After days of waiting around in Port Angeles, Washington, Earth and Space Sciences’ T.J. Fudge finally got some good news: a helicopter would be able to drop him and another researcher into the wilderness of Olympic National Park. Fudge didn’t know it yet, but nasty weather would prevent the helicopter from returning to pick them up, leaving the scientists no choice but to hike out. His 20-minute commute would turn into a 2-day ordeal.

“The Olympic Mountains are a backpacker’s dream—isolated by miles of old-growth forest,” Fudge said. “That can also be a researcher’s nightmare. Any fieldwork is a multi-day experience.”

Hiking up Blue Glacier
Kristin Poinar, Earth and Space Sciences
Fudge and colleagues hike up Blue Glacier. A 20-mile trek, Blue is one of the most accessible glaciers in the Olympic Mountains.

And yet, it’s just another day in the office for the University of Washington postdoc and his colleagues. With multiple treks into the deep folds of the park’s nearly 8,000-foot-high peaks, Fudge and other researchers documented the mountain range’s glaciers—what’s left of them. His team’s field measurements, combined with aerial photos and historical records, were used to create the first complete database of the size, shape, and condition of every glacier larger than 0.01 square kilometers in the Olympics.

This work is especially important because those glaciers are melting away at an alarming rate, with implications not only for the park’s ecosystems, but the communities that surround the Olympic peninsula as well. Fudge and his colleagues found that not only are Olympic National Park’s glaciers shrinking, many have disappeared. In 1980 the park included 262 glaciers; now there are 184. The rate of ice loss has doubled in the past thirty years, as compared to the rate over the previous 88 years.

“I was a little surprised at the rate of mass loss: with glaciers losing up to one percent of their ice per year. If that continues, the remaining glaciers in Olympic are going to be much smaller in fifteen years when I’m climbing with my son—he’s one now,” Fudge said.

In order to accurately document the state of the Olympics’ ice, Fudge had to conduct fieldwork to find out whether glaciers that had been identified by photographs as receding or disappearing had actually just been covered by debris. The team also catalogued glaciers that had split into multiples, which happens when the lower portions melt, leaving the icy “tributaries” disconnected from each other. This particular phenomenon means that any count of glaciers is an imperfect measurement of the amount of ice still residing in the mountains, so the scientists used GPS to calculate the glaciers’ decreasing mass and volume as well.

This loss of ice mass in the Olympic Mountains means shrinking streams over the summer months, with implications for fish and other wildlife as well as the more than 135,000 residents of the Olympic Peninsula who rely on those water sources.

“Glacier change is one of the most visible aspects of climate change and can really help people see how warming temperatures impact the landscape,” Fudge said. “It is easy to think of National Parks and Forests as areas protected from change, but our actions affect them.”

In order to examine these kinds of broad impacts on environment and people, both rigorous fieldwork and unique partnerships are required. In cataloguing Olympic’s glaciers Fudge worked with scientists from Portland State University, and from both Olympic and North Cascades National Parks. With different types of expertise and perspectives, collaborations like this can generate new insights and new tools—like the comprehensive database of the park’s glaciers, which will now serve as an important benchmark in the park’s documented history.

Nowadays, Fudge is working on a different collaboration: examining the South Pole Ice Core. On this large project, with scientists from around the world taking on various research questions, Fudge is measuring the ice’s electrical conductivity, to detect past volcanic eruptions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fudge maintains that although the most difficult part of the research in the Olympics was the fieldwork, it was also the most fun.

“Being perched high in the mountains and watching an unobstructed sunset over the Pacific Ocean is magnificent.”

Written by: Jen Davison