Where science is fun: Studying glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park

Video: Ron Bend/Colorado State University

Dan McGrath enjoys working in his outdoor office, studying the glaciers of Rocky Mountain National Park. Among the questions the Colorado State University research scientist is exploring: how have glaciers there and all along the Front Range changed in the past 60 years, and how are they connected to downstream environments?

McGrath, with colleagues from the Warner College of Natural Resources, uses a remote sensing method —Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR — to produce high-resolution 3-D models of the glaciers. McGrath combines these models with historical topographic maps from the 1960s and climate data to understand how and why these glaciers have changed over this period.

“We can accurately measure how glacier volume has changed over time,” said McGrath.

McGrath said glaciers are incredibly important from an ecological standpoint. “They provide meltwater in the late summer that can really bolster streamflow and keep water temperatures low,” he said.

Glacier research

There are approximately 200,000 glaciers in the world. McGrath is studying Andrews and Tyndall glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park. He’s also studied glaciers in Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica. His research in Rocky Mountain National Park is supported by the National Park Service Water Resources Division.

Predicted warming this century is expected to drive the loss of thousands and thousands of glaciers worldwide. McGrath said it’s important to study these small glaciers to determine when they will be lost, which has important implications for the ecosystems and humans that rely on them.

Findings from this research should be published in 2018.

UNAVCO, a non-profit university-governed consortium, supported the LiDAR data collection and processing.