July 29, 2019

36th Annual North Cascade Glacier Climate Project Field Season Begins

Posted by Mauri Pelto

Fieldwork includes terminus surveys, glacier runoff measurement and mass balance measurements

Field Season Begins August 1

Who we are? The North Cascade Glacier Climate Project (NCGCP) was founded in 1983 to identify the response of North Cascade glaciers to regional climate change, particularly changes in mass balance, glacier runoff and terminus behavior.   This was prompted by the  National Academy of Sciences listing this as a high priority and a personal appeal from Stephen Schneider. NCGCP is a field project that has a broader interdisciplinary scope and is the most extensive glacier mass balance field program in the United States.  Two of the 41 reference glaciers in the world are in our network, and as of next year that will become three glaciers.  We do this research cost effectively relying on no permanent camps, helicopter support or salary for the director. The field season includes no days off and each day is spent completing measurements on glaciers.  The focus is on glacier mapping, mass balance measurement, terminus observations and glacier runoff monitoring.  Each year we utilize several field assistants to complete the annual glacier surveys, with 2019 being the 36th field season.  Our goal in choosing assistants is not to pick the most experienced, but the individuals who are capable and can benefit the most.  We are a self-contained unit. Recently Hakai Magazine described our process well.

Why study glaciers in the North Cascades? Glaciers are one of the world’s best climate monitors and are a critical water resource to many populated glaciated regions. This is particularly true in the North Cascades where 700 glaciers yield 200 billion gallons of summer runoff and glaciers have lost 30 % of their area since 1980. These glaciers have lost 25-30% of their volume during the course of our study, three of our primary study glaciers have disappeared. We also monitor ice worms and mountain goats since we are in the same locations at the same time each year.

2019 Outlook: For North Cascade glaciers the accumulation season provides that layer of snow, that must then last through the melt season.  A thin layer sets the glaciers up for a mass balance loss, much like a bear with a limited fat layer would lose more mass than ideal during hibernation. The 2019 winter season in the North Cascade Range, Washington has been unusual.  On April 1 the retained snow water equivalent in snowpack across the range at the six long SNOTEL sites is 0.72 m, which is ~70% of average.  This is the fifth lowest since 1984.  The unusual part is that freezing levels were well above normal in January, in the 95% percentile at 1532 m, then were the lowest level, 372 m of any February since the freezing level record began in 1948.  March returned to above normal freezing levels.  As is typical periods of cold weather in the regions are associated with reduced snowfall in the mountains and more snowfall at low elevations.  In the Seattle metropolitan area February was the snowiest month in 50 years, 0.51 m of snow fell, but in the North Cascades snowfall in the month was well below average. From Feb. 1 to April 1, snowpack SWE at Lyman Lake, the SNOTEL site closest to a North Cascade glacier, usually increases from 0.99 m to 1.47 m, this year SWE increased from 0.83 m to 1.01 m during this period. The melt season from May-Mid-July has also been warmer than average.  This combination will lead to significant glacier mass loss in 2019, in one month we will report back on our measurements that will indicate just how negative.

2019 Field Team:

Clara Deck: is an earth scientist from Chicago with a passion for science communication, education, and outreach. She completed a B.A. in geology at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, where she began a journey in climatological research which led to a love for the cryosphere. In the summer of 2018, Clara contributed to glacial field work in the eastern Alaska Range, and was fascinated by the dynamic day-to-day changes in glacial features she was tasked with measuring. At the University of Maine, she is wrapping up her M.S. focused on numerical modeling of Antarctic ice shelf instabilities, but Clara’s favorite part of her college career has been sharing science with students as a teaching assistant. During her first visit to the North Cascades, she is excited to learn about ongoing glacial change and to explore accessible ways to share the findings with public audiences.

Abby Hudak is a native Floridian that has always had a deep calling to the mountains and frozen landscapes. Her passions revolve around understanding our changing climate and natural world which led her to attain a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Central Florida. After starting her M.S. in Biological Sciences at Washington State University, she immediately indulged in snow sports and mountaineering in the Cascade Range. The beauty and vulnerability of these landscapes have driven her to expand her research interests to understanding aspects of the changing cryosphere. She is eager to intertwine her love for the Cascade Range and her desire to pursue scientific questions pertaining to climate impacts on alpine glaciers by working with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project this summer.

Ann Hill, ever since she was a young child growing up in Minneapolis, Ann has been fascinated by ice and snow, however it wasn’t until her Sophomore year studying Geosciences at Skidmore College that she realized she could study ice as a career path. Consequently, during her junior year she traveled to Svalbard to gain hands-on experience studying and exploring glaciers. Determined to learn more, Ann spent a summer with the Juneau Icefield Research Program, which exposed her to glaciers that looked and behaved differently. In the fall, Ann will begin her M.S. in Earth and Climate Sciences at the University of Maine. Ann is thrilled to study the North Cascade glaciers to understand how their movement and characteristics compare to those she previously observed in Svalbard and Alaska.

Jill Pelto is an artist and scientist from New England who grew up loving winter sports and trips to the mountains. She incorporates scientific research and data into paintings and prints to communicate environmental changes. Her multi-disciplinary work weaves visual narratives that reveal the reality of human impacts on this planet. She completed both her B.A. degrees in Studio Art and Earth and Climate Sciences and her M.S. focused on studying the stability of the Antarctic Ice Sheet at the University of Maine. She spent two field seasons at a remote camp in the southern Transantarctic Mountains to map glacial deposits and collect samples from them for dating. Jill will be joining the project for her 11th field season. She is excited about continuing to document the change in North Cascade glaciers that she has witnessed each of the last ten years — through science and art.

Mauri Pelto has directed the project since its founding in 1984, spending more than 700 nights camped out adjacent to these glaciers. He is the United States representative to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, author of the AGU blog “From a Glacier’s Perspective”, and associate editor for three science journals.  His primary job is Dean of Academic Affairs at Nichols College, where he has been a professor since 1989.


Aug. 1:  Arrive Hike into Easton Glacier

Aug. 2:  Easton Glacier survey

Aug. 3:  Easton Glacier survey

Aug. 4:  Hike out  Hike in Lower Curtis Glacier

Aug. 5:  Lower Curtis Glacier Survey

Aug. 6:  Hike out Lower Curtis Glacier Hike in Ptarmigan Ridge

Aug. 7:  Sholes Glacier

Aug. 8:  Rainbow Glacier

Aug. 9:  Hike out- Coleman Glacier survey

Aug. 10:  Hike in Columbia Glacier

Aug. 11:  Columbia Glacier survey

Aug. 12:  Columbia Glacier survey

Aug. 13:  Hike out Columbia Hike in Mount Daniels

Aug. 14:  Ice Worm Glacier survey

Aug. 15:  Lynch and Daniels Glacier survey

Aug. 16:  Hike out