A Brief Summary of and Takeaways from the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project

Expedition Date:  August 2018

Field Team Members:  Erin McConnell, Mariama Dryak, Jill Pelto, and Mauri Pelto

Expedition Funding Acknowledgement:  North Cascade Glacier Climate Project

Expedition Report: 

As our small group reached the highest point in our hike, the mist that had blanketed us at the onset of the hike trailed away, opening our view to a landscape of disorganized glacial debris punctuated by splashes of alpine flora. Conversation had trailed off as we grew tired of heavy packs and elevation gain, and we silently took in the vista. Suddenly a scream pierced the quiet and startled us. Mountain lion? Hiker in distress? We soon learned that it was only a marmot—a large, squirrel-like rodent common in mountain ecosystems—alerting its cohort of potential danger. Over the course of 16 days in the mountains, we saw many marmots and other alpine wildlife: mountain goats, pikas, monkey flowers, Indian paintbrush flowers, and more. But the area’s biology, while compelling, was not our primary research area. We had come to see the ice.

This past summer, Climate Change Institute graduate students Mariama Dryak and Erin McConnell joined UMaine graduates Jill Pelto and Mauri Pelto for the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project (NCGCP)’s 35th year of fieldwork. The Pelto family are veterans of the NCGCP. With 35 years and 10 years of experience with the project, respectively, Mauri and his daughter Jill are well-versed in all aspects of alpine glacier systems.

NCGCP Group Photo.
Former and present UMaine CCI graduate students (left to right): Mariah Radue, Mariama Dryak, Erin McConnell and Jill Pelto standing in front of Columbia Glacier before a long day of fieldwork on the NCGCP

The NCGCP is a glacier mass balance monitoring program started by Dr. Mauri Pelto in 1984 with the intention of assembling a long-term record of glacier ‘health’ in North America. The goal was to see how glaciers would respond to climate change over a long-term monitoring period. Mauri had been working on the Juneau Icefield Research Project for three years when he decided to establish his own project in a place that was relatively inexpensive to access, and where monitoring could be carried out for the long-term. His intention was to measure the mass balance of glaciers scattered across a single mountain range, rather than monitoring singular glaciers in several different mountain ranges as the USGS was doing at the time. He set out to run the project for at least 50 years, and 35 years later it is still going strong. The NCGCP was also specifically designed without the need for lugging large equipment into the field. The project is therefore carried out on foot, using only materials that can be hauled in and out of the field sites in the backpacks of that year’s field crew. This minimizes the project’s carbon footprint by eliminating the need for air travel between field sites.

The group completes annual mass balance measurements on eight North Cascades glaciers: Easton, Sholes, Rainbow, Lower Curtis, Columbia, Ice Worm, Daniels, and Lynch. These measurements involve using probes to measure the depth of the year’s snowpack, recording crevasse depths, constructing horizontal and vertical profiles of the glacier surface, and measuring stream velocity and discharge using biodegradable dyes and depth profiles. Mauri chose these glaciers primarily because of the local population’s dependence upon them for water resources. Some of the glaciers feed rivers that are important resources for downstream hydropower plants, and the water discharge from one of the glaciers is extremely important for the habitat of six endangered species of salmon resources. In addition, the water produced by another glacier is used for irrigating agriculture downstream, while another acts as a municipal water supply. The idea around selecting these North Cascades glaciers was that people who rely on these resources would be able to see how changes in glacier mass balance can directly translate to impacts on downstream resources.

Since the start of the project, Mauri has formed collaborative partnerships with different people who have a vested interest in these resources or are local recreators in the region. For example, each year the glacier mass balance information is shared with the Nooksack Indian Tribe, who measure water discharge around the same time of each year as well. Whereas the NCGCP monitoring usually takes place at the end of each summer (and thus the end of the glacial melt season), Mauri has partners involved with the project that check in on glaciers occasionally during different seasons.

Conclusions drawn from this year’s fieldwork reflect the influence of climate change on the Pacific Northwest. The glacial melt rate during the August field season was 35% greater than normal, a consequence of summer melt season temperatures 1.1℃ above the 1948-2017 average. Anomalously dry conditions contributed to a high incidence of forest fires in the region, with the latter half of the field season characterized by an influx of smoke and lowered visibility. All eight of the measured glaciers were on track for a significantly negative annual mass balance and showed 7-21 meters of retreat since 2017. Excessive melt has also contributed to an increased incidence of exposed rock outcrops in areas of the glacier surface that are normally snow-covered. Additional information, including figures, are available in Mauri’s blog post.

Mauri Pelto on the Sholes Glacier.
Photo shows the extent of the Sholes Glacier where Mauri Pelto is standing when he first visited it in 1984, its extent where Jill Pelto first visited it in 2009 and its extent when Erin McConnell and Mariama Dryak first visited it in 2018.

The NCGCP brings research assistants into the field each year, acting as an opportunity for young scientists or people otherwise new to science to learn about the project and help collect data. Across all of the field seasons, the project has brought 59 people into the field and makes an effort to include women and international students, who are often underrepresented in the earth sciences.

The project has also been designed with an emphasis on science communication and outreach, striving to inform people—locally and afar—about the changes occurring in glacier resources of the North Cascades. Jill Pelto has been a big part of this science communication emphasis since she first visited the field ten seasons ago. During her undergraduate thesis, developed as a double major in art and earth science, she birthed the idea of ‘data art’ around which she has since based her artistic career. Jill’s data art takes data or graphs that can otherwise be unengaging to non-scientists and transforms them into an impactful story about the changes that have been seen in a resource over time. Jill’s art has been spread far and wide, and Mariama first came across her piece entitled ‘Decline in Glacier Mass Balance’—which consequently shows the decline of mass balance in North Cascades glaciers—whilst studying in the UK. The art immediately demanded her attention and drew her closer to glacier resources than she ever had been before. Throughout Jill’s time on the project she has painted many pieces, both of data art and impressions from the field, based on the changes she experienced whilst in the field with the NCGCP.

Jill Pelo sketches int he foreground of Sholes Glacier.
Jill Pelto sketches in the foreground of Sholes Glacier while resource managers of the Nooksack Indian Tribe gather the season’s glacial stream gauge measurements.
Jill Pelto's painting: Decline in Glacier Mass Balance
Jill Pelto’s painting: ‘Decline in Glacier Mass Balance’ showing the decreased mass balance of North Cascades glaciers since 1984. All the data used for this painting was collected during NCGCP field seasons.

Other outreach efforts have taken the form of consistent blog posts, visual supplements to posters at conferences, interactive digital posters at conferences, scientific and non-scientific publications, and videos. There have also been several media teams and reporters that have gone out into the field with Mauri and featured the incredible efforts of the NCGCP.

The NCGCP is the epitome of a truly interdisciplinary and impactful glacier monitoring project that has shown the value of noninvasive and long-term monitoring projects in the scientific community and the world.

Thanks to Mauri Pelto for letting us join you in the field for the 2018 field season, and thanks Jill for an incredible friendship. Read more about the NCGCP here.