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Climatologist, meet the biologist

Workshop this week brought scientists together to further study of glacial change

Posted: March 8, 2013 - 1:04am

This week a diverse group of experts joined together with the shared goal of identifying connections between glacial change and the ecosystems that surround these hulking bits of ice.

Eran Hood, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Alaska Southeast, said the lecture was the first of it’s kind and that is was an opportunity for scientists, whose disiplines rarely cross, to connect with one another and examine glacier change on a broad perspective.

“We’re really trying to bring together people from different disciplines,” Hood said. “We want to look at the issue of glacial change holistically and help people identify the linkages.”

He’s talking about how runoff from a melting glacier, for instance, could impact salmon runs downstream or how a calving glacier could influence the survival rate of seal pups.

“In these coastal temperate rainforest ecosystems, glaciers have a huge impact on the ecosystems,” Hood said. “From the water temperature, to the mineral content ... we need to start thinking about glacier change as a group. By bringing everyone together we can link the system together. We want to study it in concert, instead of having everyone working independently.”

Tonight, at the Fireside Lecture presented this week by Hood and Shad O’Neel, with the U.S. Geological Survey, the pair will present some of their findings from the two-day workshop.

“We hope to distill down what we learned in the workshop and present examples of these to the public,” Hood said. “Glacier change is an issue that effects ecosystems from the ice field to the animal populations that live offshore.”

Overall, Hood said the workshop, which was sponsored by the Alaska Climate Science Center, the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center and the University of Alaska Southeast, was a success.

“One thing that we talked about,” he said, “was that runoff from glaciers affects currents. On a large scale it can influence the Alaska Coastal Current ... on a smaller scale a lot of glacial runoff can affect the currents in fjords.”

He said this is because fresh water has a different density than saltwater, and since glaciers are the largest dischargers of fresh water on the planet, they can have a big impact on water movement. The Alaska Coastal Current is like a river in the ocean that runs from south to north along the Southeast Alaska coastline before turning westward to follow the Alaska Peninsula.

Hydropower was also addressed at the workshop, Hood said. Some Alaskan communities rely on hydropower. But those communities whose power is being fed by a melting glacier could be in trouble, he said. It’s not as much an issue for Juneau, since hydropower here is fueled mainly by snow melt.

“Our lecture will highlight the interesting and important connections,” Hood said. “We’ll walk people through the different linkages along the system — how does the glacier effect the estuary and everything in between and we’ll help people understand how we’ll proceed in the future.”

Tonight’s lecture begins at 6:30 p.m. and repeats at 8 p.m. at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. As always, the lecture is free and open to the public.

The Fireside Lecture series is presented each winter and is sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service.

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