For more than a decade, Alaska Pacific University (APU) faculty and students have camped, dug, monitored, and measured on Eklutna Glacier, the main source of Anchorage’s water supply. Those years of observations contributed to a recent article published in the Journal of Glaciology about the glacier’s response to climate change. In short, Eklutna Glacier is melting longer each summer and getting thinner each year, but hasn’t reached a critical state… yet.
Jason Geck, associate professor of environmental science, is the lead author on the paper. That’s no surprise to his students, though, as Eklutna Glacier is an active subject in several of his classes.
“All aspects of this glacier monitoring project involve students,” Geck said of the published research. His field methods course gauges the water gushing off the glacier from a bridge above the Eklutna River. His glacier travel class takes helicopters up the mountain to measure the snowpack. Back in the classroom, his glaciology students combine those observations to calculate mass balance – the difference between winter accumulation and summer melt.
And that’s just his coursework. Geck also works with graduate students to create a photographic quilt of the glacier each year. Flying a fixed-wing-mounted camera, APU students create a mosaic of photos and determine the ice elevation at every pixel.
Using all those data points, Geck and his co-authors – including APU grad student Johnse Ostman and Professor Roman Dial – built a model to measure change on Eklutna Glacier. The model used environmental parameters like precipitation and radiation to estimate mass balance and discharge from 1985 to 2019. The model showed the glacier melting longer each year and annual discharge (the volume of water flowing from the glacier) increasing.
While that sounds alarming, it could be worse. In its final decades, a glacier will produce less and less water since there’s less ice to melt. That’s not happening to Eklutna. “We haven’t reached peak water,” said Geck. “That’s the big takeaway.”
The implications of Eklutna research affect everyone in Anchorage. The municipality relies on the glacier for roughly 80 percent of its drinking water. Eklutna Lake provides 10 to 15 percent of the city’s power. And now, several decades after the federal government handed the dam to local utilities, there’s a growing push and legal requirement to investigate diverting water into the traditional Eklutna River channel to restore salmon spawning grounds.
As the glacier changes, so must the city’s response and management. That means there’s always a need for more data and more student research. Do you want to get involved? Eklutna Glacier research will be part of the following courses this school year:
SC 250: Survey and Methods in Environmental Science
SC 215: Glaciology and Glacier Travel
The full article is open-access and available online.