Save the Snow – Undergraduate Research on Ruth Glacier in Alaska – A. Bradford & K. Kreutz


When Abigail “Abi” Bradford was 2, her parents strapped skis on her feet, tucked her between their lower legs and glided down the slope.

When she was a bit older and skiing solo, she belted out the “Sesame Street” theme song as she blazed full speed ahead along the main trail at Titcomb Mountain in Farmington, Maine:

Sunny day,
Sweepin’ the clouds away,
On my way to where the air is sweet …

Today, Bradford is most confident when barreling down the side of a snow-covered hill. And she wants to keep her downhill options open.

“I love the exhilaration of going fast, but being completely in control. Having a freshly groomed trail to myself first thing in the morning is one of my favorite things,” she says.

Bradford, who majored in Earth and climate sciences with a concentration in climate systems, is concerned that near-future climate change could jeopardize the healthy hobby that she and approximately 11.5 million Americans enjoy.

The 05 2015 graduate plans to pursue graduate research in regional climate modeling — specifically, parameterizations regarding snowfall, quality and retention.

While Bradford hasn’t decided on an initial career focus — she says she frequently changes her mind — it will be climate related.

Abi Bradford first learned about climate change in middle school. Since then, she has wanted to dedicate her life to addressing current and near-future climate change.

Bradford began her higher education in the science department at the University of British Columbia; she planned to eventually study civil engineering and focus on renewable energy.

When she transferred to UMaine, Bradford knew she wanted to study meteorology and climate “and the School of Earth and Climate Sciences and the Climate Change Institute at UMaine employ some of the top scientists in their fields,” she says.

Bradford remembers first learning about climate change in middle school. She says it was scary. She wondered why she hadn’t heard about it before and why more people weren’t discussing an issue of such global magnitude.

Since then, Bradford has wanted to dedicate her life to addressing current and near-future climate change.

She plans to promote awareness about how climate change 05 impact skiing by creating a website — she favors the name “Save the Snow” — that includes maps and graphs of climate data, including ones she made of snow depth in Maine since the 1950s in a climate modeling class.

Bradford, a UMaine 2014–15 Center for Undergraduate Research Fellow, envisions the website inspiring her peers to lead more sustainable lives and to call on policymakers to take action to mitigate climate change.

Bradford has skied in some incredible places, including Whistler Mountain in British Columbia, Arapahoe Basin (A-Basin) in Colorado and Mount Baker in Washington.

And in spring 2014, she skied on “the steep short pitches with corn snow” (small pellets created by alternate melting and freezing of a snow layer) on Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park.

That experience came about when Bradford was conducting fieldwork for her senior capstone requirement.

UMaine paleoclimatologist Karl Kreutz invited her to assist with the spring 2014 field season research in Alaska. Kreutz is in the midst of a multiyear study funded by the National Science Foundation that examines temperature change and glacial depth, and retreat in the last 1,000 years in the Alaska Range. Results are expected to inform future planetary sea level rise.

“Probably the most valuable aspect of the trip was witnessing what a career as a scientist can consist of,” Bradford says. “Most directly, I witnessed Karl and Seth’s (Campbell, UMaine research assistant professor) work as grant-funded researchers.”

To prep for the adventure, Bradford bought and borrowed gear, and ramped up her workouts with her cousin, who was training to climb the 20,320-foot Denali, which in Inuit means the “great one” or the “high one.”

On the glacier, Bradford says the crew awakened naturally, ate a large breakfast, prehydrated and tested equipment. Before heading out on skis, they harnessed themselves together in case one of them fell into a crevasse.

For hours, they towed ground-penetrating radar equipment across Ruth Glacier. Researchers determine the depth of the glacier by how quickly the pulse reflects off the bedrock and returns to the surface.

“Since it was so sunny and reflective on the glacier, it would feel really hot during the day,” says Bradford. “I wore very thin layers, but covered my whole body and wore a lot of sunscreen to avoid getting sunburned.”

After long days towing equipment, the crew skied back to camp, which Bradford jokes “was cruelly located at the top of a very long, gradual hill.”

For four days, reporters from the National Science Foundation and Public Broadcasting Service filmed and interviewed the crew for stories.

In the evenings at the camp, the researchers boiled snow for drinking water and cooking, then ate while soaking in the view. Bradford says her diet during the three-week trip included bagels with peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, Craisins, cereal, granola bars, Snickers bars, frozen vegetables, sandwiches, smoked salsoup, noodles, tea and cocoa.

“The scenery was constantly stimulating. The glacier was such a foreign landscape to me — very alien and remote and beautiful. Everything was white and black, except for the pools of water, which are an insane turquoise color due to how the fine-grained glacially eroded dust in them reflects light,” she says.

“There would be beautiful sunsets that lasted forever because the sun didn’t really set. Our camp looked right at the peak of Denali and the light would catch the snow blowing off of it and create beautiful images. My cousin was climbing Denali at the time so we would always look at it and try and gauge if they were getting good weather to summit.”

Photo of Abi Bradford and Seth Campbell

Abi Bradford, foreground, and Seth Campbell used ground-penetrating radar to determine the depth of Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park.


In 09 ember, the Westport Island, Maine resident began analyzing the samples she gathered on the glacier. She analyzed isotope ratios of snow samples to try to determine whether a Jan. 23, 2014 atmospheric river (AR) event that originated near Hawaii and impacted the Alaska Range yielded precipitation statistically distinct from that of other 2014 storms.

An AR is a fast-moving, long, thin stream of moisture in the atmosphere that forms ahead of a cold front associated with an extratropical cyclone. An AR can hold more water than the Amazon River and when it hits land, it unleashes torrential rain that can cause severe flooding and avalanches.

“Atmospheric rivers are capable of transporting heat and moisture long distances in a short time,” says Bradford. “Therefore, they 05 have a significant effect on the energy and mass balance of glaciers.”

Bradford also has been processing ground-penetrating radar data to confirm the presence of an ice layer corresponding to the AR event, which would indicate the storm resulted in melting, thereby significantly affecting the glacier’s mid-winter energy and mass balance.

She is re-creating the storm’s track from historical weather data and climate reanalysis, and plotting pertinent data using NCL, a coding language that generates weather maps and graphs.

In May, Bradford presented the results at the international American Geophysical Union Joint Assembly in Montreal, Canada, and wrote a paper — the culmination of her capstone.

Kreutz says involving undergraduate and graduate students in research trips so they can conduct authentic research is one of the most satisfying parts of his job.

“There are a lot of opportunities at UMaine to travel and/or conduct research,” Bradford says. “Search for them online and ask your professors if they know of any. There are many experiences that aren’t built into our degrees here, but that exist and are invaluable opportunities.”

Bradford’s opportunity 05 give her perspective about her career plans, including efforts to preserve skiing and other traditional New England winter livelihoods and recreational activities.

Some forecasts about the future of skiing are bleak.

A study by Daniel Scott, a professor at the University of Waterloo who specializes in human dimensions of global climate change and sustainable tourism, indicates by 2039, more than half of 103 Northeast ski resorts won’t be able to sustain a 100-day season.

In 24 years, Connecticut and Massachusetts likely will not have any economically viable ski resorts, whereas eight of 14 resorts in Maine and seven of 18 in New Hampshire will remain feasible, according to the study.

While the future for skiing in this region 05 be bleak, Bradford says near-term climate predictions can be uncertain. In the next few decades, New England 05 have longer, colder, snowier winters as the region enters the negative phase of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation.

What is certain is Bradford plans to work to ensure the next generations are able to enjoy childhood ski experiences like those she cherishes.


Video Link/UMaine Today