Researchers meet for 4th conference on Glacier Bay

Topics at 3-day gathering range from glacier movement to gull eggs

Posted: Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Geologist Bruce Molnia has scrutinized Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve from many angles for more than 30 years but still talks about it like it's a new love affair.

In recent years, Molnia's fascination took a new turn. He and his collaborators combed through archives for historic photos of the bay. Then they traveled the bay snapping pictures taken in the same spots as photos they found taken in the 1890s and early to mid-1900s.

Their project is recovering evidence of the bay's icy and enigmatic history, which had literally "washed away" down its steep valley walls, Molnia said.

Molnia, based at the U.S. Geological Survey's national headquarters in Reston, Va., is one of dozens of scientists in Juneau this week presenting research findings on Glacier Bay during the park's Fourth Science Symposium, beginning at 7:40 a.m. today and continuing through Thursday at Centennial Hall.

Glacier Bay symposium

For a downloadable schedule for the symposium, visit the national park online at

The sessions at Centennial Hall are open to residents and students for a daily walk-in fee of $5.

The discussions range from the recent thinning of the national park's glaciers to ecological disturbances from ship traffic. Other talks will center on human activity in the bay 50 miles northwest of Juneau - such as conflicts with bears and Tlingit subsistence use of sockeye salmon and gull eggs.

Though it's only the fourth science symposium on the national park, it's the first in 11 years.

"There's been a lapse, so this should be quite interesting," said Jim Taggart, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Glacier Bay Research Station in Juneau.

"Glacier Bay has been an important natural laboratory for a long time," Taggart said, noting that many Juneau science students end up working there during their careers.

"Hundreds (of students) probably have been involved ... and the number of local researchers is quite large, too," Taggart said.

Unique in the world. Always changing. A perfect place to study botany and wildlife because of the new life emerging on glacially scraped land. These are some of the reasons that scientists such as Molnia say they've flocked to Glacier Bay for more than 100 years.

But another major reason it is studied so intensely is because of the bay's sensitivity to climate change. Scientists say they have observed phenomena there that defy easy explanation.

For example, Molnia's photographic investigation has shown that the west arm and east arm of Glacier Bay have experienced opposing patterns of glacial advance and retreat. In the past 100 years, glaciers in the east arm have only retreated, while in the west arm, mere miles away, glaciers advanced "right up to the late '80s and '90s," and then began retreating, Molnia said.

"It negates some of the general, simplistic explanations" about climate change, Molnia said.

"Glacier Bay has been very sensitive to climate change, forever," Taggart said.

"Its geographic position and the Fairweather Range being right next to it has resulted in a lot of (glacial) advances and retreats compared to the rest of the world," he said.

The symposium is sponsored by the National Park Service and the Anchorage-based U.S.Geological Survey Alaska Science Center.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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