PUBLISHED: 6:05 PM on Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Wiring Glaciers for Science
UAS collaborates with Microsoft Corp. and NASA to increase understanding of climate change
Imagine hearing the same few questions about 400,000 times over four months. That's the reality for naturalists at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, who greet and explain ice sheet basics to thousands of tourists every year.

Officials don't have final figures yet for the number of people who stopped over the summer at the center to see the Mendenhall Glacier, one of Southeast Alaska most popular tourist sites, but they estimate it at 420,000 people.

It is true that some people don't ask questions and others just want to find the bears or the bathroom, but among those interested in the massive accumulation of snow and ice, here's what most want to know, according to Elayne Boyce, interpretive services assistant: "Is it receding and how much ice has it lost?"

This year naturalists helped to show many tourists how much the glacier had pulled back recently using data developed by researchers at University of Alaska Southeast. Between May and October of 2007 alone, the terminus lost 500 feet.

UAS professors and students have placed about 30 plastic pods among ice sheets and other pivotal areas on the Lemon and Mendenhall glaciers. The containers full of high-tech gadgetry are part of an emerging technology called a wireless sensor web. The pods make up an infrastructure that UAS researchers hope will contribute to an understanding of how climate change is affecting Alaska.

photos courtesy of UAS
  Researchers trudge through the snow to set up pods around the Mendenhall Glacier. The pods are part of an initiative to collect data about climate change.
"The glaciers are wired up like a person would be connected to a CAT scan," says Cathy Connor, a UAS associate professor of geology collaborating on the SEAMONSTER initiative. The acronym stands for Sensor Webs in Environmental Science and Education and it aims to develop tools for studying harsh, hard-to-reach environments and to contribute insight to a crucial question in the climate change enigma - how Alaska's glaciers are responding to a warming planet.

The sensor web project is a joint venture between UAS and Microsoft Corp. The project is funded by an $880,000, three-year grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It is now in its second year and researchers have applied for $1.3 million in new funding to continue the work.

The sensor web project is part of a much larger federally sponsored initiative recording scientific data from erupting volcanoes, wildfires, the atmosphere and seismic activity.

On the Juneau ice field, pods hold a solar-powered rechargeable battery, a communication board and a microprocessor. This high-tech equipment sits in a plastic container like those used for leftovers from a restaurant.

The sensors are designed to monitor climate differences, wind speeds, snow depth, glacier movements, water quality and other conditions. Since the devices are linked to mini-computers in the field, they can change sampling strategies as situations shift. "The sensors have smarts, so when a battery is low, or temperatures climb they can take fewer or more measurements," says Eran Hood, a UAS associateprofessor of Environmental Science working on the project.

Information from the sensor web is combined with other sources of data, such as views of the ice field from space, to form a more complete picture of changes. UAS student researchers also collect data at the glaciers to contribute to the overall understanding.

In June, the university hosted the launch of prototype robots outfitted with sensors, gauges and cameras. The robots, which look like two-foot long snowmobiles, were developed by Georgia Tech professor Ayanna Howard, a former member of NASA's Mars technology program team which created an autonomous Mars rover. She believes robotics could be just as helpful to new findings on Earth as it has been in the pursuit to understand Mars.

Hood says this summer's tests were promising and the robots are scheduled to return next summer. He believes an important aspect of the initiative is to give undergraduates a chance to conduct research on an area of science of critical importance. Almost two-dozen student researchers have helped place pods, collect data or collaborated in other ways.

"Juneau is unique in the way it has so many visible signs of climate change that you just don't see elsewhere-river runoff and trees dying," Hood said. "This project gives students a chance to contribute to an understanding of what'shappening."