The Melting Point

The Collier Glacier captured Cody Beedlow’s attention the first time he saw it. He was eight, on his first backpacking trip with his father and sister in the Three Sisters Wilderness. When he laid eyes on Collier he thought, “Look at all that snow. I could ski on it all year long,” he says.

Nearly two decades later, Beedlow is still captivated by Collier, which flanks Middle Sister and is one of the largest glaciers in the state. In part it’s for the same reason – the long ski. But there’s also the passion Beedlow, an Oregon native, has developed for alpinism throughout his adventures as a telemark skier. There’s the challenge the mountain presents to him, which is different and nuanced every time he approaches it.

And then there’s the chance to add to our knowledge of glaciers, which can help us better understand the effects of climate change on glacial retreat and associated sea level rise. It’s critical information, and something that’s not widely understood in Oregon or even North America – to date, there are only long-term studies on glacial melt associated with climate change.

That need for understanding is Beedlow’s motivation for getting his Master’s degree in geology at Oregon State. Every month in the spring and summer, Beedlow treks to Collier with 65 pounds of equipment in tow and the intention to measure Collier’s glacial melt over time. Over the past year, he’s found that the glacier has decreased by more than 20 percent from its size in the late 1980s.

“Mass balance data is hard-earned in an alpine environment,” says Beedlow, whose study is funded by the NSF and USGS, “but glaciers are sensitive. They respond to temperature and precipitation, and you can extract a lot of things that are beneficial to us, like knowing their contribution to sea level rise as well as local and regional hydrology and water resources.”

Among Beedlow’s equipment is an automatic weather station that gives him data on temperature, humidity and short- and long-wave radiation, as well as drilling equipment that allows him to measure snow depth and density. Beedlow also maps the perimeter of Collier’s ice to determine gain or loss over time.

Beedlow is following in the footsteps of his adviser, geosciences professor Peter Clark, who also studied Collier in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Clark, however, was not a skier and had no feasible way of obtaining the winter measurements Beedlow can.

“This job requires you to be a competent alpinist, as well as a ski mountaineer,” says Beedlow. “To get to this glacier in April and May you have to ski. Snowshoeing is too slow. You have too short of a window. Managing dogs isn’t feasible. You need high mountain gear. Having that kind of skill set and doing it in the worst condition takes extensive experience outside of academia.”

Even with Beedlow’s niche set of skills, getting up to Collier is not a guarantee. Treacherous conditions belie the drama and grandeur the landscape offers on a clear day – then, Beedlow can see Mt. Adams, and even Marys Peak. But when the weather turns, and it can turn quickly, survival instinct sets in.

“That’s when I feel the mountain is at its worst, when it closes its grip around you,” says Beedlow. “The wind picks up, the snow starts falling, and you’re in a compromising situation. Clouds start circling the mountain, and of course you’re on the glacier. It’s pretty bright, and the clouds are pretty bright, and everything looks white. That’s when it gets scary.”

And perhaps it takes a certain kind of personality in addition to a detailed skill set. Even without the research, Beedlow would be on the mountain. The challenge of it is part of the draw. “Sometimes the mountain says ‘no,’ and that makes me want to go back. When I get shut down, and I come back to my truck with my tail between my legs, it makes me want see what I can do better next time,” he says.

And it’s important that there be a next time. There is little data on glacial melt in the state of Oregon. There’s Clark’s work, as well as that of a smattering of other researchers. And there are photographs the Mazamas took of Collier in the early 20th century. It’s a thin bank of evidence, but it has at least allowed Beedlow to reconstruct a picture of Collier glacier over the past century.

Beedlow’s hope is that another student will continue his glacial monitoring work after he graduates. “It’s beneficial for the state and people who live regionally close to these glaciers to continually have an understanding of them,” Beedlow says.

One Response to “The Melting Point”

  1. Patty Katz says:

    This was a great video. Beedlow did an excellent job of stating what his research was in layman’s terms. Great job Cody!!