NAME: Mauri Pelto
CURRENT TITLE: Dean of Academic Affairs, 2016; Associate Dean, Professor of Environmental Science at Nichols College since 1989; Director of the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project since 1984. United States representative to the World Glacier Monitoring Service.
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Glaciology and climate change, which has been my focus since beginning graduate school in 1983
YEARS EXPERIENCE: 30+
EDUCATION: Ph.D from the University of Maine in Geological Science in 1989
What’s your job like?
My goal has been to monitor glaciers across the entire mountain range for their response to climate change. This glacier monitoring program focuses on ground truth versus modeling or satellite image analysis. Data collection for the program occurs during the first few weeks of August each summer and has been ongoing for the last 31 years. The data are submitted to the World Glacier Monitoring Service. Our partners in recent years have been the Nooksack Indian Tribe who are interested in the impact of the retreating glaciers on summer stream flow and the summer salmon runs. Cumulatively, this has meant 700 nights in a tent and 5,000 miles traveled across mountains and glaciers.
What’s a typical day like?
We emerge from the tents around 6 a.m. and boil a few pots of water for coffee, cocoa or hot cider and oatmeal. As breakfast concludes, we divvy up the loads for work on the glacier, each person having the same essential load responsibility (rope, first aid kit, etc.). By 7:30 a.m., we hike to the glacier which varies from 5 minutes to 90 minutes from camp. Once on the glacier, we ascend with crampons up the ice, measuring any surface streams. Once we hit snow, we measure its depth using a 3-4 meter long metal probe or a measuring rope dropped into a crevasse with evident annual layers. We also measure crevasse characteristics. One group will also be measuring the elevation of the glacier surface along a specific transect. Lunch happens when oatmeal is a mere dream. After lunch, we do more of the snow depth work. As we descend, we measure surface streams near the terminus that are now rushing with melt water. On some glaciers, we have gages in the stream below the glacier too. We also map the terminus position. By 5 or 6 p.m., we are back in camp and after a bit, it is collapse time. A basic dinner of rice, pasta, potatoes or couscous is concocted. Sundown typically means it is cold, and we dive into the tents. The next day, we will either be back up to the glacier or pack up camp to march to the next glacier. More oatmeal, either way.
The simplicity of life — everything you need was carried to camp on your back. There are no interruptions with the lack of cell service, wi-fi, ability to do errands, etc. Observing the natural world from sunrise to sunset every day whether it is glaciers, mountain goats, stream flow, ice worms, marmots or the endless sky. Capturing and sharing the experience with film and images.
We work every day, so there is no break for weariness or dreariness. The key challenge is overcoming the misery index due to cold, wet, buggy or hot conditions, limited diet, and possibly blisters. The steep terrain and crevasses are a challenge to learn for new assistants. How to be comfortable working on traveling across glaciers is a fun challenge.
What’s your advice to students?
Find opportunities big and small that you can learn from. Remember, the person providing the opportunity gains too. Follow blogs and scientists on Twitter that work in areas that interest you. Reach out to them with questions. Challenge yourself to develop insights based on your own analysis.