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
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.


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:

Roundup: Glacier Melt Reveals New Islands, ICIMOD Job Search, and New Monuments

Photo Friday: Flashback with Historical Photos of Glacier National Park

Huge Cracks in Antarctic Glacier Foreshadow Epic Calving Event

Irony in Big Piney: On Karen Budd-Falen and the Wind River Glaciers

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s new pick for the department’s Deputy Solicitor for Fish, Wildlife and Parks is Karen Budd-Falen, a Wyoming-based property rights attorney known for challenging federal land policy. GlacierHub provides an ecological perspective on the glaciers, rivers and lakes of Budd-Falen’s home community in Big Piney, Wyoming.

Budd-Falen and the Wind River Glaciers

In remote Wyoming, the Wind River glaciers span 10,000 acres and contain over 100 different glaciers proliferated throughout the great continental divide, according to a recent study by Portland State University. The western slope glaciers, with names like Minor, Mammoth, Sourdough, Grasshopper and even Sacagawea, form the headwaters of Wyoming’s largest river, the nearly 4,000 square mile Green River BasinDownstream, the Green River meanders through the wilderness, flowing between public and private lands as it makes its way to the Utah border.

The Green River where it meets the Seedskadee National Wildlife Rescue (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Private, working ranches benefit from this glacial surplus in the Wind River Range. One ranch in particular, located in Big Piney, Wyoming, has been held by the same family for five generations. Budd-Falen calls this ranch home.

If you haven’t heard of Karen Budd-Falen, you’ve probably heard of her most notorious client, Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle rancher at the forefront of the 2014 armed standoff with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over cattle grazing rights on federal land. Budd-Falen has repeatedly argued against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in court, and in favor of ranchers, landowners and corporations garnering unfettered rights for the private use of public lands.

Budd-Falen has also attempted to sue individual BLM employees under RICO for upholding federal law.

Bears Ears National Monument was reduced 85% by President Donald Trump on December 4, 2017 (Source: Creative Commons).

In her new DOI position, beginning 1 November, she will be an integral part of the DOI’s policy-making, working with the Justice Department to defend federal policy while providing counsel regarding legal issues surrounding government positions on public parks and wildlife policy.

Policy analysts are concerned she’ll endorse regulations undermining the Endangered Species Act, shrinking national monuments, and opening up more federal lands to oil, gas and mining industries.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Michael Burger, executive director for the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, commented there is nothing surprising about Budd-Falen’s appointment. It is “perfectly in line with what Trump has been doing with regards to appointments surrounding the environment. Choosing people who stand for the opposite of what the agencies missions are,” he said. Burger added that the appointment of Budd-Falen makes it clear that “Zinke is seeking to conduct a fire sale on the nation’s mineral rights to public lands.”

Irony in Big Piney

Glacier National Park in Montana (Source: Creative Commons).

Recently, Budd-Falen was hired to represent the Stillwater county commissioners in the Beartooth Front lawsuit, arguing against Montana landowners and their desire for citizen-initiated zoning. Citizen-initiated zoning is a process where landowners guide the development of their own land-use plans. In this case, it’s about the Montana landowners wish to guide the mineral rights on their own properties. However, now Budd-Falen represents the government’s desire for control over mineral rights.

Herein lies the dichotomy of Karen Budd-Falen. Above ground, her track record shows she solidly supports unrestricted private land use, especially for landowners, so they may go about their businesses without federal rules or intervention. Below ground, she works for the mineral rights owners, disallowing surface owners’ local input and opening these areas to the oil and gas industries.

Ironically, opening up Beartooth Front to oil, gas and mineral drilling and exploration may deposit dust or other particles on the surface of nearby glaciers in the Absaroka range. Should this drilling and exploration extend only a few hundred miles eastward, the debris have the potential to land on the same glaciers that feed the Green River Basin in Wyoming, and subsequently Budd-Falen’s own ranch in Big Piney.

