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Paving the Way for Backpack Climate Science: North Cascades Glacier Climate Project Turns 40

In 1983, Mauri Pelto, then a graduate student at the University of Maine, conducted his first field season measuring several glaciers in Washington State’s North Cascades Range. Studying these glaciers—many of which were so remote that other researchers hadn’t yet attempted to reach them—meant Pelto had to backpack to the sites with low-tech, easy-to-carry tools like ropes, a collapsible metal pole and a LiDAR range finder favored by golfers and scientists alike. Thirty-nine field seasons later, the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project (NCGCP) is still going strong, uniting glacier scientists, artists and science communicators in one of the longest continuous climate field studies that provides vital glacier data for local and global partners.

The 2023 core field team plus Mauri’s son and daughter-in-law, Ben and Margot, on the Rainbow Glacier. From left to right: Ben Pelto, Margot Pelto, Jill Pelto, Mauri Pelto, Mariama Dryák-Vallies, Kaiyuan Wang, and Shivaprakash Muruganandham. Photo: Jason Hummel

For the past 40 years, Pelto and other members of the field team have witnessed significant glacier retreat, with the summer of 2023 being the largest loss of glacier area since they began their research in 1983. They have witnessed the deaths of almost a dozen active glaciers, most recently the Ice Worm and Hinman glaciers, which have shrunk so much they are no longer large enough to be considered glaciers. “Measurements [taken on the Lower Curtis Glacier this year] were difficult because there was nothing to measure—in most locations, there was no snow protecting the glaciers, so melt is off the scale,” said Tom Hammond, a recurring field scientist on the team. “Words cannot communicate how devastating this is for the ecology of the Pacific Northwest.”

As in previous years, the 2023 August field season involved two weeks of backpacking, taking detailed measurements on 10 glaciers and observing dozens of others. Pelto, now a professor of environmental studies at Nichols College in Massachusetts, was joined by his daughter and NCGCP Art Director Jill Pelto, as well as Mariama Dryák-Vallies, the director for Polar Science Early Career Community Office, and two field assistants, Kaiyuan Wang and Shivaprakash Muruganandham. Throughout the trip, several partners, including researchers, artists, science communicators and family members joined for visits to different sites. Past members of the project came together for the Lower Curtis glacier research site to celebrate the NCGCP’s 40th anniversary.

Jenna Travers, a field assistant during the 2022 NCGCP season and a writer at GlacierHub, sought reflections from previous and current members of the project to commemorate the 40 years of glacier research.

For the 40th anniversary of the program, some of the past field team members joined the current team for a picnic at Mt. Baker and the third site of the field season: the Lower Curtis Glacier on Mt. Shuksan. Photo courtesy of Megan Pelto

Interview with Mauri Pelto

Why did you start this project and how did you decide on the North Cascades?

The project was in response to a call-to-action at a glaciology meeting I attended by Stanford climate scientist Stephen Schneider, urging us to establish long-term monitoring programs to observe the impact of climate change. The National Academy of Sciences had noted a high priority was to begin monitoring glaciers across an entire mountain range, not just individual glaciers. To address both these issues, I chose the North Cascade Range because the glaciers are an important water resource for hydropower, irrigation and salmon. The plan from the start was a 50-year project.

How have the glaciers changed over time?

In 1984, many North Cascade glaciers had advanced further than in 1944, and some were still advancing. By 1990, all North Cascade glaciers were in retreat. Mass balance losses accelerated after 2003, leading to rapid area loss and the beginning of declining summer glacier runoff. I observed several of the key glaciers I had studied disappear by 2005. After that point, the rate of change accelerated with the pace of glacier loss increasing. The worst three years of our 40 years of observing have been 2021-2023.

The deglaciation of the Easton Glacier on Mount Baker, Washington, from 1990 (red line) to 2022 (visible glacier). All of the glaciers measured by the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project are shrinking. Image courtesy of Mauri Pelto

What has the project meant for you and your family?

The project has become like a family business—but one we generate experiences from, not income. It requires consistent physical preparation and a passion for ice and climate science. Both of these are good things to have in your life. Ben, Jill and Megan [Mauri’s children] have all further developed their resilience, love for the outdoors, and passion for what they do from participating in this work.

