Mountain Skills

How to Read Glacier Health

The Canary in the Coal Mine

Glaciers are visual indicators of climate, if you know how to read them. With a trained eye, mountaineers can simply look at a glacier and know the local climate trend. After numerous discussions with glaciologists, I've narrowed down a list to five visual indicators that a glacier is unhealthy. 

1) Unhealthy glaciers lack snowcover.

Snow feeds glaciers. At the end of summer, if a glacier is less than two-thirds covered with snow, then it is an unhealthy glacier. In other words, before the first winter snowfall, the equilibrium line altitude, which divides the accumulation zone from the melt zone, should be no more than a third of the way up from the glacier terminus—otherwise the glacier is losing volume. 

A small, unnamed glacier in the Chugach Mountains. This glacier's equilibrium line altitude is at a good position for a healthy glacier. The problem is, this photo was taken in early July. Two months of summer melt season remain. Many small glaciers in Alaska will soon be gone.

A small, unnamed glacier in the Chugach Mountains. This glacier's equilibrium line altitude is at a good position for a healthy glacier. The problem is, this photo was taken in early July. Two months of summer melt season remain. Many small glaciers in Alaska will soon be gone.

2) Unhealthy glaciers have lost ice thickness.

In response to warmer temperatures, glaciers lose ice through thinning, even more so than by receding. From a climber’s perspective, your altimeter or GPS might register elevations lower than those shown on the map. Some glaciers, such as the Taku Glacier in Alaska's Coast Range or the center of the Greenland ice sheet, have increased snowfall in their accumulation zones. This is because the warmer than normal temperatures, while remaining below freezing, allow the air to hold more moisture and produce more snow. 

Navigating by GPS in the Tordrillo Mountains in the Alaska Range. Maps worldwide show glacier elevations higher than your GPS will read.

Navigating by GPS in the Tordrillo Mountains in the Alaska Range. Maps worldwide show glacier elevations higher than your GPS will read.

3) Receding glaciers have ramped ends.

Receding glaciers have a relatively crevasse-free, sloping snout, like a wheelchair ramp, created by ice stagnating and melting in place. Healthy glaciers, like the Taku, have heavily crevassed, vertical or bulbous fronts. 

The Raven Glacier in the Western Chugach. You can walk right onto receding glaciers.

The Raven Glacier in the Western Chugach. You can walk right onto receding glaciers.

4) Trim lines surround dying glaciers.

Like bath tub rings, thinning glaciers leave trim lines on the valley walls that show the most recent high ice level. As the glacier melts down, a visible line remains on the valley wall between the vegetated and lichened terrain above and the exposed moraine and lichen-free rock below. Like high water marks, trim lines surround shrinking glaciers worldwide. Most obvious are trim lines from the Little Ice Age that ended 100 to 150 years ago. Unhealthy glaciers have trim lines far above the glacier surface. 

Climbing Mount Baker's Easton Glacier with trim lines visible high above the present glacier surface.

Climbing Mount Baker's Easton Glacier with trim lines visible high above the present glacier surface.

5) Moraine surrounds and covers the end of receding glaciers.

With less snowfall and warmer temperatures, the glacier conveyor belt slows and moraine accumulates on the glacier surface, sometimes until the ice is entirely covered. Thus, receding glaciers have moraine-covered melt zones, while healthy glaciers have white-ice melt zones. When the ice under the moraine melts, the mud, rock and boulders become ground moraine. Early successional species, such as moss and alder, grow on this newly exposed land in the wake of a receding glacier. In contrast, the vegetation in front of a healthy glacier is characterized by climax forest, with old-growth species, like hemlock.

Moraine in the Western Chugach Mountains.

Moraine in the Western Chugach Mountains.

Big glaciers are hard to read

Big glaciers and glaciers in winter can be difficult to diagnose. In winter and spring, a thick blanket of snow covers most glaciers. During this time, seeing glacier health indicators like moraine and trim lines is more difficult, but still possible. Diagnosing glacier health on some big glaciers, such as the Kahiltna Glacier on Denali, presents another problem. On Denali, most climbers fly to 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna and spend their entire trip on a thick seasonal snowpack where the glacier appears fat and happy. In these situations, observe the melt zone on the flights in and out, looking for trim lines, fresh moraine, and moraine-dammed lakes.

Touring near Denali base camp at 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier.

Touring near Denali base camp at 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier.

Every season us mountaineers find changing climbing conditions in the glaciated mountains. As glaciers melt down, bergschunds become wider, making route access more difficult. Once on the route, you’ll find steep glacier headwalls normally covered by spongy neve have become black ice. And with less neve, you’ll see more rockfall, such as during the heat waves in 2003 and 2015 that closed Mont Blanc. But as glaciologist Keith Echelmeyer told me, “All change is not so bad—some routes may become more challenging and fun.” 