Field studies have shown that a thin debris layer causes glaciers to melt faster, bad news for the Wind River Range of glaciers in Wyoming, which have already retreated nearly 40 percent since 1966.

Budd-Falen’s views and her stances on landowner and mineral owner rights have the potential to put her fifth-generation Big Piney home at risk. Because the glacial melt supporting her home community is a finite resource, accelerating glacial retreat through the inception of drilling, mining and natural resource exploration impacts the natural landscape and ecological viability of her ranch’s activities.

Interestingly, when Budd-Falen was originally being considered by the Trump administration for a top position in the DOI, she was asked to sell her ranch— which she refused to do so— quelling her early nomination. However, her ongoing defense of individual land and mineral right freedoms continues to jeopardize the Wind River glaciers’ capacity to support her family home into a sixth generation.





Photo Friday: Capturing the Glaciers of the Rockies

Garrett Fisher, a writer, photographer and adventurer, recently set out to capture the beauty of the Rockies. To do so, he flew an antique plane across the sky for aerial views of the last remaining glaciers in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. He was inspired by the need to document the glory of the Rockies before the glaciers disappear completely. His photos from the trip can be found in his recently published book, “Glaciers of the Rockies,” which features his collection of 177 carefully curated photos.

This Photo Friday, view samples of his work from his website.


Gannett Glacier, Wind River Range, WY (Source: Garrett Fisher).


Klondike Glacier, Wind River Range, WY (Source: Garrett Fisher).


Glacier National Park, MT (Source: Garrett Fisher).


Wind River Range, WY (Source: Garrett Fisher).


Dinwoody Glacier, Wind River Range, WY (Source: Garrett Fisher).


Pumpelly Glacier, Glacier National Park (Source: Garrett Fisher).

Of Sanders and Glaciers, Wyoming Edition

Do glaciers have an influence on voting patterns in America? In this year’s unusual presidential campaign, analysts have examined many factors, such as age, gender, race, education or other demographic characteristics. But looking at the proximity to glaciers also merits consideration.

Last weekend’s caucuses in Wyoming suggest an association between glaciers and support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, much as the results from Washington state did last month. As the third most glaciated state in the US, after Alaska and Washington, Wyoming seems like a promising site to examine this possibility.

Because Wyoming has not yet released the complete tallies of voters in the caucuses, we are basing our analysis on the numbers of delegates from each county to the state Democratic convention, which are publicly available. The proportion of delegates for each candidate from each county is based on the proportion of voters in that county’s caucus who supported that candidate, so we can infer the voting patterns in each county from the numbers of delegates chosen there.

Using this information, we find that Sanders scored two percentage points higher on average in counties with glaciers than he did across the entire state.

Sanders performed well in Wyoming overall, receiving 55.7 percent of the vote, much as he has done in the other states with glaciers (Washington at 72.7 percent, Colorado at 58.9 percent, and Alaska at 81.6 percent). As we’ve noted, Clinton, despite her wins in a number of other states and her lead in the delegate count overall, has so far failed to defeat Sanders in a state with glaciers. The only exception is Nevada, in which she achieved a small majority, 52.6 percent. Since this state contains only one tiny glacier, Wheeler Peak Glacier, with an area just over 0.01 square kilometers, its results may not seriously challenge this possible relationship between glaciers and support for Sanders.

County map of Wyoming, with locations of major glacier ranges, Wind River, Teton and Absaroka indicated by their initial letters (source: USGS)
County map of Wyoming, with locations of major glacier ranges, Wind River, Absraoka and Teton indicated by their initial letters (source: USGS)

To explore this relationship in greater detail, GlacierHub examined the results at the county level in Wyoming. We focused on the state’s three most glaciated mountain ranges, the Wind River Range (55.8 square kilometers of glaciers), the Absaroka Mountains (9.6 square kilometers) and the Teton Range (6.9 square kilometers)  since we hypothesized that this association would be weaker for smaller glaciers.

