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Climate Change Institute Field Team at Work in Denali

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts from UMaine’s Climate Change Institute, which is currently conducting fieldwork in the Alaska Range. Seth Campbell, a University of Maine graduate student pursuing his Ph.D. through UMaine’s Climate Change Institute and Department of Earth Sciences, is leading an expedition with several other researchers in Denali National Park in Alaska. This will be his fifth field season in Denali.

We just returned from our short field season on the Traleika and Muldrow Glaciers, where we collected ice depth data and measured glacier velocity at locations that Denali National Park and Preserve scientists have maintained during the past several years.

We were picked up by the park helicopter around 3:30 p.m. today (May 2) and transported back to Kahiltna Base Camp where we are staging our next two weeks of field work primarily on the Kahiltna Glacier.  Curtis, Lyndsey and I met three of our other field researchers (Brad Markle, Adam Toolanen and Dave Silverstone) at base camp today and we plan to depart up-glacier tomorrow morning. During the next three days, we will place stakes in the glacier between 7,400 and 10,000 feet above sea level and measure the location of each stake with a GPS system. We will re-measure the stake locations at the end of the field season to determine ice flow velocities at each stake site. We will also collect some images of the internal structure and depth of ice on the upper Kahiltna Glacier using ground-penetrating radar (GPR), so that we can estimate the amount of ice flowing past a given point per unit time (called ice volume flux).

Seth Campbell and Curtis Marston at work on the Traleika Glacier.

Seth Campbell and Curtis Marston at work on the Traleika Glacier.

As far as weather, two days of snow and one day of poor visibility and cloudy conditions on the north side of the mountain (Muldrow and Traleika glaciers) certainly slowed our work down and we spent much time tent-bound waiting out the 16 inches of fresh snow. Once the snow cleared we had minus 20 or colder temperatures to contend with last night into this morning.  As I write this today, I think we are dropping down to minus 20 again tonight. At these temperatures, field work becomes much slower during the day and we usually wait until the sun is fully in the sky to take advantage of any warmth we can. I currently have several batteries in my sleeping bag to keep them warm. When we travel and just prior to collecting data, I usually have any cables that work as part of the radar system within my jacket to keep them warm and flexible. The cold makes every delicate piece of equipment all the more breakable, so slow and deliberate use of the equipment and little tricks with the equipment (such as hand warmers on the batteries of the radar system during operation) can make all the difference between collecting field data and coming home empty-handed.

The north side of the mountain also has a very different character than the south side. The north sits in the snow/rain shadow, so the region is much drier than the south-facing Alaska Range. Besides the drier conditions, wildlife seemed a bit more abundant considering the Muldrow sits on the edge of the Arctic tundra. We heard a group of wolves howling on the ridge off to the north of the Muldrow one night; we followed tracks of what may have been a marten on another; and had several species of birds (which are also common on the south side of Denali) fly past us and visit camp for a quick stop within the tent vestibule to warm up from the cold before moving on.

We are all in good spirits.  A good round of mixed-berry pancakes and bacon for dinner (we know, usually a breakfast item!) with some hot Gatorade closed out the evening. The sleeping bags are all full of hot water bottles to keep us warm through the night. We were able to charge some batteries up with the solar power systems this evening. We all hope for sunny and a bit warmer weather tomorrow as we start to move up glacier for the second round of our research this season. More to come in a few days!

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