Post from a Scientist: Tracking our Ice Budget

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Trekking Alaska’s Kennicott Glacier

I have always loved winter and math. Getting a PhD in glaciology connects me to both these loves. I started my PhD in glaciology one year ago, and so far it has taken me all the way from home mountain glaciers in my Montana backyard to the Greenland ice sheet.

I will never forget the first time I visited Glacier National Park in northern Montana. Mountain landscapes are always pretty but this was on a whole other level. Snow-capped peaks soar above waterfalls cascading down steep burgundy-colored cliffs, pouring into bright turquoise lakes, trimmed by bright green, lush forests outfitted with fern and pine. Now I am lucky enough to live within driving distance of these great vistas, and even luckier to get to study the glaciers responsible for carving such a tremendous landscape.

Glaciologists keep track of glaciers just like an accountant keeps track of a bank account, only instead of money, it is snow and ice in the ledger. This accounting exercise is called mass balance. We know that the glaciers in Glacier National Park (GNP) have had a negative mass balance (meaning the mass has decreased) for decades, but the accounting records are in need of organization and analysis. My research on the mass balance of a glacier in GNP will collect and reconcile these accounting records. When the climate warms, small mountain glaciers retreat rapidly. However, once the glaciers have retreated up into the higher mountains, conditions are colder and more shaded. So… will the glaciers respond more to the general trend of regional climate warming and disappear, or will they re-equilibrate and stick around in their new, higher elevation locations? Glaciers in GNP affect local ecology and economy to a small degree, but the real impact of studying these processes in Montana is that we can hopefully gain understanding of mountain glacier processes that can be applied in other mountain ranges around the world.

The Greenland ice sheet is a huge mass of moving ice twice the size of Texas, that simultaneously flows towards the ocean along its coastal perimeter, and is regenerated with new snow  every winter at its highest inland elevations. The way that ice flows near the perimeter is affected by the shape of the land it flows across, and as it turns out the Greenland ice sheet is flowing across dramatic mountain ranges. Imagine Rocky Mountains under ice as deep as multiple sky-scrapers are high. My research in Greenland investigates the way that mountain valleys buried deep under huge expanses of ice affect ice flow, which is important to understand so that we can get the numbers right on predictions of future sea level rise.

This week I am enjoying discussions about Greenland and Montana ice with other glaciologists in McCarthy, Alaska. McCarthy is a small mountain village nestled at the foot of Kennicott glacier. The time here is about meeting other glaciologists and talking glaciology in an impressive (and awesome) environment. Snow, ice and math – even in the summer!

- Caitlyn, University of Montana, USA

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