Climate and Cryosphere Hazards

Most high-latitude northern regions have undergone rapid and substantial warming over the last few decades. Alaska is particularly sensitive to the effects of climate warming as much of its social and economic activity is connected to the existence of snow, ice and permafrost (i.e. the cryosphere). Changes in climate can modify natural processes and could increase the magnitude and frequency of certain types of geologic hazards (e.g., avalanches, floods, erosion, slope instability, thawing permafrost, and glacier lake outburst floods) which, if not properly addressed, could have a damaging effect on Alaska’s communities and infrastructure, as well as on the livelihoods and lifestyles of Alaskans.

The Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys' (DGGS) Climate and Cryosphere Hazards Program (CCHP) combines field-based observations, remote sensing and modeling to assess, monitor and predict the impacts of a changing cryosphere on resources and infrastructure in Alaska.

Staff

Name Title
Gabriel Wolken, Ph.D. Program Manager
Katreen Wikstrom Jones M.Sc. Geologist

Research Interns

Name Title
Matthew Balazs (Ph.D. UAF) Remote sensing of mass movements in fiords of south-central
Jennifer Davis (M.Sc. UAF) Temperature-index modeling of mass balance and runoff in the Valdez Glacier catchment in 2012 and 2013

Headlines

  • CCHP and partners launch new NASA-funded citizen science Community Snow Observations (CSO) project.
  • CCHP and partners complete first NASA CSO data campaign in Thompson Pass - March 2017.
  • CCHP and Alaska Climate Science Center formalize partnership with an eye toward actionable science in areas of strategic importance.
  • CCHP continues winter airborne remote sensing missions and the production of photogrammetrically derived, spatially continuous snow depth and SWE products.
  • CCHP and partners (CRREL and AKDOT&PF) install new high elevation weather station in the Takshanuk Mountains near Haines, AK.
  • CCHP and partners (USGS and UW) continue to acquire end-of-winter radar-derived snow water equivalent (SWE) measurements on glaciers in central and south-central Alaska.
  • CCHP continues collaboration with AKDOT&PF, investigating destructive debris flows along the Haines Highway and assessing snow avalanche potential along Richardson and Dalton highway corridors.

Topics of Investigation

Glacier Change

  • + Overview

    Numerous glaciers and ice fields currently occupy many of the mountains ranges in Alaska, and the processes of glaciation and deglaciation have influenced much of the Alaskan landscape.

    Glacier changes, particularly from down-wasting and retreat, can generate a range of hazards involving changes in discharge, glacier lake outburst floods, slope instability, erosion and sedimentation, iceberg production and surges.

  • + Featured Projects

    End-of-winter snow accumulation variability on glaciers in Alaska: A broad range of scientific and resource management topics (e.g. glacier mass balance and flood forecasting) rely on a quantitative assessment of distributed snow thickness and stored water volume (snow water equivalent, SWE) on glaciers. The CCHP is involved in a multi-agency effort to obtain spatially distributed measurements of end-of-winter snow accumulation on glaciers in Alaska over a range of climatic zones using a combination of in situ, and ground-based and helicopter-borne radar measurements. Co-Investigators: Anthony Arendt (GI/UAF); Alessio Gusmeroli (IARC/UAF); Shad O’Neel (USGS); Daniel McGrath (USGS/CU); Louis Sass (USGS)

    Glacier and Runoff Changes in the Upper Susitna Basin: The scientists at DGGS and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) are conducting a multi-year hydrology study of the upper Susitna drainage basin as part of the pre-licensing process of the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project, supported by the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA. This study focuses on understanding the impacts of changes in the cryosphere on water resources by modeling the effects of future climate variability and change, permafrost thaw, and glacier wastage and retreat on runoff. The study combines field measurements of glacier mass balance, snow accumulation, runoff, meteorology and computational modeling to provide estimates of recent historical and future runoff into the proposed 81 km2 and 63 km long reservoir. Co-Investigators: Regine Hock (GI/UAF), Anna Liljedahl (WERC/IARC/UAF), Andrew Bliss (GI/UAF)

    Assessment of Glacier-related Hazards in the Valdez Glacier Watershed: Alaska communities and infrastructure located in valleys below glaciers can become more susceptible to flooding as a result of runoff changes and glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) associated with glacier down-wasting and retreat. These events have the potential for disrupting the livelihoods of Alaskans and impacting the State’s economic activity. CCHP and UAF began collecting detailed simultaneous measurements of glacier mass balance and basin hydrology in the Valdez Glacier catchment in 2012. The goal of this work is to develop more accurate predictions of glacier-related flood hazard potential for the community of Valdez, the State of Alaska, and other stakeholders. Methods developed in this study are being used as a template for other CCHP projects aimed at assessing potential hazards to communities downstream from glacierized catchments, including a statewide GLOF assessment and monitoring project. Co-Investigators: Anthony Arendt (GI/UAF), Jennifer Davis (UAF/DGGS) This study is in partnership with UAF and the City of Valdez.

