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Saturday, August 7, 2010

North Cascades Glacier Climate Project--Columbia Glacier 2010

North Cascades Glacier Climate Project 2010
Columbia Glacier August 2-5

“Pump Up the Volume”
Please understand that on this 27th field season of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, I was only along for the Columbia Glacier. Because I am missing the vast majority of the season (I participated in 1 of 9 glaciers, and 4 out of 16 days) I do not feel I should be the reporter for the 2010 field season. Instead, I’ll provide my own narrative of the Columbia Glacier, and leave the rest of the field season report to Ben Pelto.
2010 marked my seventh consecutive year on the Columbia Glacier as a member of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. Regulars this season are Mauri Pelto, PI and Director; Ben Pelto, Field Assistant, going in to third year of a Geology and Environmental Science double-degree at Alfred University; Jill Pelto, Field Assistant, going in to her senior year of high school; Ben Kane, Field Assistant, going in to graduate school in Geology at Western Washington University.
This time we’d be joined by Jonathan Reeve, a professional geologist and mountain/glacier man, and a film crew of four led by husband and wife team Christina and Cory Kelley (cameramen Chris and Max). From all appearances with the equipment the film crew toted up and on to the Columbia, it should be a fantastic film and I very much look forward to seeing it and sharing it! They are posting updates right now—please see:

The official North Cascades Glacier Climate page (no updates during field season):

For full photo gallery with captions, please email me at:
As usual, I went in about 12 hours ahead of the team—the nice summer weather we’ve been having (a cool, wet spring and early summer have given way to a month of fine weather, with highs in the mid-70s to low-80s F for all of July) was reason enough to want to spend an “extra” evening at the base camp at the head of Blanca Lake. Of course the weather is always an issue with visits to the North Cascades and this trip would be no exception. The forecast called for “a chance of T-storms all week in the afternoon, especially North Cascades”, a forecast that would prove generally correct—if one considers 4PM-9AM to be afternoon…
The hike in was delightful, especially compared to last year’s blast-furnace temps of 100+ F. I hiked in the “heat of the day”, and while I worked up quite a sweat, it was a nice hike, and camp was made without too much distress. The bugs weren’t even that bad. I set up camp in the usual spot, and noticed the small creek that has been flowing through/past camp the last couple of years was totally dry. Interesting to note the return of monkey flower and heather to the dry channel so quickly after the water has shifted back to the main creek draining the glacier. Evening was spent enjoying the symphony of a dozen waterfalls roaring off Kyes and Columbia peaks.
The team arrived Tuesday morning and after a quick camp deploy, we headed up to the Columbia Glacier. After a quick visit through a nearly collapsed snowcave (snowcave would
collapse the next day!)

we ascended the flowery 15th century moraine to the glacier terminus. The lakes that appeared a couple of years ago were melted out more than half-way—these new lakes created/revealed by the headlong recession of the Columbia are about the area of two football fields...

We kept a wary eye on the building convection around us as we completed the first round of mass-balance measurements and stream flow evaluations. The film crew got some great shots, and we visited an incredible opening in the glacier along the lower eastern margin. Surface stream flows cut deeply in to the glacier—some streams a meter or more. Once again it was mixed emotions: such a powerful and compelling landscape, with jagged peaks and fangs rising thousands of feet above the expanse of snow covered glacier, blue ice peeking through in far too many places for this glacier to survive…
And so many waterfalls. Many more falls than the dozen visible from camp are revealed as one ascends the glacier, literally surrounded on all sides by cascading water high and low, big and little. Storm clouds began to block the sun as we headed back to camp, and we arrived just as a cell moved over and dumped rain on us. Some of the droplets in that first cell were quite large—not hail, but big blobs of water. Thunder began to rumble far and near, and then nearer. Just after dinner a huge black and gray cloud roared through and over the Monte Cristo peaks. It began to rain hard. Really hard, with super huge droplets of rain. In all of my years, I have never seen such large rain drops in the Pacific Northwest (or really, anywhere, including Hawaii and Florida). 10 of these drops would saturate clothing, and it was coming down so hard the air was buzzing. Everyone bailed in to respective tents to ride out the storm. The wind picked to the point Ben and I had to secure the door and sides of the tent—water was streaming in at weak points in the tent (zippers and stays)—we tried to keep a slit open in the door to watch the excitement, and excitement there was! A brilliant bolt of lightning struck the summit area of Monte Cristo Peak as the heart of this super cell rotated and churned over the Columbia Glacier, the high peaks directing the storm straight over camp…
30 minutes it lasted (over camp)—an eternity for those of us trying to protect our little patch of dry clothes and sleeping bags. We were successful, mostly, and as soon as the rain abated, we jumped outside. The dozen waterfalls streaming off the high peaks had become 16 or more, and the volume was turned up. Way up. Then one of the most amazing sights I’ve been fortunate to experience happened. We had a flash flood appear in the dry channel about 10 minutes after the cell moved to the S. One minute Ben and I were joking about surviving without an ark, then we both heard the sound of flowing water more proximate that it had been, and then the stream was flowing at our feet! Some water was absorbed by the sandy ground, but not enough to keep the stream from reaching all the way to the lake—at basically a walking pace. Then it got bigger, wider, faster and deeper—the very essence of VOLUME. Once again the lesson of living was in evidence: I have been to this place seven years in a row, and Mauri has been here 27 years in a row and neither of us has seen such an event. There are always new things to see and experience, even in a place seemingly so familiar. We literally lived life on the alluvial fan, braided channels forming and disappearing in “human-time”. Ahhh.

Lightning continued to flicker, and thunder continued to rumble near and far throughout much of the night...

The film crew did not show up for the second day of research—understandable considering the weather and effort, but unfortunate since the day was sunny and lovely, and we made it all the way to Monte Cristo Pass.

But much like the previous day, convection was building in the early afternoon and we beat feet off the high country. This time we didn’t make it back to camp before the rains hit. Within 10 minutes of being caught in Wednesday’s first shower, I was soaked to the bone. Harvey Manning once wrote about not being afraid to hike/camp in rain, and that once one is saturated, “there is no more pain to being in the rain.” I suppose he’s right: once one has hypothermia, there is no pain as one moves to permanent slumber...
Sorry Harvey, but I prefer to enjoy the mountains without so much liquid sunshine! J Again the drops were so huge that Mauri noted he could visually distinguish individual raindrops from about 100 meters (and he wasn’t exaggerating)!

Wednesday night would prove to be more settled than Tuesday, and we enjoyed fine dining and story- telling until dark. But Thursday morning dawned with showers forcing us to do a hasty retreat around the lake and back to the trailhead. Ug—so wet! We managed to get all measurements in and data collected.

Columbia Glacier mass balance: minus .9 meters.

[reminder: Columbia Glacier is virtually flat. As such the “accumulation zone” is below the trimline. That is, there is no accumulation zone—even the top of the glacier will lose nearly a meter of thickness this year. This is known as “disequilbrium”]

The team is on Kulshan as I type this—and apparently the film crew is there too! I envy them all, and am so thankful that Mauri shared the project with me, if only for one glacier. Even more I am thankful for the desire and ability to go see planetary science in action.

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