Nichols College News

Scientist Heads to the Glaciers

There are plenty of ways to cool off during August, but camping out on glaciers might not be most people’s choice. That’s just what Nichols Environmental Science Professor Mauri Pelto has been doing for almost three decades.

On August 1st, Pelto set out on his annual three-week study of the glaciers in Washington state’s Cascade Mountains, a pursuit that has helped establish him as one of the world’s leading experts on how glaciers are changing. Besides his work at Nichols, Pelto directs the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project.

Hiking boots and crampons for ice are standard attire for Pelto on these treks. “I actually work on at least 10 glaciers each summer and spend most of my time hiking to get to them or moving around on top of them,” he explains. But that’s just the start of his activities.

Pelto spends the rest of his time measuring the snow depth atop those glaciers compared to previous years and makes meticulous notes in any change of their “terminus positions”—that is, whether they’ve advanced or retreated over the past 12 months.

When it comes to measuring snow accumulation, Pelto uses a steel probe that extends as far as five meters. He takes measurements in hundreds of different locations along the glaciers. He also makes frequent and somewhat hazardous use of the deep crevasses dotting the glacial surface.

“You can see the snow layers in the crevasses just like rings inside of trees,” Pelto points out. “We don’t rope up, so the key for us is not falling in.”

The “us” in Pelto’s life on the glaciers can vary. This year, he’s working with representatives from the Wilderness Society and the North Cascades Conservation Council. In the past, he’s brought his children along as part of their summer vacation. Two summers ago a documentary film crew followed Pelto in his glacial rounds.

The glaciers in the Cascades are shrinking, according to Pelto, who notes that he has come up with the first way of forecasting whether a glacier will survive. “About 20 percent of the volume of these glaciers is gone,” he reports. “Several glaciers have disappeared altogether.”

Pelto does not confine his environmental measurements to water in its frozen state. Back at Nichols, he regularly monitors the flow of rivers in central Massachusetts and last spring discovered that most of the rivers were at historically low flow rates.

Pelto also involves his environmental science students in making those measurements. “They’ll analyze 60 different rivers and come back with the numbers,” Pelto says, adding that the activity provides students with a window into his scientific world. “You’re a part of this moving amoeba of science that’s always changing and advancing.”