The Lost Study of Glacier Bay

August 1 1916
land

Glacier Bay, Alaska, is a wild place. It's also critical to science. The longest running study in the world focused on how ecosystems grow and change as glaciers retreat and climate warms was located in the back of the bay. Started in 1916 by one of the countries leading ecologists, the study ran for over 75 years - but then was lost, as the original researchers died. In 2016, the plots were rediscovered through a combination of old sketch maps, compasses, notes, faded photographs, and wilderness exploring. It's a story reminiscent of John Muir crossed with Indiana Jones, where X marked the spot and old buried spikes were pursued like a needle in a Glacier Bay sized haystack. The expedition was successful, and the longest running study is all set for the next 100 years of monitoring.

August 1 1916

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Preparation Stage

August 4, 1916


William S. Cooper arrived in Wrangell, Alaska, on his way to Glacier Bay to install a global first- a plot network devoted to observation of change in real-time... meaning slowly. This was to be a study in the middle of nowhere, and intentionally so, using maps from John Muir to locate a remote site where people wouldn't interfere. These maps told him the age of the landscape - uniformly young, just what he wanted, a blank slate on which to follow ecosystem development undisturbed by people.

His journal, a leatherbound book filled with scrawl, chronicle the trip from Wrangell to Glacier Bay and back. Notes like "steady rain all day" attest to the usual Alaskan weather, and burned holes from sparks suggest the pleasures of a campfire on the trip.

William Cooper installed 9 plots, called quadrats, on that trip, precisely documenting exactly what species were in each quadrat, where they were to the centimeter, and documented the surrounding landscape in a very precise, spare, but detailed writing style.

He also developed a love of the landscape, one that would emerge in a few decades with Cooper as the champion of Glacier Bay itself in the form of a national monument and later a full fledged national park.

Clearly Cooper intended the plots to be a long lasting study, outliving himself. That would become apparent in his later publications. But 100 years? Hard to say.

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Expedition Background

Imagine this – You’re 50 miles from anywhere in Alaska, surrounded by icy water, mountains, and brown bears – grizzlies by species but significantly larger. The wolves, pushing a couple hundred pounds each, are generally just curious but skittish, which is reassuring. The bears though – it is early summer, so they are a bit bored. That is less reassuring.


Through a grey haze of drizzle, you’re following an old, handwritten map. The pencil track has taken you through thick woods and tidal currents by power boat, then kayak, and now foot, pacing steps from erratic boulders, slipping through small tea-cup shaped harbors, and sighting bearings from lone trees. The map is written on faded yellow paper from the early 1940’s, and represents handwritten notes from earlier still – shortly after the turn of the century. At the end lies a significant prize. It’s not money. It’s knowledge, a record, a history of our world.

The map is old, yes. It’s also wrong. You don’t know how wrong, but you know several things are fundamentally incorrect. North isn’t north. In fact it’s a bit unclear what north means on the map. The ocean isn’t in the right spot – the coast line, as drawn, weaves and twists in distinctive shapes which are thoroughly not the coastline present today. The map relies heavily on… shall we say “non-standardized” units of distance and painted rocks which are no longer painted. Things like “500 paces from the rock marked with a cross” are common. Whether this is simply due to the passage of time in Alaska or inconsistencies in the story before it was mapped out, you don’t know. In some ways it’s Treasure Island, in some ways a game of Telephone. But it points to, theoretically at least, some extraordinarily important points, locations which can give unique insight into one of the most critical environmental questions we face today – how fast can ecosystems adapt to climate change?

To know why, you must trade the jungle like green now for a wasteland of ice and rock: Glacier Bay before it was a bay, or rather at the moment it was becoming a bay. 250 years ago many parts of coastal Alaska were just emerging from the long period of cold known as the Little Ice Age. While not global, the LIA did manage to freeze the Thames River in London, encourage the Irish to adopt potatoes, and pushed the Norse out of Greenland. In Alaska, it caused substantial glacial advance, such that local Tlingit communities were pushed out of their homes by advancing ice – climate refugees of a different source. When George Vancouver sailed through the Glacier Bay area, there wasn’t a Bay – just a wall of ice, several miles across, and a Huna Tlingit community across the strait that told of a land, S’é Shuyee, a river, Ghaat Héeni, and a village, all under that ice.

Over the next century, that ice sheet collapsed rapidly. But no land emerged. The ice had scoured a 1400 foot deep gouge in the former river bottom, and the ocean flooded in, creating a massive fjord system of water, rocky shore lands, and ancillary glaciers chunking off bergs into the water. This was how Sit’ Eeti Gheeyí, Glacier Bay, was born. The peak of this process coincided with the travels of John Muir, eminent naturalist of the late 1800’s and epic writer paddled in with Tlingit guides in 1879. John and his dog Stickeen (after the Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan, the people who lived around the Stikine River to the south of Glacier Bay) explored the canyons of ice and wrote about it, creating one of the classic dog-man stories and bringing the wonder of Alaska to the outside. People began to trickle in. The gold rush likely contributed, if not to advertising then to infrastructure. Steady boat traffic began to pass near the bay on the Inside Passage to the Yukon. As a result, visitors began to trickle into the region, mostly to see glaciers near the main boat routes (the Taku was a major one), but a few made it to Glacier Bay, “a solitude of ice and snow and newborn rocks, dim, dreary, mysterious” in the words of Muir. Often so much ice calve off the glaciers that approach would be impossible – it was only the intrepid that made it into the bay.

But word got out, largely thanks to Muir, and Sit’ Eeti Gheeyí began to attract scholarly notice. In 1914, a prescient botanist by the name of William S. Cooper followed Muir’s footsteps into Glacier Bay, as a scientist-tourist, interested in the views and the opportunities to learn how plant communities changed through time. In 1916 he returned to mark off little plots of land throughout the landscape to revisit for as long as he could, charting how plants moved into the denuded landscape. These little points would be permanent reference sites, witnesses to the changes happening over long periods of time – or that was the goal. Nine plots, in three groups of three, were laid out with paint, stakes, and wire. To aid future explorers, Cooper included “an elaborate buried treasure system” (his words) of directions to his plots that eventually were translated into the yellowing map. One starting point was a large rock, “150 paces northwest” of a place enigmatically called “Dollar Cove.” A few sparse directions were even published. The maps were merely handdrawn for easier reference and stored by his place of work, the University of Minnesota, in their archives after his death. The landmarks were supposed to be permanent. After all, in a wasteland of rock, a large boulder stands out, and round distances seems most reasonable rather than dragging equipment halfway to nowhere so you can measure to the foot. Cairns were more than suitable for fine-scale locations.

So that's the beginning - a wasteland of rock, a scientist that made the trek to Alaska in 1916 to watch it, and the beginnings of a 100 year story of science, loss, and an expedition to rediscover the plots.

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