Park Officials Remove Signs Warning That Some Glaciers Will Disappear by 2020

Glaciers have gotten a lot of buzz in recent years as global warming has accelerated, threatening the existence of the world’s land ice. Scientists expect several of the world’s glaciers to disappear in the coming years, with some having already perished from climate change

The fate of Montana’s Glacier National Park, however, is somewhat less certain. The park recently removed signs stating that the park’s glaciers will disappear by 2020, replacing them with ones making more general statements about glacier melt and climate change. 

Hidden Lake at Glacier National Park (Source: Scott & Eric Brendel/Flickr)

The new signs

The older signs, posted earlier this decade at the St. Mary Visitor Center, were based on earlier scientific assessments of glacier recession. A display at the center which read “Goodbye to the Glaciers” explained that computer models indicated the loss of all of the park’s glaciers by 2020.

Yet, with 2019 coming to a close, some of the glaciers remain.

While they’ve continued to shrink and are on course to disappear, recent years of plentiful snowfall has slowed down their rate of depletion. This prompted park officials to replace the signs.

These new signs say that glaciers are still melting bit by bit due to climate change, although researchers are unable to make an accurate prediction of when exactly glaciers at the park will disappear. “When they completely disappear, however, will depend on how and when we act,” the new sign reads.

New signage at Glacier National Park (Source: Lauren Alley/Glacier National Park)
New signage at Glacier National Park (Source: Lauren Alley/Glacier National Park)

Climate denialists pounce

The news was not formally announced on the park’s website, but has drawn the attention of climate denial sites in the past few weeks. The Daily Caller quoted the US Geological Survey, which stated that glacier retreat can fluctuate due to changes in local microclimates. “Subsequently, larger than average snowfall over several winters slowed down that retreat rate and the 2020 date used in the [National Park Service] display does not apply anymore,” the agency said. 

Watts Up With That, a hub for climate denialist commentary, also covered the signage change. It sited Roger I. Roots, founder of Lysander Spooner University, who said the park’s Grinnell and Jackson Glaciers have actually grown since 2010. They believe the Jackson Glacier may have expanded by as much as 25 percent in the last decade.

Both stories, among others, suggest that recent increases in glacier mass demonstrate that previous accounts of glacier retreat were alarmist.

Scientists have recognized, however, that glacier retreat is not a linear process. Climate variability sometimes causes more snow to accumulate on glaciers, causing them to grow. Yet the mass trend in the northern Rockies, where Glacier National Park is located, and in nearly all mountain ranges in the world is on a steady decline.

Local factors

Caitlyn Florentine, a post-doctoral research fellow at the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, spoke to GlacierHub about the glacier retreat at Glacier National Park and the influence of local microclimate on melt rates. She is currently working on projects focused on the relationship between mountain glaciers and regional climate, using Sperry Glacier as a benchmark for regional climate change at Glacier National Park.

Sperry Glacier (Source: Emilia Kociecka/Flickr)

Florentine said it’s important to look at the ways local factors, such as avalanching, shading, and wind drifting of snow, affect mass balance on glaciers.

Florentine referenced a recent study published in the journal Earth System Science Data, which monitored seasonal mass balance on the park’s Sperry Glacier since 2005. “There are some years where there’s a positive mass balance, and that was true in 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2016,” said Florentine, “But, overall, the net loss from each year offset the mass added, leading to a cumulative decline.”

The study team examined one model that suggests Sperry Glacier will not disappear until 2080 under current climate and glaciological conditions at the park. Scientists have tracked a steady, progressive retreat of Sperry since the mid 20th century. 

“If you look at glacier change and Glacier National Park based on the footprint of the glaciers, with data going all the way back to 1966, you’ll see that the footprint of the glaciers has definitely shrunk over time,” Florentine said.

Although Glacier National Park has received a significant amount of snow in recent years, the glaciers are continuing to retreat, with a third of the park’s ice having already disappeared in just the last 50 years.

Spatial extent of the Sperry Glacier from 1998 to 2015 (Source: Clark et al.)

Informing the public

Lauren Alley, a management assistant at Glacier National Park, said it’s difficult to capture how the longevity of the park’s glaciers will affect tourism.

She stressed the importance of incorporating accurate information about climate science and melt rates at the park. Climate change is one of the things that the public really wants to learn more about, she said.

