Lessons in Collaboration from the Tanana Watershed

This story is Part I of a two-part series on the Tanana River Watershed. See Part II here.

The Tanana River flows toward Delta Junction, with the Alaska Range in the background (Source: Rachel Kaplan).

What do a St. Patty’s Day party and a sub-Arctic river have in common? An abundance of green dye, which acts as a festive element for the first and a scientific tool for the second.

A group of Alaskan scientists used this green dye as a tracer in studying the intersection of glaciology and hydrology in subarctic rivers, and recently published their findings in Geophysical Research Letters. They found that glacial meltwater interacts with rivers and groundwater across the landscape in complex ways, which has implications for the life the landscape supports—including humans.

I spoke with the study’s lead scientist, Anna Lilijedahl, over Skype at opposite ends of our days. Anna, who was attending a conference in Oxford, sat on her hotel room bed in a sweatshirt that read “Yukon River Camp,” and I huddled in a sweater at my desk in Fairbanks, Alaska, listening as she talked to me about the sub-arctic Interior Alaska landscape I grew up in.

Small rivers are difficult to sample in winter, she told me, because of the thickness of the ice build-up. “Little channels of water run through it like a spider web, you can hear it in the ice if you listen,” she said.

From listening to wintertime trickles to trekking across glaciers, Lilijedahl and her team have engaged intensely with the Tanana River watershed, a major tributary of the Yukon River. Internationally important to subsistence lifestyles, remote northern travel, and commercial salmon fisheries, the river flows over 2,000 miles through Alaska and Canada before draining into the Bering Sea.

The glacial headwaters of Jarvis Creek are in the Alaska Range (Source: Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District).

Lilijedahl’s study involved extensive surveys on Jarvis Glacier, snow machine travel in the mountains, and probing frozen rivers to gauge their flow. What I noticed the most about Lilijedahl during our conversation was how she uses hydrology to bring people closer to their landscape, and to one another.

“We’re really excited about her work because it has a big impact not only on our community, but also for the agency,” said Jeff Durham, program director of Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District, a state agency that works with local landowners and government agencies to manage natural resources in nearly four million acres of Interior Alaska. The project constituted a collaboration between the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where Lilijedahl is based, the Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District, which provided logistical and backcountry support, and researchers from both the U.S. Geological Survey and a research branch of the U.S. Army.

According to Durham, this collaboration has drawn both attention and funding to the project. One proposal reviewer from the National Science Foundation wrote a letter naming this partnership as a hallmark of the scientific process, emphasizing that scientists should work with local agencies, not just live in the halls of academia. “It’s a great opportunity for us to jump in with her and get a lot of information. We can look forward toward what will happen with the water table and our community,” Durham said.

Delta Junction lies at the end of the Alaska Highway, one of the major arteries linking the U.S. and Canada (Source: Author Nader Moussa/Creative Commons).

As he drove through Interior Alaska, Durham talked to me by phone about what he calls the “boom and bust town” of Delta Junction, a small community near Jarvis Creek where you can leave a chainsaw in the back of your truck at the grocery store and it won’t be stolen. As Jarvis Glacier continues to melt, and eventually disappear, Delta Junction’s aquifer may dry up. When this happens, wells, which are a major resource in an area without municipal water, will run dry. According to Lilijedahl, the watershed’s glaciers are so diminished that the amount of water in aquifer storage is already decreasing.

Lilijedahl gave a presentation about her research findings in Delta Junction, surprising its residents with the importance of far-away Jarvis Glacier to the aquifer. Lack of understanding about the connection between mountain glaciers and lowland water resources is common, says Lilijedahl. Her paper in Geophysical Research Letters concludes that “high-latitude mountain glaciers represent an overlooked source to subarctic river discharge and aquifer recharge.” She calls the Jarvis Creek watershed a “proxy watershed” and believes the relationship between glacial melt and aquifer recharge exposed by her research will hold true for other subarctic regions in Alaska, Canada, and beyond.

“The fact that she’s worked so closely with a local natural resource agency, shared information, made an effort to come into the community—that’s the key in what Anna’s doing,” said Durham. “She brings complicated information into our community and makes it palatable. It’s easy to have those conversations in the halls of academia. Having them with someone who doesn’t have the background is the real challenge.”

Colin Barnard probes the snow in Jarvis Canyon (Source: Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District).

