Research on the rocks 12,000-feet up

UND’s Jeff VanLooy and Ph.D. candidate Lance DiAngelis featured in national public television doc on Rocky Mountain glaciers

Part of the Rocky Mountains, the Wind River Range straddles the Continental Divide with over 60 glaciers. Researchers like UND professor Jeff VanLooy and Ph.D. candidate Lance DiAngelis visit the area to study the ice formations, a pursuit that framed the recently released Wyoming PBS documentary Glaciers of the Winds. Photo courtesy of Jeff VanLooy.

After some seven miles of an onerous climb through patchy grass and craggy boulders, Lance DiAngelis, standing atop a ridge, gazed at a large sheet of ice.

“Wow, this is incredible,” he remembered thinking. “I am seeing my first ice.”

Someone from his fellow outdoorsmen, scaling the Continental Divide high up in the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, suggested he wait for the sight, hidden behind a narrow trail that for the next 15 miles snaked downhill and then up.

“I will never forget taking that first corner and actually seeing the main ice sheets, the [Dinwoody] glacier, I was really taken aback and awe-struck,” said DiAngelis, a Ph.D. student in the department of Earth System Science & Policy at the University of North Dakota.

At roughly 11,000 feet of elevation on the east slopes of the Wind River Range in western Wyoming, Dinwoody is among the biggest in the Rocky Mountains, which contains some of the most prominent alpine glaciers in the United States outside of Alaska.

In the late summer of 2016, when working on his master’s thesis at UND, DiAngelis reached Dinwoody – his very first glacier conquest – in a crew headed by Central Wyoming College’s Jacki Klancher. They studied the thickness of the glacier, which sprawled over 2 square kilometers (just over 1 square mile) and proved to be up to 70 meters (230 feet) deep.

Through the lens

The expedition, DiAngelis’ first in the folds of the Winds, as the range is often called, was particularly significant for him – it allowed him to marvel at the formations he researched for his thesis on the alterations in glacier discharge in the last 30 years.

It also afforded him the opportunity to share his knowledge in front of a camera. This is because a producer with Wyoming Public Broadcasting Service trekked along, capturing the expedition that resulted in the 57-minute Glaciers of the Winds documentary.

Along the half-time mark of the movie, which premiered last September and has since screened across the country, DiAngelis appears, perched on a rock. Sporting a hat and shades, he explains that obtaining the depth of Dinwoody would help calculate its volume. The latter, he continues, presents a reliable measure of how much the glacier has retreated.

“[It was important to relay] that unique first-time experience along with some of the research I was doing,” DiAngelis said. “I think that was really important to get that out because the Winds are a very unique mountain system.”

Observing and studying the glaciers of the Wind River Range is an onerous task that involves days of trekking up the mountains and collecting various measurements and samples. Photo courtesy of Jeff VanLooy.

A special place

What is special about the Wind River Range, a 160-mile stretch along the Continental Divide, beaded with roughly 60 glaciers, is its influence on the nearby communities, including the eponymous American-Indian reservation in the mountains’ foothills.

DiAngelis cited studies that suggest that meltwater from the Winds contributes some 10 percent of the annual river flow in the area, which receives mere 8 inches of rainfall a year.

Although at first glance, it might appear negligible, the glacial discharge feeds the streams for only a couple of months in the summer, when it supplies over a half of the water flow and makes a considerable difference for farmers and ranchers.

“I think it is important to push out that perspective of saying, ‘Hey, look, the [Wind River Range] glaciers might be small relative to [other alpine glaciers] but they are really important to not only preserving our natural ecosystems and landscapes but also to people in the region,” DiAngelis said.

Lance DiAngelis

UND Ph.D. candidate Lance DiAngelis sits for an interview for a documentary on the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming.

Far-reaching impact

But the glaciers of the Winds have been retreating. And, the forces that are shrinking them are impacting North Dakota too.

While only a miniscule amount of glacial water reaches the state, the snow that blankets the Rockies every winter thaws into a network of rivers, including the Missouri, which meanders through western North Dakota.

“In 2011, there was so much snow it actually did contribute to the flooding that occurred in Bismarck,” said Jeff VanLooy, associate professor in the Department of Earth System Science & Policy and DiAngelis’ faculty advisor.

Such seemingly remote fortes often lie removed from everyday considerations. But they should not, said VanLooy, adding that the need to spread awareness impelled him to participate in the Wyoming PBS documentary.

“If we cannot communicate to the people as to what it is that we are researching and why it is important to them, they are going to keep going along, doing what they are doing, thinking that the water is going to be there and all of a sudden one day it is not,” he said.

Over 12,000 feet high, the glacial terrain of the Wind River Range resembles a scene from Mars or the Moon, VanLooy says. Photo courtesy of Jeff VanLooy.

Chance appearance

In a way, VanLooy’s appearance in Glaciers of the Winds came about as a coda, a year after DiAngelis scaled Dinwoody with the film crew.

After a chance meeting, at a conference, with Klancher, the Central Wyoming College professor and an acquaintance of VanLooy’s, he agreed to an interview.

Jeff VanLooy

In August of 2017, VanLooy, DiAngelis and a couple of others headed to Helen glacier in the Wind River Range to do research. At the start of the trail that would take them up to 12,000 feet above sea level, VanLooy talked to the documentary producer, Kyle Nicholoff.

He anticipated a five-minute chat. It lasted for an hour and a half, broaching topics like climate change, glaciers in the Winds and around the world, and the essence of water as a resource.

They parted ways but VanLooy would send Nicholoff a trove of archival footage from his voyages in the Winds.

That year, VanLooy’s cadre did not make it all the way to Helen – a swelling glacial discharge blocked their path.

Over 12 months later, in September 2018, the documentary debuted. It opened in Lander, Wyoming. VanLooy and DiAngelis watched it during its TV premiere that streamed live on Facebook. Neither of them knew how much of their insights would make the final cut, but the result delighted them.

“I was highly impressed; it was really well put together,” VanLooy said. “I was really happy to see that the word is getting out on the importance of these glaciers.”

An experience of a lifetime

Greg Vandeberg

As educational as the documentary is, it is also a captivating chronicle of what it takes to do research high in an alpine terrain that VanLooy likens to the vista of Mars or the Moon, a landscape of ice and rock.

There is a mound of logistics to be ironed out. There are days of trekking, hauling equipment in backpacks that can weigh up to 80 pounds. There are samples and measurements to be collected and documented. There is the general discomfort of sleeping in tents and forgoing showers for a couple of weeks.

And yet, despite all those, glaciologists like VanLooy and DiAngelis cannot stay away from the objects of their research for too long.

VanLooy, along with his research collaborator Greg Vandeberg, professor of geography & geographic information science at UND, are planning a trip to Continental glacier in the Winds this summer to study – and observe – how it has changed since 2014, when they last visited it. DiAngelis is going too.

“It is a love-hate thing,” said DiAngelis, who is rehabilitating a back injury in order to return to the Range this August. “When you are in the mountains for two weeks, all you can think about in the end is getting out. But you might be five miles on the road, leaving Wyoming and you are like, ‘I cannot wait to get back next year.’ It has definitely been on my mind as far as preparing myself and getting ready. I cannot miss that.”

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