Three-quarters empty or one-quarter full?

That's me standing in front of a glacier. Obviously, I'm pretty pumped. 

What better place to start this blog than glaciers? "Glaciology" is in the name of this blog, my research is on ancient glaciers and I'm clearly way too excited about them. Before I jump into why my research on ancient glaciers is important, let's start with why you, citizen of the world, care about these giant, awesome, hunks of ice. 

Everyone has heard that the glaciers are disappearing, by why do we care if glaciers disappear? Even outside of the issue of climate change, glaciers disappearing has major consequences for communities. In the winter, when precipitation is high and temperature is low, glaciers grow and store precipitation as ice. In the summer, as temperatures rise, the glacier melts. In the Pacific Northwest, where I live and work, precipitation is high in the winter and water that would otherwise run into the ocean, is stored as ice high up in the mountains. In the yearly summer drought, water released from melting glaciers supplements city and industrial water supplies.

Summer glacier melt accounts for 30-70% of water in glacial-fed rivers in the summer months of the Pacific Northwest [Fountain and Tangborn, 1985; Nolin et al., 2010]. That means that without glaciers, the rivers we rely on for irrigation, recreation, industry, and city water could be a little as one quarter the size they are now. 

One quarter full or three quarters empty?

Yikes! Water flow in rivers has major impacts on society. Here are a few:

·       Municipal water
o   The stuff you drink, shower in, wash your dishes with, flush your toilet with… Any household use of water.
·       Hydroelectric power
o   Hydroelectric power is cheap and renewable. Cheap power lowers cost of living and attracts energy intensive industries. For example, Google builds data storage facilities in areas with cheap power.
·       Agriculture
o   This includes everything from crops, to dairy, to meat. Agriculture is a major economic factor for Washington State, which is the #1 US producer of apples, hops, raspberries, and cherries and #2 US producer of potatoes, grapes, and onions. Water management is essential for Washington state agriculture, where many farms, particularly in the Puget Sound area, rely on glacier-fed rivers in the summer months.
·       Recreation
o   Less glacier melt means lower lake and river levels, which has impacts on boating and fishing. 
·       Other industry 
o   Steel, textiles, food processing, coal processing, and paper production all rely heavily on water. Manufacturing is not as significant as agriculture in terms of GDP, but in 2013, manufacturing accounted for almost 8% of employment in Washington state.

Glaciers obviously aren’t responsible for all the water used in all industries in Washington state and elsewhere the Pacific Northwest but each of the categories above will take a hit as glaciers continue to shrink. Whether you call it "three-quarters empty" or "one-quarter full," the outlook isn't great.

Ok, so that's why glaciers matter right now, but I study ancient glaciers that have long-since melted away. So, why do we care about what glaciers looked like 10,000 or 100,000 years ago? The size of ancient glaciers tells us about past climates and how glaciers reacted to them. As climate continues to change in the future, knowledge of past glaciers will help us determine how future glaciers will react and allow us to plan and prepare for changes in water resources as glaciers continue to disappear.

Want to know more? Stay tuned for:
  • How do you study glaciers that don’t exist anymore?
  • Are the glaciers really melting?
  • What other effects will climate change have?

Fountain, A. G., and W. V. Tangborn (1985), The Effect of Glaciers on Streamflow Variations, Water Resour. Res., 21(4), 579–586, doi:10.1029/WR021i004p00579.
Nolin, A. W., J. Phillippe, A. Jefferson, and S. L. Lewis (2010), Present-day and future contributions of glacier runoff to summertime flows in a Pacific Northwest watershed: Implications for water resources, Water Resour. Res., 46(12), W12509, doi:10.1029/2009WR008968.


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