December 11, 2015

Climate Driven Retreat of Mount Baker Glaciers and Changing Water Resources

Posted by Mauri Pelto


We have spent 300 nights in a tent just on this mountain collecting data from 1984-2015 in this study that the book documents.

This post has the same title as a book released last month as part of the Springer Briefs in Climate Studies series.  The nice thing about publishing research emerging from 30 years of field research in a book  is that I had a chance to include 104 figures in 107 pages.   Here I give a brief synopsis of the book and a key figure from each of the six chapters.This book presents the impact of climate change on Mount Baker glaciers, USA, and the rivers surrounding them. Glaciers are natural reservoirs that yield their resource primarily on warm dry summer days when other sources are at their lowest yield. This natural tempering of drought conditions will be reduced as they retreat. Mount Baker, a volcano in the Cascades of Washington, is currently host to 12 principal glaciers with an area of 36.8 km2. The glaciers yield 125 million cubic meters of water each summer that is a resource for salmon, irrigation and hydropower to the Nooksack River and Baker River watersheds. Recent rapid retreat of all 22 glaciers is altering the runoff from the glaciers, impacting both the discharge and temperature of the Nooksack and Baker River. Over the last 30 years we have spent 270 nights camped on the mountain conducting 10,500 observations of snow depth and melt rate on Mount Baker. This data combined with observations of terminus change, area change and glacier runoff over the same 30 years allow an unusually comprehensive story to be told of the effects of climate change to Mount Baker Glaciers and the rivers that drain them.

Red Channel|Green Channel|Blue Channel

Red Channel|Green Channel|Blue Channel

Chapter 1: Panchromatic sharpened Landsat image of the glacier of Mount Baker in Aug. 2014, rendered by Ben Pelto (UNBC).  

We have worked on each of these glaciers except Thunder Glacier.  After advancing from 1950-1979, the glaciers have all been in retreat, in 2015 the average retreat was 390 m since 1985. 

easston compare

Chapter 2 Comparison of Easton Glacier from our base camp in 2003 and 2015, where we have spent over 90 nights.  We measure the retreat of each glacier in the field as they respond to climate change.

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Chapter 3 looks at mass balance of glaciers in the area including the Sholes Glacier Daily ablation measurements over the last 30 years allow determination of a relationship between daily melt and air temperature. Other factors matter, but  air temperature does yield a good relationship.

nfk glacier contributiion


Chapter 4 Glacier runoff provides a critical water resource to the Nooksack River.  We measure meltwater runoff from Sholes Glacier and observe glacier melt on several glaciers in the basin.  This allows determination of the contribution of glaciers to the watershed.  In 2014 contributions from glaciers exceeded 40% of total North Fork Nooksack River streamflow on 21 days after Aug. 1.   This is a critical period for salmon migration in the watershed.

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Chapter 5 Glacier runoff is measured below the Sholes Glacier in conjunction with Oliver Grah and Jezra Beaulieu, Nooksack Tribe.  This is the record for part of the 2014 field season at the gage site.

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Chapter 6  Deming Glacier in 2011 Google earth image illustrating retreat. The glacier has retreated 420 m from 1979 to 2015.