Glacier caves are giant feedback loops that involve all these disciplines of science - climatology, geomorphology, geochemistry, and microbiology. The caves not only react to climate, they also also react to geothermal input from fumaroles buried under the ice. By regularly surveying the volume of glacier caves, we hope to identify the individual influences of climate and geothermal activity.  We want to develop a new way to use the ice-mass balance of glacier caves to monitor changes in the hydrothermal / geothermal activity of these active volcanoes. 

Anemometer in Pure Imagination Cave on Sandy Glacier, Mt Hood (left); Rainier Lead Surveyor Dave Riggs entering data in PDA for upload into mapping program

Anemometer in Pure Imagination Cave on Sandy Glacier, Mt Hood (left); Rainier Lead Surveyor Dave Riggs entering data in PDA for upload into mapping program

Volcanic gases can also affect the chemistry of rock, water and ice. The chemically-altered rock can affect the structural stability of these mountains by transforming into unstable clay-like material. This condition can cause massive collapses and debris flows (called lahars) with little warning because these events aren't necessarily associated with eruptive activity. That means geochemical data might help predict potential lahars on these volcanos. This is all new, so we’re still working on how our data might help provide early warning signs to mountain communities. 

Extremophiles (extreme life forms) rely on the cave environment to make a living in novel ways... such as by metabolizing magmatic gases or chemically breaking down rock. This type of study can then 'feed' astrobiology research. 

Documenting These Relationships

Based on our surveys, we generate 3-dimensional maps that provide context for the scientific data by showing locations of all physical collections and readings. Data from the different disciplines can be studied in relation to each other, and we can obtain comparative data over the years. 

Underground rescue leader and cave surveyor John Punches (left) uses a laser disto to measure cave dimensions in the East Crater Caves on Mt Rainier. Lead cave surveyor David Riggs uploads survey data to a laptop and generates maps (right) while onsite during the Rainier expedition. (Above photos by FX DeRuydts)

Underground rescue leader and cave surveyor John Punches (left) uses a laser disto to measure cave dimensions in the East Crater Caves on Mt Rainier. Lead cave surveyor David Riggs uploads survey data to a laptop and generates maps (right) while onsite during the Rainier expedition. (Above photos by FX DeRuydts)

The completed map of Pure Imagination Cave on Sandy Glacier integrates the map with science, and shows changes in the cave (such as the mist line) over the years. 

The completed map of Pure Imagination Cave on Sandy Glacier integrates the map with science, and shows changes in the cave (such as the mist line) over the years.