It’s Hard to Do Climate Research When Your Glacier Is Melting

Originally published for WIRED on June 15th, 2022.

Next year, A data collection site on the Wolverine Glacier in southern Alaska in the United States will disappear due to melting. The site, near the terminus—aka the lower end of the glacier—contains a mass balance stake that Christopher McNeil, a geophysicist for the US Geological Survey, uses to measure the rate at which the glacier is growing or melting. “We’ve actually had to deal with this at pretty much all of our glacier sites,” McNeil says.

Snow and ice are extremely important tools for researching our environment. There are ice cores from the poles and from glaciers around the world stored at the National Science Foundation Ice Core Facility in Denver; they show everything from when volcanic events happened to how much carbon dioxide and methane were in the atmosphere millions of years ago.

Other researchers use snow to understand the amount of toxins or pollution in our environment today. “Snow is a really great medium to work in because you get the snow layers,” says Aleksandra Karapetrova, a graduate student in the environmental toxicology program at the University of California, Riverside. Her work focuses on measuring the amount of microplastics that are falling from the atmosphere.

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