    Observations of Ice Motion Changes at the Terminus of Hubbard Glacier: Recent advances of Hubbard Glacier (1986 and 2002) caused the damming of Russell Fjord, creating one of the largest glacier-dammed lakes on the continent and exposing the community of Yakutat to a host of potential hazards. Detailed observations of the terminus of Hubbard Glacier were conducted during a field campaign in May 2013. Ground-based radar interferometer (GBRI) and ground-based light detection and ranging (lidar) scanning systems were deployed to observe changes in ice motion in response to calving events and tidal cycles. The combination of these ground-based remote sensing techniques allows us to quantify high-frequency changes in the velocity and surface deformation at the terminus of Hubbard Glacier and to develop a better understanding of the mechanisms associated with advancing tidewater termini. Co-Investigators: David Finnegan (CRREL), Martin Sharp (UA), Mark Fahnestock (UAF/GI), Adam Lewinter (CRREL), Ricky Stevens (UA)

  • + Publications and Data Products

    Available: Gusmeroli, A., G.J. Wolken and A.A. Arendt, 2014, Helicopter-borne radar imaging of snow cover on and around glaciers in Alaska, Ann. Glaciol., 55(67), 78-88, doi:10.3189/2014AoG67A029.

    Upcoming: Glacier and runoff changes in the upper Susitna basin study report expected in Spring 2015; Assessment of end-of-winter SWE on glaciers across a range of climatic zones in Alaska; 2012 bathymetry of Valdez Glacier Lake; 2012-2013 SWE data for Valdez Glacier

  • + Partners and External Resources

    University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Geophysical Institute (GI), United States Geological Survey (USGS), Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), International Arctic Research Center (IARC), University of Alberta (UA)

Snow Avalanches

  • + Overview

    Snow avalanches are dangerous natural hazards that occur in mountainous areas throughout Alaska. In many areas of the state, avalanches threaten public safety and infrastructure and can lead to lengthy closures of important transportation routes. The economic impacts of such avalanches, from the removal of avalanche debris blocking the transportation corridor to the impedance of traffic, can be significant at both the local and state levels. The CCHP recently launched a pilot study with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) along the Richardson and Dalton highway corridors focused on assessing avalanche susceptibility and run-out potential, for the purpose of evaluating the utility of incorporating avalanche susceptibility and prediction models into future DOT maintenance activities, with the goal of decreasing DOT&PF’s operating expenses, increasing the functionality of the highway system, and increasing safety for the traveling public.

  • + Publications and Data Products

    Available:

    Upcoming: 2014 photogrammetrically-derived digital surface model (DSM) of the Keystone Canyon segment of the Richardson highway corridor

  • + Partners and External Resources

    Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF)

Unstable Slopes

  • + Overview

    Many of the geologic hazards in Alaska are associated with unstable slopes that have the potential to rapidly mobilize, the result of which could be loss of life and significant damage to property, infrastructure and economy with little or no warning. Changes in the cryosphere (e.g. glacier wastage and retreat and thawing of permafrost), are thought to be responsible for the rising number of mass movements in high-latitude and high-elevation areas. Such changes in Alaska are exacerbated by rising air temperatures, high amounts of precipitation, snow avalanching, and strong ground motions caused by frequent moderate to large earthquakes.

  • + Featured Projects

    Alpine-sourced debris flows along the Haines Highway: Debris flows are dangerous natural hazards that occur throughout Alaska. In many areas of the state, debris flows threaten public safety and infrastructure and can lead to lengthy closures of important transportation routes. The CCHP began a collaborative study with the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) along the Haines Highway corridor near Haines, Alaska. The intent of this study is to evaluate, monitor and model geophysical processes, including cryosphere-related changes, along this important transportation corridor, where destructive debris flows regularly impact the highway by threatening motorist, damaging infrastructure and impeding traffic flow. Co-Investigators: Ronald Daanen (DGGS)

    Evaluation of Unstable Slopes in Fiords of South-central Alaska: Fiords in south-central Alaska are geologically young (recently deglacierized) and dynamic settings. The CCHP is evaluating unstable slopes around fiord-based communities and infrastructure in south-central Alaska in order to identify geologic hazards and to support proactive planning, hazard mitigation and emergency response preparation. This study uses field-based observations, remotely sensed data (photogrammetry, lidar, optical satellite, ground-based radar interferometry and ground-based surveying techniques) and geospatial analyses to identify changes in geologic processes that threaten people, resources and infrastructure. Co-Investigators: Matthew Balazs (UAF/DGGS); Anupma Prakash (GI/UAF)

  • + Publications and Data Products

    Available: Wolken, G.J. and Balazs, M.S., 2014, Inventory and preliminary assessment of geologic hazards in the Passage Canal-Portage Valley area, south-central Alaska: Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys Preliminary Interpretive Report 2014-1, 15 p. doi:10.14509/27302

    Upcoming: 2014 Spring and Fall orthophoto mosaic and photogrammetrically-derived DSM of MP 17-23 of the Haines highway corridor

  • + Partners and External Resources

    DOT&PF, UAF, Geophysical Institute

High-elevation Weather Stations

  • + Overview

    Scientists rely on weather and climate information to help monitor changes in snow, ice and permafrost and to develop predictive models of changes in the cryosphere. Weather data in Alaska are generally acquired from stations near towns, most of which are located at low elevation. This leaves high elevation areas of the state undersampled, which has a major impact on our ability to assess, monitor and predict change in the cryosphere. CCHP is involved in a multi-agency effort to install more high elevation telemetered weather stations throughout the state. Data from these stations are being used to inform a number of research and public service efforts, and are helping to improve weather forecasts and aviation safety by providing real-time information from data sparse regions directly to forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

  • + Featured Projects

    Weather Stations

  • + Publications and Data Products

    Weather Stations test

  • + Partners and External Resources

    CRREL, UAF/GI, USGS

To ensure timely delivery of project information and preliminary products, the content of this program webpage has not been peer-reviewed.  Any views and/or opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and shall not be deemed to express those of the Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys, the State of Alaska, or any affiliated funding agency.