Importance of Revitalization of the USGS Glaciology Program

Robert A. Bindschadler, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Glaciology is directly related to at least three major national responsibilities of the USGS:

It remains to be determined how much permanent ice exists within the US, but there are many hydrologic basins of the United States that contain significant amounts of glacier ice. If inadequate water-resource management is continued, the future of glaciers will have an increasingly important impact on the viability of these watershed areas and the people living in them. An assessment of the glacier-ice volumes in these areas is needed, along with predictions of how future climate conditions might affect their continuing capability to contribute to the water supply and for how long.

Quite separate from the issue of water-resource management, glacier ice presents a variety of hazards to citizens of this country. High on the list are glacier-dammed lakes that can produce sudden outburst floods (jökulhlaups) (such as Russell "Lake", that formed briefly by the damming of Russell Fiord by Hubbard Glacier); rapidly retreating tidewater glaciers that produce large volumes of icebergs, potentially endangering shipping traffic (such as occurred at Columbia Glacier); outbursts of englacially stored water generated by subglacier geothermal activity and/or meltwater (believed responsible for the deadly "lahars" which have occurred repeatedly in Mt. Rainier National Park); and jökulhlaups produced by subglacier volcanic activity in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. These effects require knowledge of glacier dynamics to undertake and interpret field-, airborne-, and satellite- measurement programs that can determine the risks of these hazards to the U.S.

Finally, the extended time series of mass balances on "benchmark" glaciers (South Cascade, Gulkana, Wolverine) has enormous value in recording long-term changes in mountain climates. Continuation of this unique data set must remain in the Survey's mission, but to increase the value and relevance of the data set, it must be put in a regional and global context. The value of these records could be further enhanced by extending this climate/glacier-behavior data set by better utilization of past maps, USGS and other photographic archives, and past, present, and future remotely sensed data from aircraft and satellites.

Implementation Plan

The USGS presently has most of the tools and personnel to achieve major progress on meeting all of these objectives. What is lacking since the retirement of Mark F. Meier in 1985 and the death of William J. Campbell in 1992, is a dynamic glaciologist with the vision, expertise, and managerial skills to execute a Bureau Program and to ensure that the products from the program are relevant to the USGS mission, the national interest, and the international scientific community. Traditional techniques have served the USGS's glaciology program well over years, but new remote sensing and GIS-based techniques can realize increased cost-effectiveness and scientific productivity. Satellite remote sensing will give the benchmark glacier data a much-needed regional context. GIS-based analysis will make past, present, and future data sets immediately comparable. It will also make the glacier data more accessible and useful to all Divisions of the USGS, to other bureaus in the U.S. Department of the Interior (e.g., Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, etc.) to other government agencies, and to collaborating colleagues in USGS counterpart agencies in other nations involved in glacier studies and monitoring.

This program should not stand in isolation. Strengthening of collaborations with glaciologists at the USGS's Cascade Volcano Observatory, the University of Washington, and other institutions in North America and Northwestern Europe, should continue. Image-analysis expertise in the Geologic Division, photographic/mapping expertise in the National Mapping Division, and field monitoring of glaciers in National Parks by the Water Resources Division and the Biological Resources Division offer the possibility of conducting a strong USGS glaciology program across the four science divisions. Equally important are associations with other nation's glacier-monitoring programs, especially USGS counterpart governmental agencies.

There is a rare opportunity to revitalize the USGS's program in glaciology into one that embraces national responsibilities that are part of USGS's mission, utilizes state-of-the-art techniques, and coordinates the broad talents of a group of very capable persons to achieve a meaningful bureau program of glacier research. The Water Resources Division, for example, has some of the best glacier surveyors in the world and a staff of professional glaciologists with proven track records. The USGS should be proud of their accomplishments. An internationally recognized glaciologist, at the forefront of developing remote sensing applications, capable of managing and sustaining a productive research team in a challenging funding environment, with extensive national and international contacts, is needed to reestablish the USGS as the lead Federal agency in glacier studies and to forge a strong cooperative scientific program with other institutions (U.S., Canada, and other foreign nations) that will serve the nation well as it enters the 21st century. [an error occurred while processing this directive]