UM Researchers Receive Major Grant to Study Melting of Famous Glacier

UM researchers and partner institutions will use computer modeling to study the impact of climate change on Alaska’s Malaspina Glacier.
(Photo credit: Martin Truffer, University of Alaska Fairbanks)

MISSOULA – The National Science Foundation has awarded researchers at the University of Montana and partner institutions a $1.3 million grant to study the melting of one of Alaska’s most iconic glaciers.

UM Department of Computer Science researchers, along with collaborators at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Arizona and the National Park Service, will use the grant to conduct computer modeling of changes now taking place to Malaspina Glacier, the world’s largest piedmont glacier. This type of glacier starts in the mountains and spills out onto the coastal plain. The Malaspina Glacier is larger than Rhode Island, according the NPS.

Doug Brinkerhoff, assistant professor in UM’s Department of Computer Science, said Malaspina already is thinning and retreating. As this process accelerates due to global warming, the coastline will change, impacting both terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

“This has the potential in the next several decades to be the largest loss of ice in Alaska from one glacier,” Brinkerhoff said. “It also will constitute the largest single change in terrestrial land cover in the national park system in recent history.”

The primary goal of the study, Brinkerhoff said, is to use computer modeling to estimate what the future of the Malaspina Glacier and surrounding area will look like as the massive melt continues.

Measurements collected on and around the glacier will provide a comprehensive data set for modeling glacier melting, ice velocity, ice thickness, glacier bed conditions, surface debris extent and thickness and other developments. The modeling will explore a large range of possible future scenarios for the evolution of Malaspina Glacier, accounting for different climate trajectories, as well as the normal freeze and thaw common to coastal glaciers.

“Much of Malaspina’s extensive surface area lies at very low elevation, and as such, the glacier is a sitting duck for climate change,” Brinkerhoff said. “Our work will lead to a better understanding of how climate change interacts with fundamental instabilities that glaciers have independent of climate, like the glacier coming afloat and breaking up, for example.”

Brinkerhoff said a graphic artist will convert the model results into visuals. When combined with interactive exhibits, the model will educate visitors to Malaspina Glacier and the surrounding Wrangell-St. Elias National Park about the glacier’s ongoing and anticipated changes due to climate change.

In addition, the project, which is slated to be completed by August 2023, will train three graduate students in relevant geophysical techniques, modern ice sheet modeling approaches and collaborative research. The project outcomes will be published in peer-reviewed literature and presented at professional meetings.