With regards to Jarvis Glacier and Delta Junction’s water resources, the future is coming. When will the water levels drop? In Durham’s lifetime or his children’s? As water pours from Jarvis Glacier into the aquifer, it melts the permafrost and carves the aquifer deeper, increasing water storage capacity and releasing carbon stored in the permafrost. This process raises a host of future research questions for Lilijedahl. “How much permafrost have we really thawed because of this increase in glacial melt?” she wonders. “This melt brings old carbon stored for thousands and thousands of years into the river, and in contact with bacteria.” Typically, attention is focused on glacial melt’s contribution to sea level rise, she says, but there are several directions in which to explore the impact on the terrestrial ecosystem.

Alaska is ground zero for climate change, according to Durham. “It’s obvious that the Jarvis is drying, we can see that from a visual standpoint. It’s a canary in a coal mine, and that’s why this work is so important,” he said. He expects the state to see impacts from temperature rise before other places. “How will we build, and how will we deal with what has been built?” he wonders.

Lead scientist Anna Lilijedahl during winter field research (Source: Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District).

Melting permafrost has impacts all over Alaska, Durham says. Roads undulate, the ground becomes unstable, and the ultimate consequences for towns and infrastructure are still unknown. One consequence for Delta Junction’s infrastructure may actually be positive: stable through the year, Jarvis Creek discharge has a temperature of 6°C, the signature temperature of aquifer water in the watershed. Though it sounds chilly, this is actually warm, especially relative to winter temperatures in the region. Lilijedahl thinks that people in Delta Junction could use the water as heat source to warm their homes.

With major changes to life imminent in Delta Junction and other places in Alaska, partnerships between scientists and local agencies will lead the way in research and future mitigation efforts. As the landscape changes, the only choice is to draw closer to it, and to one another.

Meet the Writers of GlacierHub, 2016/2017 Edition

GlacierHub writers and editors, 2017 (Source: Yurong Yu).


Here at Glacierhub we have a team of passionate writers and scientific explorers working hard to bring you original reporting on glaciers and the global impacts of climate change. With funding support from Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, our writers cover stories about communities living near glaciers and the challenges brought about by glacier retreat.

During the fall and spring, GlacierHub is staffed by writers from Columbia University’s Master of Arts in Climate and Society program. In the summer, we recruit writers from diverse educational backgrounds to continue bringing you stories about the world’s glaciers and glacier retreat. We hope you enjoy this introduction to our GlacierHub team!


Meet our summer writers:


Will Julian (Source: Will Julian).

Will Julian recently earned his M.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. He came to GlacierHub through a patchwork of past work that includes a Chinese government climate change research center; a Haitian startup that seeks to convert agricultural waste into electricity; and summers riding horses and motorcycles in China’s glaciated Tian Shan mountains. While at GlacierHub, he was able to write about topics that aligned with his intellectual interests, ranging from the role of glaciers in indigenous Maori rituals to the historical importance of glaciers in shaping pan-Germanic ideology and changes in predator-prey dynamics in the Arctic.


Rachel Kaplan (Source: Rachel Kaplan).

Rachel Kaplan has a B.A. in Geology-Biology from Brown University, and is currently pursuing twin passions in polar fieldwork and science communication. The last few years have taken her to the Western Antarctic Peninsula to study microbial ecology, Alaska’s North Slope to research Arctic lakes, and many latitudes in between. Writing for GlacierHub has allowed her to expand her scientific horizons and explore topics as varied as seabird ecology, community preparedness for an eruption of Cotopaxi, and waste management for mountaineers on Denali. When not in the field or at a computer, Rachel enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and scuba diving.


Rosette Zarzar (Source: Rosette Zarzar).

Rosette Zarzar is a rising senior at Columbia University studying Sustainable Development. Writing for GlacierHub has given her a whole new perspective on the effects of global warming on glaciers and just how much glacial retreat can affect societies around the world. She has written about topics ranging from the closing of ski resorts due to glacial retreat to geopolitics in China and Tibet. Rosette hopes to pursue a law degree after her B.A. and work to protect the glaciers that she has been writing about all summer.


Meet our Fall 2016 – Spring 2017 writers from the Master of Arts in Climate and Society program at Columbia University:


Souvik Chatterjee (Source: Yurong Yu).

