UW News

March 13, 2008

Follow the ‘fleet’: You can look through a virtual window to research in Glacier Bay, Alaska

News and Information

In addition to being home to intense geological and climatological change, Alaska’s Glacier Bay hosts one of the richest cold water marine environments including a great diversity of top-level marine predators, such as seabirds and marine mammals.

Twenty-one UW seniors and their professors will sail Saturday on the UW’s research vessel the Thomas G. Thompson to Glacier Bay. After a four-day voyage north, they will embark on an intense four-day research cruise in the bay. Students, teachers and members of the general public are invited to follow the expedition online here, where students will be posting blog entries, photographs and answering questions.

The students will pursue their own senior thesis projects and collaborate with four researchers from the Glacier Bay National Park.

“Baseline data for the bay are rare and, in fact, a research vessel of the Thomas G. Thompson class has never conducted research in the bay,” says Rick Keil, associate professor of oceanography and one of the instructors of Oceanography 444. “Despite a growing community of scientists investigating oceanographic processes in Glacier Bay, there remains a strong need for basic oceanographic data upon which to gauge ecosystem processes in response to profound environmental change.”

That’s a reason the students particularly wanted to go to Glacier Bay, Keil says. “In a time when federal funding for national parks is meager, the oceanography students wished to conduct their research in an environment where their findings could have an immediate impact.”

The geology and geochemistry students, for example, will be evaluating sediments and relating that to the amounts and types of pollutants and organic compounds from the land that have made their way into the bay. They will also be mapping deep portions of the bay that have not been mapped.

The biological oceanography students will be examining the planktonic food web including a series of “firsts” such as the first evaluation of growth rates and the composition of the microbial community. Work will also include measurements up the food chain and isotopic evaluations of the food chain.

The physical oceanography students will be, among other things, developing a detailed understanding of salt water circulation patters in the main basin. Other students will be trying to determine the sources of inorganic carbon in the bay, be it from seawater, ice melt or the atmosphere, and to evaluate how susceptible the bay is to ocean acidification.

Glacier Bay is one of the only remaining fjords containing tidewater glaciers, that is, glaciers with their lower ends resting on water. As the ice floats on the water, the motion causes pieces to break off and float away.

The deglaciation that has occurred in Glacier Bay over the past 225 years has caused the glaciers on the surrounding mountains to shrink by more than 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, of their length, making it one of the fastest deglaciations known, Keil says. The bay could potentially provide insights into global dynamics during deglaciation because of global warming, he says.

Jeff Bowman, a senior in oceanography, says those visiting the project Web site can learn about the class’ preparations for the cruise and follow the progress of the team with daily updates and see photos from the Thompson.

“The class is encouraging e-mail questions from the public, particularly students of all ages, about their projects, oceanography and Glacier Bay,” he says. To ask questions, visit the “Course Blog.” 

The UW is the only U.S. university that uses a ship as large and sophisticated as the Thompson.  It is the lead ship of the AGOR-23 class.