The birds chirp a dawn chorus and the winter rain has diminished. The disparity between the snowy alpine and the verdant lowlands is increasingly stark. Stubborn patches of snow make the rugged forest road impassable and the snowmobile crew has jerry-rigged a winch system to pull their burly trucks and sled trailers across. We giggle at their innovation as we attach skins to our skis, complete a most unusual gear check (Duct tape? Steam drill? PVC pipes? Avalanche gear? Snacks?) and finish our coffee.
We are here to begin the fieldwork for my master’s thesis at Western Washington University. For my research, I am comparing the decades old “ablation-stake method” against a new method for quantifying glacial change. By combining aerial drone imagery and new software, this method could drastically increase the spatial extent and resolution of these measurements, as well as the ease of data collection. I am also linking the retreat of the Easton Glacier, on the south side of Mt. Baker, to streamflow dynamics in its two outlet creeks. In short, my study has the potential to substantially improve our ability to monitor glacier changes and understand downstream effects.
A team of eight, all members of the Northwest Glacier Cruisers snowmobile club, united to help transport our heavy research gear up the Easton Glacier nearly to the summit of Mt. Baker. In less than 20 minutes, our crew has zoomed from 3,000 to 8,500 feet elevation, across cobble-filled creeks, dormant underbrush, unconsolidated glacial till and deep crevasses, all buried under meters of snow. Layers of snow soften the undulating topography and the glacier’s terminus is indistinguishable.
Niki and I follow a pre-set GPS track to find our first site. Our goal for the day is to use a steam drill (not to be mistaken for a sasquatch-sized espresso-maker) to drill five stakes into the snow and ice, which we’ll revisit through the summer and fall to measure changes in the surface elevation. We probe each survey site to ensure we don’t install a stake into a crevasse, and to approximate the depth of the snowpack. Afterward, we enjoy the payoff: a ski through thousands of feet of soft spring corn to four other sites, where we repeat the installation process.
The snow bridge across the Easton Glacier’s outlet creek has melted and the glacier is no longer accessible by snowmobile. We approach the ice through an awkward combination of skiing, hiking and bushwhacking. We’re wearing shorts and are disoriented because the glacier’s foreground has morphed into a mosaic of snow, dirt patches and moving water. “Didn’t we ski right over that waterfall just a month ago?”
We arrive at the first stake and measure 127 centimeters (4.16 feet) of snowmelt in the past month. A spider perches on the stake, unaware of the climatic changes unraveling around it. We continue up the center of the glacier, moving delicately and swiftly in seemingly thin places. Sometimes we straddle deep crevasses and peer down into the frozen abyss. Like stratigraphic columns that reveal a chronology of shorelines, the cracks expose layers of snow, firn, or granulated snow not yet pressed into ice, and ice from seasons past.
It’s 3 p.m. and we’ve made it to stake three. The snow appears to have gone through a melt-freeze cycle recently and the corn tempts my skiing instincts. On a whim, we decide to pause our research efforts and jaunt up toward Mt. Baker’s summit.
We’re now wearing hiking boots and there’s a heat wave in the valley. The trailhead is packed with day hikers and we’ve swapped ski poles and avalanche gear for crampons and rope. First on our list is installing a second stream gauge to measure the creek’s velocity. After an afternoon of drilling holes into rocks (to install our level-logger, a device that continuously measures the stream’s height) and standing in glacial streams, we sprawled in a flower-filled meadow eating macaroni and cheese and pondering less academic things – does the moon pull on the glacier the way it pulls on the tides?
On our second day, we return to the highest stake for the first time since May. We’re roped five meters apart and moving simultaneously across the ice, navigating mazes of crevasse fields and icefall. Sometimes we rearrange our rope’s trajectory to remain perpendicular to the visible crevasse patterns. We scan the glacier for stake five and Katie spots it at the mouth of a widening crack. Oops.
At stake three, the snow has melted a total of 355 centimeters (11.65 feet) in two months. The untouched field of snow from a month prior is now striped with fissures. The crevasses concentrate in places where the glacier is moving most quickly, typically along convexities in the topography. A cliff of unconsolidated sediment – the remnants of the glacier’s path – guards stake one. We contemplate what climbing Mt. Baker will be like in 50 years and the recently revealed unstable, rocky terrain at the glacier’s edge offers insight. As we leave the glacier and return to camp, I am baffled by the delicate heather buds waltzing in the wind. This sea of wildflowers is a product of millennia of eruptions, glaciation and burrowing marmots.
Our final research trip of the season starts on an “even-my-eyelashes-are-soaked” kind of day. The Easton’s summer fast is almost over, as the forecast calls for the first significant snowfall. We need to get our final measurements before the glacier becomes too dangerous. The torrential rain turns to snow as we crest the Easton’s moraine. We pour heavy whipping cream into our pasta – more calories will keep us warm through the night.
We wake to sunshine and a hungry glacier metabolizing its early fall snack (60 centimeters of fresh snow). At this point in the season, the lower part of the glacier is decorated with linear chasms and we’re forced to walk circuitously and in zigzags to approach the stakes, moving among bridges of solid ice. Sometimes we have to leap across them. As we travel higher, the few centimeters of new snow hides the smaller cracks and at one point, Maya’s foot falls into a subsurface pond.
This early fall snow snack is only a small boost of energy after a long ablation season; at one site, we measure almost nine meters worth of melt since early May. We take one last stream measurement and return to the parking lot in the dark. The shorter days coincide with the start of the accumulation season, when the Easton Glacier becomes subject to the fickle whims of ocean temperatures, orographic lift and fluctuating freezing levels – variables that determine its fate.
Will this winter’s accumulation outweigh the summer melt? Will these seasonal cycles continue on Mt. Baker? I can reasonably predict what this landscape will look like next February or May. But I can only speculate how long it will take for the summit of this glaciated volcano to become a cirque with an alpine lake, shaded by subalpine firs and fit for hiking boots and sunset picnics.
When Elizabeth Kimberly isn’t conducting research for her master’s project at Western Washington University, you can find her seeking alpine powder turns, winding through forests on a bicycle or writing in a notebook.