'This kind of research, you're kind of at the mercy of the mountain'

'This kind of research, you're kind of at the mercy of the mountain'
Two Oregon State University students drill into the Collier Glacier between North and Middle Sister, with the Cascade Range in the distance; this glacier had filled the valley below the students about 100 years ago.

BEND, Ore. (AP) — This week, Cody Beedlow woke up in a familiar place 8,000 feet up on Oregon's largest glacier, nestled in a tent covered with fresh-fallen snow and surrounded by scientific instruments.

Beedlow, a 28-year-old native of Corvallis and a graduate student at Oregon State University, has been making the 8- to 9-mile trek up to Collier Glacier, nestled between North Sister and South Sister, nearly every month for the last two years as part of an extended project to find out more about why the glacier is shrinking.

>>> Photo Gallery | Read Oregon State University report on project | Video

There's no question Collier Glacier has been getting smaller over the last 100 years or so. Pictures taken by the Mazamas mountaineering club in the 1920s show the glacier more than a mile farther down the slope than it extends today. Pictures taken since then have produced what Beedlow describes as a "time-lapse photography" record of the glacier retreating toward higher altitude.

Getting an answer about why the glacier is shrinking is more complicated. Is it melting at lower altitudes as a result of overly warm summers? Or is because of inadequate snowfall in winter, reducing the ice accumulation that builds up at higher altitudes and creeps downhill over time? And how do temperature, wind, humidity, solar radiation and other variables factor in to what's happening in both summer and winter?

The answers could help Beedlow develop a formula that can predict the advance and retreat of glaciers, and the glacial runoff that feeds streams and irrigation systems.

Beedlow's project is a continuation of work began by Peter Clark, a professor of geosciences at OSU and Beedlow's adviser. Along with a prior graduate student, Clark made several trips to Collier Glacier between 1989 and 1994, but his self-admitted lack of mountaineering skills and the unavailability of modern instruments limited what he could do. In the years since then, little research has been conducted on the glacier.

"It kind of fizzled because of logistical issues; he never had any good winter measurements up there," Beedlow said. "He wasn't able to get up there he's not a skier, so he tried dogsleds, cross-country skis, snowshoes, and really was not very successful at trying to obtain winter balance measurements."

Clark said Beedlow is far better prepared for the challenges of working in an alpine environment than he was 20 years ago.

"The dogsled attempt might have worked if we'd had decent snow, but it was a very poor snow year, so the conditions were not good for sledding. We made two miles in one day," Clark said. "We did get in once on snowshoes, but then a fierce storm came in, and we had to hightail it out of there. Bottom line is, you need to be an experienced mountaineer such as Cody is."

Along with four assistants, Beedlow spent three days and three nights on the glacier last weekend, measuring snow depths and densities, mapping the boundaries of the ice, and downloading a month's worth of weather data from a weather station he's installed on the mountain.

Beedlow's weather station, built in his garage and carried in piece by piece in backpacks, would have been unimaginable when Clark was working on the glacier.

Powered by a lithium polymer battery about the size of a Hershey bar a type originally put to use in radio-controlled cars and planes, but increasingly seen in laptop computers the weather station can run for about four months, recording reams of weather data on flash drives. Snow measurements are conducted in cruder fashion, with marked PVC pipes that Beedlow has driven into the ice.

Although Beedlow won't be able to draw any conclusions until later this fall, a cool spring and summer means there's a good chance the glacier will add mass this year. Even before the surprise snowstorm Monday morning, there was a lot more snow still on the glacier through the summer this year than last summer.

"We got really good storms in April and May, June was very cold, almost winter/springlike, and that allowed snow to stick on the surface of the glacier a bit longer," he said.

One year in which the glacier adds mass will not change the longer-term trend, Beedlow said, noting that Clark's five years of monitoring showed just one year where the glacier added mass.

Clark said it's extremely satisfying to have a student capable to taking up where he left off nearly 20 years ago.

"Absolutely. It's especially great to see him thrive on this because it allows him to combine his mountaineering interests with his scientific interests a great match for him," Clark said.

Beedlow said he'd love for a future OSU student to carry on his research once he graduates, but acknowledged it's a challenging project to do right. He's carried a 60- to 65-pound backpack for every trip up the mountain, climbing the glacier with ropes and crampons and keeping an eye open for hidden crevasses.