“There’s no doubt that for some, a component of their trip may be to see a glacier,” she commented. “That said, typically things like wildfire, exchange rates, gas prices, and the economy overall can all have a pretty big overall effect on national park visitation.” 

Read More on GlacierHub:

What Moody’s Recent Acquisition Means for Assessing the Costs of the Climate Crisis

Rob Wallace Installed to Post in Department of the Interior

Dispatches from the Cryosphere: Intimate Encounters with the Intricate and Disappearing Ice of Everest Base Camp

Video of the Week: Losing Iconic Glaciers

Is Glacier National Park in Montana losing its iconic glaciers? Scientists from the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center have photographed the same areas where glaciers were photographed in the early 1900s to document the changing glacial landscape of Glacier National Park.

In this week’s Video of the Week, published by the National Geographic, Dan Fagre, a USGS research ecologist, and his colleagues discuss what melting glaciers mean for the future of the park, wildlife and people. Dan Fagre has studied climate change in the park for more than 20 years using repeat photography and documented immense changes in the landscape of the park.

Read more glacier news at GlacierHub:

Meet the Writers of GlacierHub, 2017/2018 Edition

Pioneer Study Sounds Out Iceberg Melting in Norway

Is Deforestation Driving Mt. Kenya’s Glacier Recession?

 

Mount Rainier: More Than Just A Holiday Destination

In preparation for the upcoming summer holiday, here are some pictures of Mount Rainier from Mount Rainier National Park in the state of Washington. The park has over 1 to 2 million visitors annually with 260 miles of maintained trails. Being the tallest volcano in the United States, Mount Rainier comprises at least 25 major glaciers and many unnamed snow or ice patches. The mountain provides headwaters to at least six major rivers.

Apart from being a great holiday destination for hikers, the glaciers are important indicators of climate change with extensive studies conducted by the USGS to track annual changes in glacier extent. Unfortunately, gradual loss of ice has been noted annually through satellite images and on the ground surveys.

 

View of Mount Rainer from Alta Vista (Source: US Trekking/Pinterest)
View of Mount Rainier from Alta Vista (Source: US Trekking/Pinterest).

 

Mount Rainer’s glacier covered peak even during the summer (Source: Kelly / Instagram)
Mount Rainier’s glacier covered peak even during the summer (Source: Kelly/Instagram).

 

Hiking through Mount Rainer National Park (Source: Scott Kranz/Instagram)
Hiking through Mount Rainier National Park (Source: Scott Kranz/Instagram).

 

Hiking the Emmons Glacier at Mount Rainer (Source: Timberline Mountain Guides/ Instagram)
Hiking the Emmons Glacier at Mount Rainier (Source: Timberline Mountain Guides/Instagram).

Glaciers Serve as a Key Habitat for Harbor Seals

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

To someone flying a small, fixed-wing aircraft over Alaska, the harbor seals far below contrast sharply against the brilliant white of the glacial ice. The seals vary in size, but they all share a similarity: they’re using the ice as a refuge to haul-out. This behavior is critical to their survival and involves laying outside of the water for a number of hours to regulate their body temperature. A recent study published in the journal of Marine Mammal Science found that harbor seals depend on icebergs more than previously thought. These icebergs are formed by glaciers that calve into the ocean, and the free-floating ice is used by harbor seals to haul themselves out from the surrounding water.

The study was conducted along the southeastern coast of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. It shows the comparison between glacial and terrestrial (land) haul-outs. The research found that pupping is preferred at glacial haul-outs, with molting seals frequenting both the terrestrial and lake ice habitats that are affected by tides.

The location of the study area. The red highlighted coast illustrates the geographic extent of the surveys (Source: Marine Mammal Science).

The findings were supported by extensive data collected on nine tidewater glaciers and their surrounding areas, primarily from aerial surveys from 2004 to 2013. The research was supplemented by vessel-based surveys and field and video observations.

Harbor seals, or Phoca vitulina, can dive hundreds of feet and remain underwater for up to 40 minutes, according to the Seal Conservancy. To compensate for their time spent underwater, they must haul-out for seven to twelve hours during the day to regulate their body temperature properly. This need for rest increases during molting or pupping season in the winter and spring months, when extra heat, rest, or nursing is necessary. Glacial ice habitats were found to be especially important for pupping, even when the distance to foraging is increased, because prey is easier caught in locations farther away.

