One of our goals is to learn how glacier caves influence the growth and recession of glaciers, and how they channel the effects of climate and geothermal activity. Glaciers are affected by a complex group of forces. We want to determine how these forces work in concert to control the life and death of a glacier and influence our ice packs. 

Dr. Andreas Pflitsch uses a thermal imaging camera to identify hot spots in the glacier caves. Here, he's showing how it works by pointing it to the cave entrance and showing the color differences between hot (white to red) and cool (blue). 

Dr. Andreas Pflitsch uses a thermal imaging camera to identify hot spots in the glacier caves. Here, he's showing how it works by pointing it to the cave entrance and showing the color differences between hot (white to red) and cool (blue). 

Glaciers are dynamic rivers of ice, always in a state of change. Unlike rock caves, which are basically static, these caves are different each time we visit. By surveying and measuring the glacier caves year after year, we hope to relate their volumetric change to the rate of recession or growth in the glacier.  The true value of glacier research is in tracking changes in their mass and shape over time.

In addition to climatology and geomorphology, this research contributes to a host of other scientific disciplines, including geochemistry, microbiology and astrobiology. These extreme environments simulate conditions found under ice packs on other bodies in our solar system, like Mars and Europa. The life forms found in these caves can provide valuable data about possible microbial life there. 

In addition to scientific value, our work provides direct social benefits. 

A Look at Our Past
Glacier caves reveal the many layers of ice that have accumulated over the centuries. They are like tree rings - the chemical make-up of the ice layer provides a literal "blueprint" of what was happening in the atmosphere that year. 

Glaciers are HISTORY BOOKS of climate. By learning about our past, we understand how to deal with the future, learn what to expect, and how not to repeat the same mistakes. As the glaciers disappear, we lose more and more pages of climate history. 

19288474965_fdfd4835eb_o.jpg

Watershed Impact

When glaciers disappear, so does their water. By finding out why our ice packs are disappearing and how the caves are influencing that, we become better informed about protecting them or planning for the consequences. 

Dr. Andreas Pflitsch pushes a flotation device attached to a data logger chain into Adelie Lake on Mt Rainier. The data logger chain records temperature readings at various depths in the water. (photo by FX DeRuydts)

Dr. Andreas Pflitsch pushes a flotation device attached to a data logger chain into Adelie Lake on Mt Rainier. The data logger chain records temperature readings at various depths in the water. (photo by FX DeRuydts)

Saving Lives

The cave maps we generate can be used by search and rescue teams to locate and extract lost and injured cavers and climbers. 

In addition, millions of people live in the shadows of volcanoes. Our research can help toward the goal of predicting future destructive behavior to alert potential victims.

Iain Morris, Dave Clarke, Neil Marchington, Woody Peeples and Barb Williams in Godzilla Cave on Mt St Helens. The ice layers on the glacier cave walls illustrate each season's accumulation. (photo by Eric Guth)

Iain Morris, Dave Clarke, Neil Marchington, Woody Peeples and Barb Williams in Godzilla Cave on Mt St Helens. The ice layers on the glacier cave walls illustrate each season's accumulation. (photo by Eric Guth)

Natural Resource Management

We provide follow-up reports and information to help develop resource management and interpretive tools for the Forest Service and National Parks in charge of wilderness areas.


A Look At Our Future

Rare microbial communities live at the base of a glacier, where the ice touches the underlying lava rock, and steam fumaroles emit gases that provide nutrients for these microbes. Astrobiologists study these life forms to see how things might grow in space for our future colonization efforts.