November 17, 2023

Continental Glacier, Wyoming Fragmentation Accelerates

Posted by Mauri Pelto

Continental Glacier in 1994 Google Earth and 2016 and 2022 Sentinel images, illustrating the separation at the black arrows, into the northern middle and southern parts, with an impending separation at green arrow.

Continental Glacier is a long plateau glacier draped along the continental divide in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. It drains into Torrey Creek and then the Wind River. In 1994 this glacier extended 5 km from south to north with an area of 2.4 km². In 2012 Van Looy et al (2013) used GPR to determine ice thickness and project how long the glacier could last.  They found 59% of the glacier was less than 40 m thick, with two cirque depressions filled with deeper ice exceeding 150 m. They found a thinning rate of 0.3 m/year for the 1966-2012 period. They did not include the southern part of the glacier in their study.

In 2016 the glacier is in three parts and glacier area has been reduced to 1.9 km². By 2022 additional fragmentation at the green arrow in the middle segment is imminent. The northern and southern parts are wasting away rapidly. A closeup of the northern section of the glacier in 2022 illustrates how thin, fragmented, and stagnant the ice has become. Point A-E indicate bedrock areas emerging amidst northern part. Point F-I indicate very thin, old, dark ice in the middle part. This glacier is following a similar path to the Grasshopper Glacier just to the south.  Van Looy et al (2013) noted that in the next century the volume would be reduced by 43% and the glacier would be lost in 300-400 years. The pace of loss has increased significantly with volume loss of ~2% per year since 2013, which will lead to loss of all areas with less than 40 m of ice in 2012 being lost by 2040. The two areas of deep ice will persist much longer. This same trend has led to the loss of Heap Steep Glacier, Harrower Glacier and Twins Glacier in the Wind River Range since 2015.

Continental Glacier in 9-4-2022 false colar Sentinel image. Point A-E are bare rock areas amidst northern part of glacier. Point F-I dark, old thin ice in the middle part.