“Glacial habitats are fascinating, dynamic and beautiful locations. In healthy ice conditions, ice provides secluded haul-out locations that seals prefer. In addition, ice habitats temper sea conditions so that seals are able to spend extended periods on ice, rather than the few hours that tidally washed rocks and beaches allow for,” Anne Hoover-Miller, a harbor seal researcher and author of the study, told GlacierHub.

Glacial habitats are notably variable as the floating ice is dependent on the size and frequency of calving events (ice breaking off from the glacier’s face), displacement by winds and currents, and melting— all elements that can be affected by climate change. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, most glaciers in Alaska are “retreating, thinning, and stagnant,” so the seals’ dependence on glacial habitat is alarming to researchers. The study found a pattern of reduced calving at tidewater glaciers and reduced ice in late summer, which the authors believe is leading harbor seals to use alternative haul-outs.

A harbor seal in nearby Valdez, Alaska, using a patch of glacial ice to haul-out (Source: Frostnip Photography/Creative Commons)

The Kenai Fjords are also subject to vessels passing by, which disturb the seals that lie upon the icebergs. Ships cause seals to end their haul-out prematurely and retreat to the apparent safety of the waters. The study speculates that the abundance of vessels may also have potential consequences for the use of glacial ice habitats, in a broader sense. This may be exacerbated when the effects of tourism on habitat quality are considered.

“The scientific community is gaining a better appreciation of subtle effects tourism and vessels have on seals,” said Hoover-Miller, stressing the importance of human adaptation efforts to preserve stable environments for the seals. “It is prudent to help vessel operators to minimize adverse impacts and stress on the seals.”

Harbor seals associated with glacial and terrestrial habitats did exhibit flexibility when it comes to choosing haul-out, pupping, and molting habitat, depending on the availability of glacial ice. “This concept, however, needs additional study,” noted Hoover-Miller. This behavior is in contrast to the often sedentary nature that is attributed to these pinnipeds.

The journey of discovery may provide a greater understanding on harbor seals’ glacial haul-out habitats and the effects of glaciers on larger marine habitats. Harbor seals are increasingly facing the combined impacts of climate change and tourism, which concerns researchers like Hoover-Miller. She would like to see future research regarding “greater development in multi-year telemetry that will give us a better understanding of the breadth of responses seals have when adapting to seasonal and climate driven changes in their habitats during their lifetime.”

To learn more about harbor seals and their tidewater glacier habitats, check out another one of GlacierHub’s articles on the topic.

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.

Roundup: Climate Change and Poetic Geology

Trump Administration Disbands Climate Advisory Committee

From Nature: “The advisory group’s charter expired on 20 August, and Trump administration officials informed members late last week that it would not be renewed. ‘It really makes me worried and deeply sad,’ says Richard Moss, a climate scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park and co-chair of the committee. ‘It’s another thing that is just part of the political football game.'”

Read more about this political football here.

Trump administration will not renew the charter for the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment (Source: Michael Vadon/Wikimedia Commons).

 

A Climate Change Adaptation Laboratory

From the Washington Post: “Lake Palcacocha is a mile long and 250 feet deep, and the effect of a large avalanche would be similar to dropping a bowling ball in a bathtub. Modeling scenarios predict a 100-foot wave so powerful it would blow out the dam. Three billion gallons of ice water would go roaring down the mountain toward the city of Huaraz, burying its 200,000 residents under an Andean tsunami of mud, trees and boulders.”

Read more about lessons from the laboratory here.

As glacial melt flows into Lake Palcacocha, these plastic pipes prevent Huaraz from burial by mudslides (Source: Niels Ackermann/Lundi13).

 

Clarence King’s Glacial Poetics

From CEA Critic: “What is unusual, especially given what is most obvious to the viewer, is King’s choice to write so little about the serpentine path of the glacier, one that climbs its way easterly towards Shasta’s peak. Perhaps surprised by the discovery, King is more subdued in his description, foregoing hyperbole and remaining more artistically constrained.”

Read more about the geologist’s mastery of language here.

Clarence King, first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, is remembered for his mastery of language (Source: USGS).

