals and the weaning baby seals use flat icebergs to rest. “By 2008, no seals were pupping in Muir Inlet, and fewer than 200 seals were counted in McBride Inlet near the terminus of the McBride Glacier, the only remaining tidewater glacier in the East Arm of Glacier Bay,“ the NPS team stated in a recent report.

John Hopkins glacier, one of the few advancing glaciers in southeastern Alaska. (Courtesy of :Peter Makeyev/Flikr)
John Hopkins glacier, one of the few advancing glaciers in southeastern Alaska. (Courtesy of: Peter Makeyev/Flikr)

In a report, ADFG  emphasizes the importance of  studying  “…why, how, and when harbor seals use glacial habitat, and whether the rapid thinning and retreat of Alaskan glaciers associated with climate change could negatively affect harbor seals…” Their research documented similar instances of glacier thinning and retreat and they are also monitoring seal movement, as well as other topics, including seal diet, seal weight and bodily composition and disturbances by tour vessels. Though ADFG began their work in Glacier Bay, the same site as the other team, they moved their research to Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness Area – more than 200 miles to the southeast.

The ADFG team has attached transmitters such as SPOT  to track the seals. These beam data on location, heart rate and other biological indicators up to satellites. To gather data, the researchers depend on the seals surfacing to breathe or rest, since the satellites cannot receive signals that are released underwater. The tracking for both research projects was most important during winter months, since researchers were interested in monitoring movement and feeding after the summer breeding season. (More tracking information, here)

Harbor seals, said to be awkward on land, use icebergs as a place of safety from predators. (Courtesy of :Jamie Womble/National Park Service))
Harbor seals, said to be awkward on land, use icebergs as a place of safety from predators. (Courtesy of: Jamie Womble/National Park Service)

ADFG also saw regular return rates for the sea populations which they studied. They hypothesized that they may travel to find food in the winter, but still return to Glacier Bay in the summer for the safety that icebergs provide from land-based predators. Icebergs are also important sites for the animals to haul out, since many beaches are entirely covered during high tides.

The ongoing research conducted both by Womble’s group and by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game show how recent changes in glaciers have already had large effects on the seal life cycle, specifically pupping. Continued monitoring of seal reproduction and movement in the context of glacier retreat will allow for predictions of the future of this important species in a critical section of its range.

Round Up: Sounds of Glacier Bay, A New Book, and a Caving Video

“Voices of Glacier Bay” Soundscape Project

The National Park Service has a new project recording various sounds of nature in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. The recordings include sounds of: calving glaciers, humpback whales, singing birds, raindrop polyrhythms, and more!

Check out their website, with tons more sounds and videos.

 

Over 150 scientists collaborated on a new comprehensive book on glaciers

Picture of GLIMS book cover

The GLIMS (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space)  project started over 20 years ago to record glacier movement using satellites. The largely never before seen data has been put together in a new comprehensive book by the same name which unquestionably confirms the shrinking of earth’s glaciers.

Read about the project, and the book, here

Extreme ice caving video filmed at Buer Glacier, Norway

Extreme sports buff and outdoor guide Sander Cruiming took his crew and cameras ice caving through Norway’s Buer Glacier. Read more, here.