October 17, 2009

Sperry Glacier Recession

Posted by Mauri Pelto

In 1900 Sperry Glacier had an area of 3.39 km2. By 1938 it had diminished to 1.58 km2 and by 1946 it was only 1.34 km2 in area. The estimated loss in volume between 1938 and 1946 was a 23 meter reduction in the level of the surface of the lower half of the glacier during that period. Recession proceeded at an annual rate of 15.3 m. be¬tween 1938 and 1945; 11.9 m. from 1945 to 1947; 10.5 m. from 1947 to 1948; and 12.9 m. from 1948 to 1949 (Dyson, 1950).

Recession of Sperry Glacier continued from about 1950-1970 and has been accompanied by loss of volume of the lower part of the glacier. Sperry Glacier has been examined in reconnaissance (Johnson, 1958, 1960, 1964). Comparison of longitudinal and transverse profiles shows that since 1947 the upper part of the glacier has increased in vol¬ume during some years and remained constant during others, whereas the lower part has decreased in volume. Throughout this time span slow terminal recession has been continuous. Surface ice velocities on Sperry Glacier average about 3 m./year. Sperry Glacier retreated at a slower rate of 5 m/a, from 1950-1979 (Cararra and McGrimsey, 1981). The retreat has ranged from 3-5 m/a from the 1979-1993 period (Key, Fagre and Menicke, 2002).

In 1993 0.87 square kilometers remained. This glacier still has crevasses and is not merely stagnant and melting away. A comparison of imagery from 1991 top (orange line for terminus), 2003 middle (green line) and 2005 bottom (blue line) indicate the marginal changes during this 14 year interval. These images are all from Google Earth using the historic imagery function.

Sperry 1991
1991 Google Earth imagery
sperry 2003
2003 Google Earth Image
Marginal recession averages 95 meters in this period ranging from 20-200 meters. The glacier was 1200 meters long in 1990 so this is close to a 10% loss in length. The current rate of retreat is slightly higher than the 3-5 m/a average fro the 1979-1993 period. The image in 1991 is from Aug. 25th, the glacier still has 70% of its area covered with snow from the previous winter. This is called the accumulation area ratio and in general must be above 60 at the end of the summer for the glacier to not lose mass. In 2003 the accumulation area ratio is about 30 and this is on Sept. 25th at the end of the melt season. In 2005 the accumulation area ratio is 30 at the most. Both years this limited a snowcover would lead to a significant negative mass balance, volume loss. The thinning in the upper portion of the glacier appears limited. There is not an evident change in the upper margin of the glacier. The crevassing which is indicative of movement has also not decreased much suggesting limited changes in the dynamics of the upper glacier. The comparatively slow changes in the accumulation zone, suggests a glacier that still has a consistent accumulation zone and is not likely to melt away rapidly, within the next 30 years, given the current climate. The glacier is showing no signs that it is approaching equilibrium, and that it can survive the current climate. This is in contrast to nearby Harrison Glacier which is receding quite slowly. There are new outcrops appearing at points A and B in the 2005 image indicating thinning and retreat is continuing. Annual layers are evident at point c in the 2005 image. Crevassing in the same area at point D is evident in each image.
Sperry Glacier 2005
2005 Google Earth Image

The USGS and the NPS have made Sperry Glacier a focus of field study beginning in 2005. The long term record of glacier area and glacier retreat makes it a good candidate. To date no mass balance data has been completed or reported. This data is essential to understand future terminus and volume responses. This project has been particular good at acquiring historic images to compare to current images 1913 and 2008. Bob Sihler captured the lack of snow remaining on Sperry Glacier in 2009., with a month still left in the melt season.