Photo Friday: A Look at Wolverine Glacier

Wolverine Glacier is a valley glacier with maritime climate and high precipitation rates situated in the coastal mountains of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. This glacier has been named a “reference glacier” by the World Glacier Monitoring Service because it has been monitored and observed since 1965/66. A majority of the U.S. government’s climate research is taken from 50 years of glacier studies from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Scientists first decided to take measurements of Wolverine Glacier’s surface mass balance in 1966, using these measurements, as well as local meteorology and runoff data, to estimate glacier-wide mass balances, according to USGS. This data, which makes up the longest continuous set of mass-balance data in North America, allows scientists to better understand glacier dynamics and hydrology, as well as the glaciers’ response to climate change.

As temperatures rise, the retreat of glaciers in Alaska is contributing to global sea-level rise. The Wolverine Glacier has been experiencing more variability in winter temperatures, and scientists are continuing to evaluate how glaciers like the Wolverine respond to climate change. Take a look at GlacierHub’s collection of images from Wolverine Glacier.

 

Scientists checking ablation stakes at Wolverine Glacier (Source: USGS).

 

A weather station set up to measure the spatial differences in climate that influence mass balance (Source: USGS).

 

Researchers use ground penetrating radar to determine the depth of the snow on Wolverine Glacier (Source: USGS).

 

The crevassed surface of Wolverine Glacier shows layers within the ice and snow (Source: USGS).

 

A New Glacier Grows at Mount St. Helens

“I grew up in the Yakima Valley (near Mount St. Helens). I was out fishing when I saw the lightning and dark cloud,” Flickr user vmf-214, who captured the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, told GlacierHub. “It looked like a storm. I saw it as I pulled into the yard. Mom came out and said the mountain had blown.”

A major volcanic eruption occurred at Mount St. Helens in 1980 (source: vmf-214/Flickr).

He was describing the volcanic eruption that occurred at Mount St. Helens 37 years ago in May 1980. During that event, an eruption column rose into the sky, ultimately impacting 11 states in the U.S. But it wasn’t just the people who live in the area that were affected by the eruption: the glaciers of Mount St. Helens melted into nearby rivers, causing several mudslides.

Cascades Volcano Observatory indicates that before the 1980 eruption, extensive glaciers had covered Mount St. Helens for several hundred thousand years. About 3,900 years ago, Mount St. Helens began to grow to its pre-eruption elevation and a high cone developed, allowing for substantial glacial formation. There were 11 major glaciers and several unnamed glaciers by May 18, 1980, according to the United States Geological Survey. But after the eruption and resultant landslide, about 70 percent of the glacier mass was removed from the mountainside. It was during the winter of 1980 to 1981, following the catastrophic eruption, that a new glacier, Crater Glacier, first emerged.

An aerial view of the crater (source: Geography Review).

“The glacier formed very fast, in a couple decades,” professor Regine Hock from the University of Alaska – Fairbanks told GlacierHub.

It developed in a deep crater left by the eruption and landslide. Rock debris from the crater walls and avalanche snow created a thick deposit between the 1980–86 lava dome and crater walls. Shaped like an amphitheater, the crater protected the glacier from sunlight, allowing the glacier to expand extensively, according to the USGS. By September 1996, it was evident from photographs and monitoring that a new glacier had formed. Crater Glacier at Mount St. Helens is now considered one of the youngest glaciers on Earth.

“The glacier tongues can be seen, descending either side of the degassing cone. Much of the glacier is covered by volcanic ash,” notes a recent report in Geography Review. By 2004, the report continues, the glacier covered around 0.36 square miles (0.93 km2), with two lobes wrapping around the lava dome in a horseshoe-like shape.

A bulge in Crater Glacier next to the south side of the 1980–86 lava dome in 2004 (source: D. Dzurisin, USGS/Walder et al.).

Joseph S. Walder, a research hydrologist at the USGS, has been studying the latest eruptions of Mount St. Helens. When interviewed by GlacierHub, he attributed the formation of the Crater Glacier to three factors.

“First, the crater acts as a sort of bowl that collects snow avalanching from the crater walls, so the accumulation rate is extremely high,” Walder said. “Secondly, the crater floor is in shadow most of the time. Last but not least, lots of rock material avalanches onto the crater floor, tending to cover and insulate accumulating snow.”

