It’s Hard to Do Climate Research When Your Glacier Is Melting

Next year, a data collection site on the Wolverine Glacier in southern Alaska in the United States will disappear due to melting. The site, near the terminus—aka the lower end of the glacier—contains a mass balance stake that Christopher McNeil, a geophysicist for the US Geological Survey, uses to measure the rate at which the glacier is growing or melting. “We’ve actually had to deal with this at pretty much all of our glacier sites,” McNeil says.Snow and ice are extremely important tools for researching our environment. There are ice cores from the poles and from glaciers around the world stored at the National Science Foundation Ice Core Facility in Denver; they show everything from when volcanic events happened to how much carbon dioxide and methane were in the atmosphere millions of years ago.Other researchers use snow to understand the amount of toxins or pollution in our environment today. “Snow is a really great medium to work in because you get the snow layers,” says Aleksandra Karapetrova, a graduate student in the environmental toxicology program at the University of California, Riverside. Her work focuses on measuring the amount of microplastics that are falling from the atmosphere.Snow falls during storms, so if you know the history of the weather, you can use snow as a physical record of what’s been in the air. “I can basically time-stamp my samples based on where in the snowpack I’m sampling from, because I know when the storm happened,” Karapetrova says. Snow also doesn’t contain organic matter that can make identifying materials of interest difficult.

But with snowfall decreasing and glaciers melting because of climate change , researchers are finding it harder to access their favorite research tools. They are having to adjust protocols, safety measures, and scientific models to combat the changing conditions. Data is harder to harvest, while at the same time being less consistent, making it even more difficult to study and understand the world as it changes.

A decade ago, scientists taking measurements on glaciers needed only basic mountaineering skills, like skiing and using crampons. But as warming temperatures have made crevasses wider and snow bridges thinner, a lot more technical mountaineering education and experience is now needed. “It absolutely just makes getting around on the glacier not only more challenging, but in some aspects more hazardous,” McNeil says.

His team spends a lot more time on the glacier “roped up”—where each team member is tied to the others, so if one person falls through a thin patch of ice, the others can stop their fall. This makes moving on the glacier much slower. And when a snow bridge over a crevasse becomes so thin that it’s impassable, then finding another route to reach a data collection site can take even more time.

Such sites are located all over glaciers and are often marked with a mass balance stake. These metal stakes—usually tick marked with measurement lines—are inserted at known depths on the glacier. They’re then visited multiple times a year to measure how much ice has accumulated or been lost at these points. But as snow and ice melt, reaching some stakes can become impossible.