Google Earth & Gaia GPS

Updated: March 2017

The era of paper maps and compass is over...maybe. 

Consider this: in December 2014 Alaska adventurers Luc Mehl and Roman Dial ice skated 100 miles in two days from Selawik to Kotzebue. That's cold, Alaska wilderness. Their only navigation tools where two iphones loaded with routes, maps and images. No paper maps. No compass. No battery packs. No solar panels. 

Okay, I admit that paper maps and compass work great. In the past I've navigated wilderness and whiteout for thousands of hours without a problem. As much as I wish smartphones and their apps would disappear, they are the new reality, especially for a guide who is trying to stay current. 

In talking with Luc, Roman and mountain professionals such as Mark Smiley and Henry Munter, the best tools for route planning and backcountry navigation are Google Earth and the Gaia GPS app. I hope this tutorial will help you get started. 

My neighbor and friend Luc Mehl planning his annual spring ski trips in Alaska.

My neighbor and friend Luc Mehl planning his annual spring ski trips in Alaska.

These are the Steps for Navigation Trip Planning

  1. Prepare the route on Google Earth.

  2. Export .kmz file.

  3. Import .kmz to www.gaiagps.com and sync route to phone, or

  4. Import straight to phone

  5. Download Gaia GPS maps to phone.

These are the key links

1a) Install a Topo Layer onto Google Earth

First, download the latest version of Google Earth onto your computer. Then download a topo layer and install it into Google Earth. Go to Earth Point (www.earthpoint.us/topomap.aspx) and click on the View in Google Earth tab to download. Open the file in Google Earth. Make sure to drag it from Temporary Places to My Places in Google Earth, or else the topo layer will disappear after you close Google Earth. 

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1b) Create a File for Your Trips

Organize your Google Earth trips by creating a file in My Places. 

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1c) Create a Route (Path) 

To create a route, highlight your new folder (Joe's Places), click the Add Path icon. Keep the New Path box open as you click each waypoint.

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1d) Edit Route

Resume drawing by clicking a new anchor on the route you're drawing. The start and end of the route don't join. To remove points: click on the route, then click delete or right click. 

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1e) Add Waypoint (Placemark)

To add a waypoint (called Placemark on Google Earth), right click the folder where you want the waypoint located, when Add and Placemark. Double click on waypoint to home in. To add a waypoint at a known lat/long, type it into Get Info. 

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1f) View Image 

Mac Shortcuts

  • Move = use the arrow keys

  • Rotate direction = shift right/left

  • Tilt = shift up/down

  • Perspective = command up/down/left/right

  • Untilt = U

  • North Up = N

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2) Export Google Earth File 

To export a file, select the folder (eg, The Alaska Factor), File, Save, Save Place As..., name file. Then save as either: 

  • .kml = is the full file, save as .kml to upload to Gaia or another GPS device.

  • .kmz = is the zipped file, best for sharing among other Google Earth users.

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3a) Load .kmz File onto Gaiagps.com

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3b) Sync

Select the files you want to sync and select the Toggle Sync button. 

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3c) Sync in Phone

If the files don't load onto your phone, then sync from your app by toggling the Sync/Backup button on-off. 

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4) Load .kmz file Directly onto Your Phone

This is my favorite option because it is easy and fast. Email yourself the .kmz file, press and hold that .kml attachment in your phone email. Open in Gaia. Here's a video tutorial

5) Download Maps to Your Gaia App

Do this at Max Zoom before you go into the field. To download maps for a route that's on your phone, go to tracks, select the track, then download maps for track. 

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Saving your Battery 

  1. Phone: keep your phone warm, near your body or stick a foot-warmer to it.

  2. Phone: keep in airplane mode, gps still works in airplane mode.

  3. Phone: turn off Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Cellular.

  4. Phone: dim screen.

  5. Phone: settings, battery, low power mode.

  6. Gaia: do not record route.

  7. Gaia: compass off

  8. Gaia: No GPS Until Activated on in settings.

  9. Gaia: Disable Altitude Lookup on in settings.

  10. Bring external battery with cable.

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Toggle Between Topo and Sat

The distinguishing feature of Gaia compared to other navigation apps is the ability to toggle between topo and sat layers in the field. A GaiaPro subscription ($4 per month, $40 per year) allows you to view various map layers simultaneously with adjustable transparency. 

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Bring on the Whiteout!

I'm right here. I'm sure. My dumbphone says so.  

Tether Your Phone to Your Person