Glacier / PNW

Local ice

Ice in the Pacific Northwest is melting. Loss of our ice and loss of ice from most other glaciated regions of the world means that glaciers are retreating, snowpack reservoirs are decreasing, and sea level is rising. Global ice loss is a signal of the severity of global climate change. Local ice loss is a call for local action, as we must comprehend our changing environment in order to adapt. It is obvious that understanding changes in land ice is a critical research imperative. However, critical measurements of local ice are lacking because traditional funding for this work is not available.

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Left: Blue Glacier, Olympic Mountains, WA in 1899 (photo: Anon.). Right: Similar view from 2008 (photo: E. Barnett, USGS). Significant thinning and terminus retreat is seen.

Now is the time to focus on local ice. For many decades, beginning over fifty years ago, the University of Washington was one of the leaders in glacier research. A foundation of glaciological knowledge was established by studying Pacific Northwest glaciers. While a local-glacier research focus has lapsed in the last decades, the heritage of excellence in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences and the Department of Atmospheric Sciences remains. In addition to capable and motivated leaders in the College of the Environment, there are interested groups across campus (e.g. Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Climate Impacts Group, and the Burke Museum). Strong academic collaborations exist with colleagues in Corvallis, Portland, Tacoma, Bellingham and Vancouver (Canada). Government collaborations exist with the United States Geological Survey and the National Park Service. University of Washington is in a position to once again be a local leader, and to be stronger than ever by mobilizing this network of committed collaborators.

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Historic photos of Blue Glacier field work including ice-motion studies, tunneling and measuring in the icefall, and ice coring. These are part of a vast photo archive available for scientific and historical research.

Our glaciers are local laboratories. Good and innovative science remains to be done by studying and monitoring mountain glaciers and their evolution. The accessibility of local glaciers makes them ideal for many scientific and educational objectives, some examples include:

  • Merging theoretical studies with observational studies
  • Instrument testing, development, and novel data collection
  • Understanding ice response to changes in temperature and precipitation
  • Dynamics of glacier retreat
  • Role of ice melt in the hydrologic cycle and stream flow
  • Glacier ice control on snowpack storage

A reinvigorated research program would provide opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, and would join the academic, government, and public sector in these efforts.

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Local ice matters. In addition to the scientific merit of local-glacier research, there are strong personal, societal, and political reasons for this work. Some examples include:

  • Public connection to nature and awe of glaciers
  • Education at all levels
  • Community outreach and citizen science
  • Untapped repository of local history
  • Water-resource management and ice-melt hazard assessment
  • Science results inform local policy

Glaciers are icons of our mountains and are a water resource for our lives, but they are diminishing. Understanding ice response and predicting future changes is the challenge, especially in the Pacific Northwest where glaciers span diverse mountain and volcano environments.

We have the opportunity to renew a commitment to science and to society by supporting an initiative on local ice.

Please contact me for more information.