UAF Researchers receive million dollar grant to study Alaska’s most important glacier

Published: Sep. 25, 2020 at 5:09 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - In southeastern Alaska, in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the Malaspina glacier is melting. Encompassing an area larger than Rhode Island, this immense valley glacier is the largest of its kind in the world, for now.

In order to study the rapidly occurring changes in the glacier, the National Science Foundation has awarded a $1.3 million grant to researchers from several institutions including the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). Leading the charge at UAF is Professor Martin Truffer, and we spoke with him about the effects of the glacial melt and the nature of his work.

“The Malaspina glacier is one of the biggest glaciers in this state that has already been showing large changes over the last couple of years. And what we want to do is figure out what the future holds for that glacier, under different assumptions of what the climate’s gonna do. So some of the work has already started -- we’re watching the glacier, we’re measuring how it’s changing, we’re looking at satellite imagery to see how fast the ice is falling and so on. We’re gonna get boots on the ground this Spring. There is [also] our work with radar to see exactly how deep the ice is in strategically important places. [we’ll] take some seismic measurements, [and] we’re going to measure on the ground how much it melts and how that’s distributed." Truffer said.

The results of these studies will help determine what a future Alaska might look like one day. Truffer elaborated further: “Certainly regionally it has large effects. Because what we can anticipate, and what we’re already starting to see happen, is pretty substantial changes in the coast line. This is a very dynamic area geologically, even if you didn’t put climate change on top of that. And so what we can expect there if the retreat keeps going on, which it very much looks like, is that there is an entire new bay that is starting to open in that area. So we’re gonna have a lot more ocean or lagoon depending on how that coastal barrier there develops over the next couple decades. So regionally that’s gonna totally change the picture of the coastline there.”

While the Malaspina glacier is in a remote area, the impact of this glacial melt will be felt both globally and locally. Truffer details some of these effects: "There’s also the sea level implication. That one is actually sort of interesting because what happens if you unload that local area? If you take that ice off, the land is rebounding -- so that means you can actually expect the land to uplift in the area because you’re taking weight of the ice off. But if you go further away you’re dumping all this ice into the ocean, so you actually contribute to sea level rise. And despite large changes we see in ice sheets, Alaska is one of the main contributors of sea level rise globally. And the Malaspina glacier is one of the main contributors in Alaska. So if you want to pick out a single glacier by importance, this is right on top of the list. In the bigger picture, what this does locally is open up an entirely new ecosystem there, so everything that’s going on is going to change if you take that glacier away.”

Monitoring the glacier now is giving Truffer and his team valuable insight into Alaska’s future.

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