Checking the glacier’s "state of health" - winter mass balance measurement on South Cascade Glacier, Washington.
The Glacier Studies project examines the role of glaciers in the environment. Even the basic behavior of these "rivers of ice" was poorly understood until well into the 20th Century. Research has better delineated the relationship between glaciers and climate change, including multiple socio-economic implications like sea level rise, water availability, and hydrologic hazards. However, non-standard behavior characterized during periods of dynamic instability, continues to challenge the glaciological community, both quantitatively and conceptually. A large fraction of uncertainty surrounding glacier change is linked to dynamic instabilities, demonstrating the importance of resolving not only the relationship between direct atmospheric forcing (balance of snowfall and ice melt) of glacier response, but the role of internal dynamics (fast flow, iceberg calving) in an evolving climate system as well. USGS glaciologists are focused on improving understanding of how glaciers "work" and how US glaciers are responding to climate change. We strive to provide enhanced communication with the general public surrounding connections between glacier-climate response and important socio-economic implications including global sea level change, mountain ecosystems and hydrologic systems. The project encompasses research on the US glacier inventory, mass balance, glacier-climate interaction, ice dynamics and calving from tidewater glaciers, and water availability.
Why is this research important?
Current and future mass budgets of land ice are among the primary sources of uncertainty for prediction of hydrologic and sea level change on a global scale. Research being conducted by this project is directly aimed at better defining mass budgets for the US glaciers. Both the rate of present-day change, and the proximity to the North American continent make the uncertainty surrounding the mass budget of US glaciers (particularly Alaska’s) an important target. Robust, long-term records of change are sparse, but incredibly valuable as remote sensing estimates begin to emerge. Alaska’s glaciers are among the biggest mass losers of all Earth’s glaciated mountain regions, but also among the poorest studied. Evolution of these systems has impacts reaching far beyond sea level as runoff from these glaciers contributes substantially to the freshwater budget of the Gulf of Alaska and the Arctic, which both support large and productive biological systems and fisheries.
Water-resource and other stakeholders in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere are beginning to seek out future hydrologic scenarios that account for diminished seasonal snowpacks and glaciers. They need up-to-date information about current glacier status and likely glacier changes in the future in order to plan for and mitigate decreased summer low flows and possibly higher winter flood flows.
Principal Investigators: Daniel Fagre, Shad O’Neel
Project Team: Louis Sass, Chris McNeil (ASC); Matt Bachmann, James Foreman (WAWSC)