The Pelto family—(left to right) Megan, Mauri, Ben, and Jill—in front of Mt. Shuksan and the Lower Curtis Glacier during the 2022 field season. Photo courtesy of Jenna Travers

Why have you involved so many early-career researchers, science communicators and artists in the project, and how do you feel that’s changed its overall impact?

Mentoring new people is key—it brings value to the program and keeps us passionate about our work. We have sought to include artists, first-time glacier field scientists and science communicators who otherwise would not have such an opportunity. The artists and science communicators provide a different perspective that helps communicate the impacts of the significant glacier retreat we’ve witnessed to different audiences than scientists typically reach.

The piece “40 Years in the North Cascades” by Jill Pelto shows 1984-2023 mass balance data from the NCGCP along the top of the glacier. See more of Pelto’s art here

Any other reflections on the project?

This project is conducted in wilderness areas where mechanized equipment is not allowed. This forces us to reach every site by backpack, carrying all the equipment we need. This keeps the approach simple and costs down, and requires us to understand the entire landscape we live in during the expedition, not just the glaciers. The key to understanding something is not always attained by using highly sophisticated equipment; it can also be attained by repeat detailed observations.

Jill Pelto, climate change artist, art director of the NCGCP since 2009

Working with the NCGCP for 15 years has been one of the big joys and privileges of my life. The work is so hard and meaningful, and has shaped who I am personally and professionally. I have learned better how to lead, communicate and collaborate, and the project has inspired me to pursue a career I’m passionate about. The project is capturing the history of the North Cascades glaciers and to undertake this has involved so many wonderful people.

Jill Pelto measures the depth of a crevasse on the Rainbow Glacier on Mt. Baker. Along with being art director, Jill has been studying crevasse depth and location for several years on the project. Photo courtesy of Jenna Travers

Megan Pelto, freelance illustrator, recurring artist and field researcher 

My first year joining my dad in the North Cascades was in 2014 when I was still in college. I grew up seeing slideshows every summer from my dad’s work in the glaciers, but before the year I joined, I had never been to the West Coast before, backpacked or seen mountains of that scale. It was amazing to see the landscape firsthand and how much work and passion was put into the project. Much of my illustration is now inspired by the outdoors, and I’m so fortunate to continue to join NCGCP for certain field sites every year. Though I’ve seen many of these places change since my first year, I still remain just as inspired by the landscape.

Megan and Mauri Pelto measuring snow depth on the Easton Glacier in 2016. Photo courtesy of Megan Pelto

Abby Hudak, graduate student in Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University; 2019 field assistant

The North Cascades Glacier Climate Project was so instrumental for me in finding my passions in life. I reached out to Mauri as a biology master’s student expressing that I wanted to transition from biology to earth sciences and that I had fallen in love with the cryosphere. I had an incredible 16 days learning from him and others on the team about glaciers and the devastating impact of climate change on them. This experience gave me the courage to change my research interests and was the first time I felt truly aligned with my passions.

Abby Hudak and the other field assistants cross a river to get to one of the glacier field sites during the 2019 field season. Photo courtesy of Mauri Pelto

Ella Hall, graduate student in Environmental Sciences at Western Washington University; 2022 field assistant

I was a field assistant for the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project the summer of 2022. This was my first experience doing fieldwork, and my first time putting all the conceptual knowledge I’ve gained from my undergraduate studies into practice. The rate at which the cryosphere is changing is what drew me to this field of science, and to see the changes that the glaciers in the North Cascades are experiencing in real time is eye opening. Being a part of this project has opened so many doors for me and given me the foundational skills needed to start doing my own research.

Ella Hall measures stream depth during the Lynch and Daniel Glaciers stretch of the 2022 field season. Photo courtesy of Jill Pelto
The 2022 field team stops for lunch while conducting measurements on the Rainbow Glacier on Mt. Baker. Marked ropes, range finders/GPS units and a collapsible metal pole (seen in the image) are the only tools used for measurements on the project. Photo courtesy of Jill Pelto

 

The 2023 field team and past members on the Lower Curtis Glacier on Mt. Shuksan. Photo courtesy of Tom Hammond
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