Having grown up in North Dakota where winters can be particularly harsh, I gained an appreciation and a fascination with extreme environments. As a kid, I would spend hours outdoors during the winter time in subzero temperatures pretending to be on expeditions in some snowy landscape. Now as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth System Science and Policy with research interests in glaciology, I am reliving my childhood in reality by researching glaciers in some of the most remote and rugged mountains in the contiguous United States.
My interest in glaciology was peaked as an undergraduate at the University of Idaho where I participated in the Juneau Icefield Research Program during the summer of 1999. On this expedition style program, two months were spent crossing the Juneau Icefield on skis and foot while learning about glaciology, geology, climatology, hydrology, and biology, and actually conducting research on the glaciers. After graduating from Idaho with a B.S. in Geography, and another B.S. in Cartography in 2000, I attended Kansas State University where I took a break from glaciers to study rivers, and earned a M.A. in Geography in 2002. However, I then attended the University of Utah and returned to studying glaciers through remote sensing methods. While I did not get a chance to research glaciers in the field, I was happy to be back in this research area, and I earned a Ph.D. in Geography in 2007 with a dissertation title of “Measuring the mass balance and contribution to sea level rise of North American glaciers using remote sensing techniques.”
Now at the University of North Dakota, I have been provided the opportunity to return to glaciers in the field. My interest in the Wind River glaciers in west-central Wyoming actually came about when I was an undergrad. I remember distinctly spending time in the “Map Room” at the university library looking over maps for the next good backpacking location. As I was looking over a topographic map of the Wind River Range, I noticed that there were sizable glaciers near the continental divide. Ever since then, I have dreamed of traveling to those glaciers to study how they have an impact on and are impacted by the surrounding environment, and of course to stand in awe of this incredible and extreme landscape.
Wind River Range Glaciers, Wyoming
The Wind River Range contains approximately 60 glaciers situated along the continental divide at elevations ranging between 11,000 to nearly 14,000 feet. While the glaciers are not nearly as big as those found in other places such as Alaska, they are the largest in the Rocky Mountains of the United States (the largest being around 2 to 3 km²), and they do provide an important source of water for the surrounding communities. In the western United States people rely on snow melt and glacial melt to provide water for irrigation of agriculture, fish hatcheries, drinking water, and recreation (Barnett et al. 2005). However, as the summer season moves on much of the snowpack from the previous winter melts out by late summer and early fall. Therefore, the glacier melt becomes more important during these months as a source of water for the region.
In the Wind River Range it has been noted that the snowpack melt is ending earlier and earlier over the last several decades (Hall et al. in press), meaning that the people surrounding the mountains will need to rely more and more on the glacial melt water provided during the end of July through August and September. With temperatures in these mountain rising by 3.5° C over the last 50 years (Nafts et al. 2002), the glaciers are at risk of melting more rapidly and eventually disappearing, leaving the surrounding region with a shortage of water. To better manage their water resources for future use it is necessary to understand how much water actually exists in the glaciers as well as the rate of glacial melt. To achieve this understanding it is necessary to conduct research in the field to determine the ice thickness and surface elevations so as to create a three dimensional model of the remaining glacier ice which is then used to calculate the amount of potential melt water left. Rates of past glacial melting calculated by measuring changes in the surface elevation over various dates are used to help understand how quickly the glaciers are melting. Combining the amount of ice remaining with the rate of melting along with future projections of climate will provide a projection of how much time the glaciers have to exist, and in turn provide water to the region.
Research Trip to Continental Glacier
In August 2011 a team of five researchers (two from UND and three from the University of Utah) traveled to Continental Glacier on the northern end of the Wind River Range to conduct preliminary research as well as determine the feasibility of reaching and researching these glaciers. Traveling to the glaciers alone is (as one forest ranger put it) “a challenge and a half”. The environment is extremely rugged and difficult to travel through. The glaciers exist at the highest points in the range and deep into the wilderness areas where no motorized vehicles and no helicopter drops are allowed. Therefore, travel by foot and by horseback is necessary. The total length of the trail from the Green River Lakes Campground (at about 8,000 feet) in the Bridger-Teton National Forest to the edge of the glacier (at 12,000 feet) in the is about 17 miles. The first 12 miles were covered on horseback with the remaining five miles on foot, carrying everything on our backs. We needed to be well prepared for difficult conditions including steep rocky cliffs, below freezing temperatures, lack of oxygen, lightning storms, rain, hail, snow, strong winds, and bears (both black AND grizzly); and this is just getting to the glacier which has its own dangers.
Click for full sized image
Once we arrived at the glacier we began our research, with our objectives of mapping the surface elevations with a high accuracy Global Positioning System (GPS) unit, gathering a few ice depth measurements with an ice penetrating radar, and generally examining the glacier and surrounding area. Over a period of four days we collected elevations on approximately half the glacier, as well as collected two ice depth measurements, along with several snow depths and snow density. The surface elevations collected in the field will be compared with surface elevations from previous dates (i.e. 1966 and 2006) to determine the rate of change (or melt) during these time periods. While the two ice depth measurements are informative about the general thickness of the glacier, they do not provide enough information to create a three dimensional model of the ice. Future field research will likely include a better ice penetrating radar which will provide transects of the glacier bed for three dimensional modeling. Although we were not able to collect as much data as we originally hoped for this trip, we met our original goal of determining the feasibility of reaching and researching the glaciers. We now know that we can conduct research in this difficult environment and with a few adjustments to our logistics we plan to return to the glaciers and continue where we left off.
Images from the August 2011 Research Trip
The following pictures provide a photographic journey of the research expedition conducted in August 2011. We would not have been able to complete this research trip without the help of Blucher Creek Outfitters , who brought us and all our equipment up the mountain. We would like to thank the Department of Earth System Science and Policy, the University of North Dakota, and NASA for supporting our past, current, and future efforts and I personally would like to thank them for helping one of my dreams come true.
Any student interested in joining the Department of Earth System Science and Policy is welcome to discuss working with me on this research and potentially gaining a fantastic field experience such as this. My contact information is here.
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All materials © J. VanLooy, 2011. All rights reserved.