Dr. Matt Nolan

Institute of Northern Engineering
University of Alaska Fairbanks

 

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McCall Glacier Research

The photos above show how McCall Glacier has responded to a changing climate over of the past 45 years. What is the cause of this retreat? Is there less snow? Is there more melt? Have air temperatures gotten warmer or the skies less cloudy? What weather patterns could account for changes such as these changes? What do these changes say about the role of Arctic weather in the global climate system, in the past, present and future? How does this loss of glacier ice volume affect downstream ecosystems? These are the types of questions that our project seeks to answer.

McCall Glacier, located in what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, has the longest history of scientific observation for any U.S. Arctic Glacier. These observations began as part of the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58 (pre-dating the Refuge) and my funded research project here have continued this record from 2003 through the International Polar Year in 2007-09 until at least 2012. Our field research is geared towards measuring everything which may change over time, including surface mass balance, ice volume, ice temperature, ice velocities, bed properties, ice cores, subsurface ice accumulation, surface albedo, and local weather. As far as I know, there is no other glacier in the world that has as high a density of automated weather stations and mass balance/survey stakes with such a long record.We generally have conduct two field campaigns each year timed for mass balance measurements: one in May and one in August, though sometimes we stay the whole summer. In all of the years of observation, including ours, the glacier has been losing ice at an increasing rate. This loss likely began around 1890, based on ice extents, lichenometry, and a variety of external information that suggests that a signficant change in climate began around that time.

To learn more about the history of research on McCall Glacier, I highly recommend beginning with this paper in the journal Arctic, it is intended as such an introduction so I wont reiterate it in this web page:

Weller, Gunter, Matt Nolan, Gerd Wendler, Carl Benson, Keith Echelmeyer and Norbert Untersteiner, 2007. Fifty years of McCall Glacier research: from the International Geophysical Year, 1957-58 to the International Polar Year, 2007-08. Arctic 60 (1).

To see a short movie I made that gives a nice overview of our research here as of about 2007, please choose one of the following links based on your internet connection speed: fast, medium, slow.

What follows below is a brief funding history of my time as lead-PI on this project. If you want more detail on what we actually do in the field, you should check out the field blogs I have written, in which I usually attempt to give a simple overview of our scientific goals, why we have them, and whether we actually accomplished them.

My involvement with McCall Glacier began in 2002, when Larry Hinzman wrote an NSF (OPP/ARCSS) proposal called "Detection and attribution of changes in the hydrologic regimes of the Mackenzie, the Kuparuk and the Lena River Basins" which I joined in on. Dont ask me how McCall Glacier research ties in with title, suffice to say it funded me several months per year for five years to begin the project anew. During the course of this project, I feel I got McCall Glacier research soundly into the 21st century by installing a large number of unique automated weather stations of my own design, reinvigorated the mass balance and ice velocity programs with a huge number of stakes and continuous GPS measurements, and set the stage for the unique and challenging work that was yet to come. We put out a number of papers during this time:

Nolan, Matt, Anthony Arendt, Bernhard Rabus, and Larry Hinzman, 2005. Volume change of McCall Glacier, Arctic Alaska, from 1956 to 2003. Annals of Glaciology, 42: 409-416.

Frank Pattyn, Matt Nolan, and Bernhard Rabus, 2005. Localized basal motion of a polythermal Arctic glacier: McCall Glacier, Alaska, U.S.A. Annals of Glaciology, 40: 47-51.

Klok, Lisette, Matt Nolan, and Michiel van den Broeke, 2006. Analysis of meteorological data and the surface energy balance of McCall Glacier, Alaska. Journal of Glaciology, 51 (174): 451-461.

Delcourt, Charlotte, Frank Pattyn, Matt Nolan (2008) Modelling historical and recent mass loss of McCall Glacier, Alaska, USA. The Cryosphere 2:23-31. (www.the-cryosphere.net/2/23/2008/) (PDF)

Frank. Pattyn, Charlotte Delcourt, Denis Samyn, Bert De Smedt and Matt Nolan (2009) Bed properties and hydrological conditions underneath McCall Glacier, Alaska, USA. Annals of Glaciology 50(51): 80-84.

In 2007, I was fortunate to be awarded a new three-year grant dedicated to research on McCall Glacier during the International Polar Year through NSF (OPP/ANS) “Improving mass balance and glacier dynamics modeling on Arctic glaciers for better prediction and hindcasting”. The primary goals of this project were to assess how representative McCall Glacier is of the 800 or so surrounding glaciers in Arctic Alaska, improve our mass balance and ice flow modelling, and understand the role of these glaciers in the local ecosystems. Towards these goals we had several major tasks including: making new topographic maps of a 4000 km2 area of the eastern Brooks Range to measure volume change of most of the glaciers here since 1956, extract an ice core to bedrock for paleoclimate research, conduct shallow coring each year to measure subsurface ice accumulation within old firn layers, write a new 3D finite-difference ice-flow model, write a new type of spatially-distributed mass balance model that incorporates solar radiation measurements and internal accumulation, and measure ice thickness and ice temperature of McCall Glacier and a selection of its neighbors. It is an ambitious project with a number of successes so far. The project has been extended one year (due to end in 2011) and we have a number of papers either in review or preparation currently.

This year, 2010, I have been awarded two grants to continue studies on McCall Glacier, through 2012. The first is again from the National Science Foundation titled "Collaborative Research: Analysis of McCall Glacier ice core and related modern process studies". The primary goal of this research is to analyze the ice core we extracted in 2008 to better understand climate dynamics in this region. We have already made continuous measurements of over 35 elements and compounds within the 152 meter core, now we need to figure out what they mean. To accomplish there, this is a lot more we also need to learn about the glacier itself, since interpretting ice cores from valley glaciers is substantially more tricky than from ice sheets. The second grant came from US Fish and Wildlife Service "Long-term monitoring of the impacts of climate change on the glaciers and rivers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge". Here are primary goals are to ensure that the long-term baseline measurement program is continued and to integrate these records with dynamics affecting the local acquatic ecosystems, primary the Dolly Varden fishery in the Hula Hula River.

The upshot for me and for the project is that between these two project I can now devote my efforts full-time to McCall Glacier research. I wont necessarily be paid full-time, but at least I wont have other projects distracting me. So this is a very satisfying turning-point for me professionally, as I have looked forward to diving in head first into research here for quite some time, and I now have 8 years of my own field data to work with, in addition to the large data sets like the new topographic maps and ice core. I believe the next few years are going to be a very exciting time for this project.

(c) 2010 Matt Nolan.