We used this information to establish a set of four glacier counties (Sublette and Fremont, which lie on either side of the Wind River Range, Park for the Absaroka Mountains, and Teton for its eponymous range).  We use the term “non-glacier counties” for the other 19 counties in the state.

(source: Politico)
(source: Politico)

As the table included here shows, the glacier counties went more strongly for Sanders. These glacier counties gave him 57.7 percent of their delegate total, above the state average of 55.7 percent. Indeed, three of these four counties—Sublette, Park and Teton—chose 60 percent or more of their delegates for Sanders, placing them in the top third of the state’s counties for the proportion of Sanders delegates.

There was one glacier county in Wyoming where Sanders didn’t do better than he did on average across the state: Fremont County was one of the eight counties in which Sanders and Clinton were tied. Sheer geographical reasons might account for the relative weakness of this possible  glacier effect in Fremont County, since it is the largest of the counties, stretching furthest from the mountains and most extensively into the plains region in the eastern portion of the state. Moreover, it lacks the major national parks (Yellowstone in Park County, Grand Teton in Teton County) that could underscore the importance of the iconic white peaks. And other local factors may be at play. Laura Hancock, a reporter with the Casper Star-Tribune, described the county as follows in an email interview:  

Fremont County has two dynamics going on. It has the Wind River Reservation, home of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. Leadership from both tribes endorsed Clinton. Bill Clinton has had a relationship with them since the 1990s. But the small city of Lander is also in Fremont County. Lander is at the base of the Wind River Range. It has a number of businesses and organizations in the town that are conservation-minded – the National Outdoor Leadership School and the Wyoming Outdoor Council are the ones off the top of my head. Whenever I go to Lander and hang out it seems like there are a lot of young, white men – Bernie’s core group, I think. Granted, those organizations both employ women. I know women who work at both of those places. But generally speaking, Lander is sort of this town where there are a lot of people are drawn, a lot of people who love the outdoors and are so young, they may have been born during Bill Clinton’s second term and don’t really know who he is. So Sanders is inspiring them and the Clintons are these people from the vague past.

The association between glaciers and support for Sanders in the three counties might reflect factors other than the presence of glaciers. The three glacier counties that supported Sanders, taken as a set, have a higher proportion of white residents (92.6 percent), a demographic that has supported him, than the state overall (90.7 percent), while the proportion of white residents in Fremont County is only 74.3 percent. The tendency of urban voters to support Clinton may also be reflected in the fact that Fremont County has Riverton, the largest town in the four glacier counties. Clinton also performed well in the state’s two largest cities, Cheyenne and Casper, giving her a majority in the counties, Cheyenne and Natrona, in which they are located.

Idiosyncratic factors in these counties may also have influenced voting patterns in these counties. A Reddit user  commented that the Democrats in Sublette County supported Sanders because of their opposition to the extensive oil and gas operations there. Also, the strong turnout of young voters in the Park County caucus may have helped Sanders there.  

In an email to GlacierHub, Sarah Strauss, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming, mentioned the influx into Teton County of people from out of state, including celebrities like Harrison Ford and Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, who are drawn by its scenic beauty. She said, “One thing to know about Jackson Hole and Teton County is that though they are geographically located in Wyoming, they are really part of California/the West Coast in spirit–and, to a great extent, in demographics and political orientation as well.” 

It would be interesting to examine voting patterns community by community, rather than at the county level, but such information is not available for Wyoming. The Democratic Party in Wyoming, recognizing that their party has barely one-fifth of the registered voters in the state, decided to hold only one caucus per county, unlike the more numerous Republicans, who set up several caucuses in the more populous counties, allowing for finer-grained analysis of their voting patterns.

Caucuses and primaries, with hundreds of delegates at stake, will be held in the coming months in several other glacier states, including Montana, Oregon, and California. The results from these elections may shed light on this possible association between glaciers and voting patterns. In the meantime, Sanders supporters took pleasure that the glacier-rich state of Wyoming extended their candidate’s run of strong performances. His victory in that state was his eighth in the last nine contests— and his fourth victory in a state with glaciers.