Even in the summer, work can be treacherous. Monday, he and his team woke up to the sound of an avalanche thundering down a nearby slope and decided they'd best get off the mountain.

"That's the nature of this kind of research you're kind of at the mercy of the mountain. I get turned back a lot," he said. "There's been a lot of trips I've tried to make out there and the mountain just says no, whether it's scary avalanche conditions or too much snow or monsoon-like rain. It's really quite humbling; the mountain really has a way to put you in your place."

(Copyright 2010 The Associated Press)

Watch a video about the project

Research shows continued decline of Oregon’s largest glacier >>> Photo Gallery | Video
 
By David Stauth
 
An Oregon State University research program has returned to Collier Glacier for the first time in almost 20 years and found that the glacier has decreased more than 20 percent from its size in the late 1980s.
 
The findings are consistent with glacial retreat all over the world and provide some of the critical data needed to help quantify the effects of global change on glacier retreat and associated sea level rise.
 
Flowing down the flanks of the Three Sisters in the central Oregon Cascade Range, Collier Glacier is at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet. It’s one of the largest glaciers in Oregon and is on a surprisingly short list – maybe 100 in the entire world – of glaciers that have been intensively studied and monitored for extended periods of time.
 
Glacier monitoring is difficult, dangerous and labor-intensive, OSU researchers say, and the current work, supported by the National Science Foundation, is showing an ice mass that by now has shrunk to about half of its peak size in the 1850s, when it once was nearly two miles long. Monitoring has been aided by records from early Oregon mountaineering clubs, particularly the Mazamas, founded in 1894 on the summit of Mount Hood.
 
A research program that began last year and is continuing this summer is now finding some rocks that are being exposed to daylight for the first time in thousands of years.
 
“Glaciers can tell us a lot about climate change, because they respond to both changes in temperature and precipitation,” said Peter Clark, an OSU professor of geosciences who conducted the last studies on Collier Glacier in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “They are like a checking account where you make both deposits and withdrawals, and can see the long-term effects of climate change, through the year-to-year variation in the balance between the two.”
 
The studies on Collier Glacier are now being conducted by Cody Beedlow, an OSU graduate student working with Clark, who visits the glacier throughout the year. Beedlow and assistants have packed in an automatic weather station that provides data on temperature, humidity, and short- and long-wave radiation. Other studies are made by drilling into the ice and inserting stakes to measure the amount of melting.
 
“Even to get up onto the glacier in the summer you need to travel pretty fast and light, before the next storm front moves in,” Beedlow said. “We usually start hiking in at night with headlamps, and often get off the glacier just as the clouds are piling up. For this kind of science you have to take your opportunities when you can find them.”

The research in the 1980s and 90s showed the glacier losing mass in four of the five years studied, and it also lost mass last year, Beedlow said. Researchers have been able to get in to the glacier earlier in the season than they had previously, he said, providing important new data.
 
The glaciers in the Pacific Northwest, such as Collier and another large ice mass on Mount Hood, Eliot Glacier, are there primarily because of massive winter snowfall – more than 20 feet at times on the Three Sisters – which does not all melt during the summer. Elsewhere in the world where it’s much colder, such as Antarctica, there’s very little snowfall but the temperature is so cold that snowfall remains almost permanently.
 
But in most of the world, including the Pacific Northwest, glaciers have been in a slow global retreat since the end, in the late-1800s, of a 600-year period called the “Little Ice Age,” Clark said. Some of that melting will cause a noticeable increase in sea level, and some water resources will be affected where glacial fields feed irrigation streams and reservoirs. 
 
“There will be some ecological and agricultural impacts from glacier loss,” Clark said. “But from our perspective, studies such as what we’re doing on Collier Glacier give very valuable information to help understand past and current climate changes. They are very good barometers of climate effects.”
 
Long-term studies of Collier Glacier, through scientific research and observations made by examining old photographs, suggest it’s now about half of the mass it was 150 years ago. It appears to lose mass most quickly during El Nino events, and also had a period of rapid decline from 1924-34.
 
Some of the locations where researchers now camp would have been several hundred feet deep in ice in the 1800s. >>> Photo Gallery | Video