Exit Glacier shrinks? National Park Service installs instruments to monitor snowfall

Posted: Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Danny Seavey remembers trips to Exit Glacier from his youth.

Photo Courtesy Of The National Park Service
Photo Courtesy Of The National Park Service
National Park Service staff at the Kenai Fjords National Park work on the Exit Glacier mass balance study.

"You could have a picnic with a monstrous wall of ice right behind you," he said.

Today, the glacier has recessed into the distance, losing what the tour guide described as its "awesome" presence. One tenth of his customers ask him for a wintertime venture to the icy mound. But long-term shrinking of Exit Glacier could someday impact Seavey's business.

In August 2009, Kenai Fjords National Park scientist Chuck Lindsay began a new study of the the mass of Exit Glacier. The glacier has shrunk by an average of 28 meters per year between 2005 and 2008, according to previous studies by the park.

Lindsay said that his measurements will determine the difference between the glacier's largest size during winter, and smallest after a summer of shrinkage.

The difference is called mass balance. Over time, Lindsay said, the information will tell the scientists whether the glacier's snow accumulation is increasing or decreasing. If Exit glacier loses more water than it gains snow, it has a negative balance; if the majority of the accumulation stays on the glacier, the mass balance is positive.

"It's like a checking account," Lindsay said.

To measure the size, park staff made 1.5-inch diameter holes at four different elevations on the glacier using a $5,000 steam drill. Then, the scientist said, the park service inserts an electrical conducting rod, and notes which parts of the metal tube are covered by ice, snow and water. He compared the process to planting a measuring stick in the glacier.

"It's very simple project by design," he said. "It needs to be since we're working in very harsh conditions."

Lindsay said that ideally he would take measurements the day before the first snow, and right before the accumulation melts. However, that prime time varies on the mountain. The first snow hits the highest portions of the mountain first, the scientist said, then trickles down to the lower slopes. Seasonal climate can change as well, said Lindsay.

The scientist said that the lowest measurement site was 600 feet above sea level, and the highest 4,200 feet.

He visits the sites during two or three helicopter day trips a year. Each costs approximately $2,000 a pop, Lindsay said.

Co-owner of Exit Glacier Guides Ryan Fisher said that the glacier has thinned during his six years of climbing. As Exit Glacier melts, increased amounts of water flow over the ice. This effect creates unsafe hiking and climbing conditions, which total nearly 90 percent of Fisher's business. Last year, all his profits came from Exit related ventures, but Fisher now schedules helicopter trips to other glaciers.

"If it continues to recede back, it's going to be difficult to operate," he said. "But that's quite a few years down the road."

Danny Seavey, who runs the businesses' tourist operations, said that glacial hikes will require longer treks, and fitter customers if the ice continues to melt. That portion of his business will continue, though, as long the glacier is visible, he said.

"It's not nearly awesome and present as it used to be though," Seavey said.

Tony Cella can be reached at tony.cella@peninsulaclarion.com

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