Climate change is coming for glaciers. Many are shedding ice as summers get hotter and winters are bringing much less contemporary snow to construct them up once more. But to know when precisely a glacier can be gone, scientists first must understand how huge it’s. That why Ellery McQuilkin, 16, trekked up a glacier with a big drill in tow. To learn the way huge the glacier was, she drilled holes in it.

Ellery is a junior at Lee Vining High School in California. “I live right near Yosemite National Park,” she notes. “I’ve spent a lot of time backpacking and hiking so I’ve sort of been around glaciers a fair amount.” Ellery is also keen on local weather changes. Scientists have already reported “big irreversible effects of climate change on glaciers,” she says. That’s even true close to her, where she says glaciers are “actually melting away.” At this point, she fears, it could be “too late to do anything to save them.”

Her city of Lee Vining may be very near 4 small glaciers: the Conness, Dana, Kuna, and Koip. No one truly is aware of how huge — or small — these are, she says. To calculate their quantity, one may theoretically multiply their top instances depth instances width. But depth is difficult to search out when solely the highest of a glacier is seen. The rock beneath would possibly host sharp peaks or deep valleys. It would possibly even be completely flat. “What the bottom of the glacier looks like, there’s no way to visually see that,” Ellery says.

To gauge that depth, she determined to attempt drilling check holes to the rock beneath.

a photo of Ellery on the Dana Glacier
Ellery poses on the Dana Glacier in California. She hauled a steam drill as much as the glacier on her again, then used it to estimate the ice subject’s measurement. Geoff McQuilkin

Measuring thin ice

Scientists produce other methods to calculate how a lot of ice is in a glacier. But these methods are designed with massive glaciers in thoughts. For small ones like these close to Ellery, these strategies don’t actually work. So to search out the quantity of the small glacier on Mount Dana, she introduced a steam drill. It weighs about 15.8 kilograms (35 kilos). Ellery may carry it up the mountain to the glacier on her again.

“So there’s this big boiler. You fill it up with water,” Ellery explains, “and you heat it.” The drill’s hose then shoots sizzling steam at excessive stress to soften a really small gap within the ice. Ellery used the drill to poke holes during the glacier at some factors. Where the glacier was thicker, she drilled simply partway by.

She then used the depths she measured with the drill — together with a computer model — to calculate the quantity of the Dana Glacier. Her tally involves about 596,000 cubic meters (778,500 cubic yards). That’s sufficient ice to fill a medium-sized soccer stadium. The deepest part of the glacier is around 30 meters (100 ft).

This glacier may be very small — and shrinking. “Basically, in eight years, the Dana glacier will have melted away almost entirely,” Ellery tasks. And the area will lose more than a white subject of ice on Mount Dana. The glacier’s yearly meltwater helps a freshwater stream on which many animals and vegetation rely. “It is really just sad that this massive shaping force is going to disappear entirely,” she says. Adding to her frustration is that “people really aren’t even aware that it’s happening.”

a photo showing a large rock shelf with the Dana glacier sitting underneath. Ellery is in the foreground.

The Dana glacier sits below a big rock shelf. That shades it, permitting the ice to remain cooler than the mountain close by. But that’s not sufficient to save lots of the glacier, which Ellery estimates can be gone in eight years. Geoff McQuilkin

The teen’s ice-cold challenge earned her a spot on the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. Created by Society for Science, these yearly competitors introduced collectively almost 2,000 finalists in 2021. They got here from 64 nations, areas, and territories to indicate off their science honest tasks. (The Society for Science additionally publishes Science News for Students.) This year’s ISEF competitors moved online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There, Ellery’s challenge earned her first place within the Earth and Environmental Sciences class and $5,000.

Ellery hopes to proceed to measure Dana glacier, as properly others close to her city. She needs to search out factors the place individuals took outdated images of the glaciers and evaluate these to new photos. That ought to supply “this very clear documentation of the glacier as it melts,” she says. It’s in all probability too late to save lots of the Dana glacier, she says. But if she will doc how glaciers are altering, she thinks she would possibly simply spur individuals to behave in time to save lots of others.


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