Monday, September 19, 2005

A Glacier vacation

So I'm back from a very nice, not-at-all relaxed, two-week vacation. I ended up spending a week in Glacier National Park in Montana, helping (or pretending to help) two friends and their co-workers doing field research. As I mentioned in an earlier post, one friend is with the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, doing field work and analysis of glacier retreat. The other is a botanist at the park. As a general comment, the right-wingers who say government workers are lazy should try keeping up with these folks; it sure wasn't easy for me.

So: the first day, we did repeat photography of Grinnell Glacier from the summit of neighboring Mt. Gould. This is the same picture posted in Real Climate's first posting on glacier retreat, and a "poster child" of climate change. Of course, to do the picture you have to GET to the summit of Mt. Gould, and you need to do it before the afternoon shadows eliminate the light. We went from 5700' to 9500' in 2.5 hours, much of it off-trail on loose, sliding rock. You can see the contrasts between 1938 and 1981 photos here (scroll to near the bottom), and NRMSC has taken additional photos they also plan to publish. Ours were the first since 2001 - alot of retreat has occurred in just four years.

Next day, the glacier people were in the office, so I went out with my botanist friend and her co-worker, who are building a database of plants found at randomly chosen sites throughout the park. We ended up at two sites where a glacier had recently retreated; the database will be helpful for current research and for future researchers who can return to the locations to see what has changed over time.

Third day was a late start up for three of us up to a ranger cabin near Sperry Glacier. The next day we crossed a pass near Sperry Glacier and one person went off to do more repeat photography. The other two of us took ice axes, put on crampons, roped up and went on to the glacier to find stakes that had been drilled in to the glacier. We found all of them and measured the ice that had melted in just one month. I'm not sure what I should say here because I believe they plan to publish their results, but I can say there was an impressive loss of ice - that glacier is thinning quickly. We could see the "firn" area, the area of remaining winter snow that would become glacier ice. A healthy glacier needs roughly 60% firn coverage to be stable. I'd say that Sperry had less than 20% coverage now, and will have still less in the future with increasing temperatures.

After measuring stakes, we walked the bottom margin of the glacier with GPS units, creating a line that can again be used for comparison in the future as the glacier retreats. I'd guess the bottom margin was a mile in a straight line, and it took us about four hours - the bottom of a retreating glacier is anything but a straight line, and none of it is on a trail. By the end of the day, the weather already started to turn. We got back to the cabin, and the other two decided to do a forced march out in the rain and fading light. I decided to enjoy the cabin and left the next morning, walking through several inches of fresh snow.

The weather was expected to stay bad for a week, cancelling the high-altitude field work. So I changed plans and went south. I had a nice, brief visit with science blogger Kevin V from no/se/nada in Missoula (first blogger contact that I've actually met in person). Then did a few day hikes in Yellowstone, a four-day backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, and drove back home to the Bay Area.

I've got more to say but I'll save it for later posts. I had a great time doing a volunteer vacation, and would encourage other people to do the same. Personal connections sure are helpful, but sheer persistence can also make a connection. Virtually every American national park has a Volunteer in Parks program; that's one way to get started.

key: science, global warming

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