The new lava dome of Mount St. Helens and the by-then morphologically distinct east Crater Glacier (in foreground) in 2005 (source: J.W. Vallance, USGS/Walder et al.).


Today, there are hiking tours available throughout the Mount St. Helens area. Climbing the mountain is like walking on the moon, with ash and boulders surrounding you. From the top, you can see the growing volcanic dome, steaming and smoking.

Rodney Benson, an earth science teacher and blog writer at bigskywalker.com, hiked into the crater recently. “Some say the world will end in fire. Some say ice. What does this new glacier indicate?” he pondered.

Hike into Mt. St. Helens (source: buen viaje/Flickr).

 

As glaciers around the world recede as a result of climate change, the new glacier provides a fascinating context to explore interactions between volcanic processes, volcanic deposits and glacier behavior. The intensive monitoring programs led by the USGS have allowed us to observe these processes in unusual detail.

Photo Friday: Benchmark Glaciers in the USA

Glaciers contain about three quarters of the world’s fresh water and cover about 75,000 square kilometers of the U.S. The United States Geological Service (USGS) has been running the Benchmark Glacier program since the late 1950s to track glacier mass balance. Repeat measurements at four selected sites are used in conjunction with local meteorological and runoff data to measure the glaciers’ response to climate change.

Results from South Cascade Glacier in Washington and Gulkana and Wolverine glaciers in Alaska provide the longest continuous record of North American glacier mass balance. In 2005, Sperry Glacier in Montana was added to the program, allowing changes in glacier mass in the principal North American climate zones to be tracked.

South Cascade Glacier in Washington experiences some of the highest precipitation levels in the lower 48 states of the USA, exceeding 4500mm per annum in some places. Data was first collected from this glacier in 1959.

 

South Cascade Glacier as seen in 1928 (left) and 2006 (right) (Source: USGS)
South Cascade Glacier as seen in 1928 (left) and 2006 (right) (Source: USGS).

 

A researcher collecting a snow core sample from South Cascade Glacier (Source: USGS)
A researcher collecting a snow core sample from South Cascade Glacier (Source: USGS).

 

Gulkana Glacier can be found along the southern flank of the eastern Alaska range. It experiences a continental climate, with large temperature ranges and precipitation that is more irregular and lighter than that experienced in coastal areas.

 

Gulkana Glacier and surrounding peaks (Source: USGS)
Gulkana Glacier and surrounding peaks (Source: USGS).

 

Northern lights over the researchers’ cabin in 2014 (Source: USGS)
Northern lights over the researchers’ cabin in 2014 (Source: USGS).

 

A researcher measuring the thickness of the snow at Gulkana glacier (Source: USGS)
A researcher measuring the thickness of the snow at Gulkana Glacier (Source: USGS).

 

Wolverine Glacier is also located in Alaska, but is found in the Kenai Mountains on the coast. The maritime climate has low temperature variability and regular, heavy precipitation. Data collection at both Gulkana and Wolverine glaciers began in 1966.

 

Wolverine Glacier in 2014 (Source: USGS)
Wolverine Glacier in 2014 (Source: USGS).

 

The weather station at the top of Wolverine Glacier (Source: USGS)
The weather station at the top of Wolverine Glacier in Alaska (Source: USGS).

 

The crevassed surface of Wolverine Glacier (Source: USGS)
The crevassed surface of Wolverine Glacier in the Kenai Mountains (Source: USGS).

 

Sperry Glacier is located in the Lewis Range of Glacier National Park in Montana. The climate of the region is influenced by both maritime and continental air masses, but Pacific storm systems dominate. These systems result in moderate temperatures and heavy precipitation, which vary strongly with altitude.

 

Sperry Glacier in 1913 (top) and 2008 (bottom) (Source: USGS)
Sperry Glacier in 1913 (top) and 2008 (bottom) (Source: USGS).

 

Researchers inserting ablation stakes using a steam drill (Source: USGS)
Researchers inserting ablation stakes using a steam drill (Source: USGS).

Photo Friday: Fieldwork on Gulkana Glacier

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been collecting mass balance data on Gulkana Glacier ever since 1966. Gulkana Glacier is one of USGS’s two “benchmark” glaciers in Alaska, for which it has been patiently gathering data on an annual basis for the last fifty years. The glacier, looming 1300 meters in elevation, is located along the south flank of the eastern Alaska Range.