Souvik Chatterjee recently earned his M.A. in Climate and Society from Columbia University and is currently interning at the United Nations in the Department of Public Administration and Economic Development. His work at GlacierHub was great training and a worthwhile experience for the type of work he is doing now, researching information from different sources and writing documents that are about the same length as GlacierHub’s articles. During GlacierHub, Souvik wrote about glaciated volcanoes in Kamchatka and a new car named after the Stelvio Pass, which has many glaciers. These eclectic experiences made him a more well-rounded person and gave him unique interactions and experiences.


Holly Davison (Source: Yurong Yu).

Holly Davison graduated from Boston University in 2010 with a B.A. in Sociology and minors in Earth Sciences and French. After graduation, she worked in human resources at Next Jump Inc., a 200-person e-commerce company. She’s recently earned her master’s degree in Climate and Society at Columbia University and is particularly interested in how natural disasters affect water quality, having been evacuated after a flood as a teenager. While at GlacierHub, Holly wrote about topics ranging from glacier tourism to a meltdown at a Canadian ice core facility. In her free time, she enjoys glassblowing and cooking.


Alexandra Harden (Source: Alexandra Harden).

Alexandra Harden wrote for GlacierHub during the Fall Semester 2016. She recently graduated from the Climate and Society program at Columbia University and holds a B.A. in Political Science and Writing and Rhetoric from Colgate University. Her previous work was in Boulder, Colorado, with the Consortium for Capacity Building, focusing on helping vulnerable communities mitigate and adapt to climate change. While at GlacierHub, she kept you covered on stories from iceberg killing fields to mapping landslides in the Himalayas.


Ben Marconi (Source: Ben Marconi).

Ben Marconi wrote for GlacierHub in fall 2016. He earned his B.S. in geology from Weber State University in Northern Utah and recently completed his M.A. in Climate and Society from Columbia University. At GlacierHub, Ben reported on topics ranging from the controversy over summit certificates at Mt. Everest to extreme skiing expeditions. He is interested in defining paeloclimates during mass extinction periods to improve our current approach to mitigating climate change. While not working on these projects, Ben can be found skiing, climbing and running in Central Park.


Brianna Moland (Source: Brianna Moland).

Brianna Moland has an M.A. in Climate and Society from Columbia University. She is currently working as an intern with the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. She learned so much about the way humans interact with glaciers by writing for GlacierHub. Some of her favorite posts involved communities that rely on glaciers for melt water, their natural beauty and their role in the Earth’s climate system. Brianna encourages anyone that is interested in environmental studies to check out GlacierHub, or consider writing as a part of its team.


Sarah Toh (Source: Yurong Yu).

Sarah Toh has a B.A. in Geography from Oxford University and recently earned her master’s degree in Climate and Society at Columbia University. She is a curious person and started writing for GlacierHub because she wanted to learn about glaciers in different parts of the world. She has definitely been able to do that in her eight months with GlacierHub and has written about topics she did not anticipate, from krill poop to an old outdoor ice rink in New Zealand and an expedition on Spitsbergen. When she was not writing for GlacierHub, she could be found completing assignments, playing badminton and exploring New York City. She will be returning to Singapore, where (surprise, surprise) there are no glaciers, but she will be looking forward to continuing to read the work of the new writers at GlacierHub.


Yurong Yu (Source: Yurong Yu).

Yurong Yu earned her B.A. in Regional International Development in China. She recently graduated with her M.A. in Climate and Society from Columbia University. She is interested in the impact of climate change on regional areas, especially the Himalayas. Yurong feels the work done at GlacierHub is creative, innovative and fantastic. While at GlacierHub, Yurong wrote about many topics ranging from glacier animation to ice core evidence of copper smelting and growing glaciers.


And meet our editors:


Ben Orlove (Source: Yurong Yu)

Ben Orlove is the managing editor of GlacierHub and an anthropologist at Columbia University. He has conducted research in the Peruvian Andes for many years, and more recently has carried out field work in Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as in the Italian Alps. He also has carried out research in mountain areas in the western United States.


Ashley Chappo (Source: Ashley Chappo).

Ashley Chappo is the senior editor of GlacierHub. She is a 2016 graduate of Columbia Journalism School and a dual degree master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Prior to GlacierHub, Ashley worked in the newsrooms of the New York Observer, World Policy Journal, and Manhattan Magazine, most recently covering the Arctic for the World Policy Institute’s Arctic in Context initiative. Her favorite part of working for GlacierHub is getting to know the talented writers and reading their stories about such diverse topics as penitentes found on Pluto to glaciers granted personhood status. You can follow Ashley on Twitter @ashleychappo or view her digital portfolio at ashleychappo.com.