Scientists: Some Glaciers in the Wind Rivers could be gone in as little as 50-60 years
(Lander, Wyo.) – Following a screening of the soon to be released WyomingPBS production of Glaciers of the Winds, a panel discussed the future of those glaciers, and the prognosis was not very encouraging. Central Wyoming College professors Jackie Klancher and Darren Wells teamed with Richard Baldes, a Tribal Water Board official, to remind the audience that the future of the Wind River Basin “is all about water”. Wyoming PBS Producer Kyle Nicoloff moderated the panel.
The glaciers, the panel noted, have been receding for decades but that the melting has accelerated in the past couple decades.
The two CWC professors have been leading students in the college’s Interdisciplinary Climate Change Expedition under the umbrella of CWC’s Alpine Science Institute to do science on the glaciers near the state’s highest point, Gannett Peak. Specifically, they have been gathering data above from 11,000 t0 over 13,000 feet on the Dinwoody Glacier for the past five years, using ground penetrating radar to measure the depth of the glacier while also studying how fast the massive ice block has been retreating. Students have also been recording water quality and quantity from the melting glacier, studying the flora and fauna on and below the glacier, studying the archeology of the area below the melting glacier plus documenting, with data and photos, how the glaciers there have been slowly losing their mass.
“The Dinwoody Glacier has lost 43 feet from its surface over the last 10 years. At a rate of losing 4.3 feet per year, a guess of 50 to 60 years is a good guess for it to be gone,” Wells said. The adjoining Continental Glacier, which has been studied by a team of researchers from North Dakota, estimate its lifespan to be around 130 years.
“It depends on so many variables, it’s hard to pin down exactly how much time the glaciers have left,” he said. Klancher noted that this past year, the CWC students have been collecting samples to determine the amount of black carbon on the glacier. “Where the black carbon comes from is hard to source,” she said, an answer to which would require more exhaustive research. The small specks of carbon landing on the glacier accelerate the melting of the ice, as they absorb more sunlight than the snow, which reflects the sunlight, she said. One source that researchers think is undeniable is smoke from forest fires that drifts to the higher elevations.
Baldes said the glaciers are critical for downstream uses, from in-stream flow standards, to agricultural and municipal uses, and he mentioned the Wind River Reservation’s water code spells out 16 different beneficial uses of its water. One struggle Baldes noted is decades of study of finding suitable non-main stem sources where a reservoir could be constructed to save more of the water, especially for late summer use when rivers and streams typically have low flows. He said the Tribes have an interest in keeping in-stream flows necessary for the health of the rivers, the fisheries and the riparian areas around the rivers. He said reservoir studies are ongoing, but he also said the enlargement of Ray Lake and the Washakie reservoirs as the two most discussed plans up to this point.
The Glaciers of the Winds program will debut September 20th on WyomingPBS.