This Friday, enjoy photos of USGS’s fieldwork on Gulkana, including stunning photos of the glacier itself, the Northern Lights, and a lunar eclipse.

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Many thanks to Louis Sass of USGS for providing photos of USGS’s fieldwork. View more photos of Gulkana Glacier on USGS’s website.

 

Glaciers + Algal Blooms = Good?

James Bay, the southern end of Hudson Bay in Canada, is shown here in an image taken by the Suomi NPP satellite's VIIRS instrument around 1825Z on September 17, 2013. Sediment flow from rivers and algal blooms can be seen well in this clear view. (NOAA/NASA)
James Bay, the southern end of Hudson Bay in Canada, is shown here in an image taken by the Suomi NPP satellite’s VIIRS instrument around 1825Z on September 17, 2013. Sediment flow from rivers and algal blooms can be seen well in this clear view. (NOAA/NASA)

The pros and cons of algal blooms, high concentrations of phytoplankton in the oceans, are a subject of much debate. But several studies in recent months have examined links between changing polar environments, exponential growth of algal blooms, and potential for carbon reduction.

One study, appearing in the journal Nature Communications in May 2014, suggests that ocean iron from glacial melt could have positive effects for polar regions in the face of global warming because of the nutrient quality for algae. “The theory goes that the more iron you add, the more productive these plankton are,” John Hawking, a doctoral student at the University of Bristol and lead author of the study, told Scientific American in May.

The University of Bristol study examined the amount of a specific type of iron (bioavailable ferrihydrite) released in glacial melt water from the Leverett Glacier in Greenland. The levels of this form of iron found in the glacier allowed Hawking to estimate that an iron flux of up to 400,000 to 2.5 million metric tons could be flowing from Greenland annually. These releases have the potential to be transported up to 900 km from the site of origin and to greatly affect the global iron cycle.

The ICESCAPE mission, or "Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment," is NASA's two-year shipborne investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems. The bulk of the research takes place in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in summer 2010 and 2011. (Kathryn Hansen/NASA)
The ICESCAPE mission, or “Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment,” is NASA’s two-year shipborne investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean’s chemistry and ecosystems. The bulk of the research takes place in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in summer 2010 and 2011. (Kathryn Hansen/NASA)

New findings coming out of a NASA-sponsored expedition off the coasts of Alaska discovered a massive algal bloom in this polar region as well. Contrary to Hawking’s study, the ICESCAPE expedition conducted by NASA in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas determined the growth in algae was a product of younger and thinning ice. Because of the changes in ice density due to Alaska’s warming climate, more sunlight is able to reach the water underneath the ice packs, according to researchers on the expedition. Therefore, the environment is more favorable for the phytoplankton.

Historically, expanding algae populations in other parts of the globe have generated many negative side effects. For example, the decay of algae during a bloom can suck nutrients and oxygen out of the water creating a dead zone. These low-oxygen areas reduce the productivity of wildlife, decrease their productive capacity, and can even kill them. Further, humans experience the effects of algal blooms through the ingestion of toxic substances via shellfish.

Yet, in the wake of information about the connection of algae growth and a warming world, studies are taking more effort to explore the positive consequences of algal blooms. A study conducted by the USGS Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution proposes that increases of phytoplankton in polar regions will serve as a new food source for wildlife and will offer increased carbon capture in these areas. The greater numbers of phytoplankton, the greater volume of carbon the population will consume during photosynthesis. Some scientists believe an increasing number of algal blooms will deplete carbon stores in the ocean, resulting in greater absorption of atmospheric carbon by the sea. Additionally, when the phytoplankton die, they often retain much of the stored carbon and carry it down to the ocean floor.

Scientists are not certain how the interplay between phytoplankton and ocean carbon will develop because ocean uptake of carbon (especially, in the deep water) can occur on a long timescale, and because it is not yet clear how much carbon is retained versus released during algae death.

With all of this in mind, scientists are hopeful that the correlation of glacial melt, encouraging environments, and algal growth will have a net-positive effect. Further study of this natural bioengineering project will definitely aide scientists in understanding climate change trends.