WIND RIVER MOUNTAINS, Wyo. — Shirts whipping in the wind, scientists Craig Thompson and Christopher Robinson clambered over a boulder field recently exposed to wind and sun for the first time in thousands of years. Gray and black, the area looks like a wasteland of dirty ice and broken rock, what's left of glaciers on their steady retreat up the peaks of the Wind River Range.
Robinson, one of the world's leading stream ecologists, pointed to spiders racing over and between the refrigerator-sized boulders.
“There should be some bugs up here for all these predators,” said Thompson, an engineering and earth science professor at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs.
Robinson stopped at a stream and dropped his equipment — petri dishes, a turbidity meter and a Hess sampler, a large tube with a net on the end used for catching tiny creatures of the stream bottom.
“If there's going to be bugs,” he said, “they'll be here.”
It was Sept. 3. The two scientists had ridden 20 miles on horseback and hiked another five miles to get here, the base of Gannett Peak — Wyoming's highest mountain, 13,804 feet above sea level.
Accompanied by two college students, they came to collect tiny bugs living in the frigid water flowing from three glaciers: Gannett, Dinwoody and Heap Steep.
Thompson plunged his Hess sampler into the water. Rocks, dirt and bugs ballooned upward. As the rocks settled, the net trapped the dirt and bugs.
The team members hoped these bugs would help predict changes that could be coming at lower elevations.
For Thompson, the study was new but the subject is not; the Wind River glaciers are his life's passion. Since 1985, he and Wyoming geologist Charlie Love have examined the chemistry and depth of the ice, monitoring the glaciers' recession up the peaks.
The Wind River glaciers are the largest glacial complex in the American Rocky Mountains, and Thompson knows they're shrinking. That he's established. Now he wants to know how the fragile mountain ecosystems will respond.
His team is one of only a handful in the world studying these changes. Their data, combined with findings from other studies, predict a potentially alarming future: one in which water is warmer and more scarce, not just in Wyoming, but throughout the West.
They're called scrapers, or diamesas, and on your finger they look like a black grain of rice. Under a microscope, they resemble worms with mouths like a hooked fingernail. The hook scrapes algae from rocks.
Scrapers are food for green lacewings, neuroptera chrysopidae, predators living outside the streams. They have mouths designed to break the scrapers' hard outer shells.
In September, the scientists and students spent three days scraping rocks for algae, monitoring water temperature and collecting the little bugs. They sent samples to Robinson's lab, the Swiss Federal Institute for Aquatic Science and Technology at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic University in Zurich, Switzerland.
There they were studied for adaptations compared to bugs taken in lower streams and bugs from similarly receding Swiss glaciers. The data, now being analyzed, will help Thompson and others determine how quickly bugs are adapting to the changing waters.
It's the first study of this kind in North America.
But why these little bugs? Because these scrapers and predators are the first level of life to adapt to change.
“It's the little things that run the world,” Thompson said, quoting Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. Their entire life cycles happen in less than two months.
The same bugs exist at lower elevations. But down where we live, the bugs don't live in isolation. How they evolve up high can predict what will happen to their counterparts below.
“They are an indicator of what's to come. They are where climate change is happening most rapidly,” Thompson said.
As with the alpine streams, warmer water means more algae and plants. More plant life can eventually suffocate cold-water fish such as trout.
It's already beginning in Flaming Gorge Reservoir, where explosive algae growth has depleted oxygen, suffocating fish. One section of Flaming Gorge becomes uninhabitable in the fall for the cold-water lake trout popular with anglers, Thompson said.
If bugs are evolving and plants multiplying up high, in nearly sterile streams 34 or 35 degrees Fahrenheit, Thompson cautions what will happen where water is 68 degrees. The bugs are the “canaries in the coal mine.”
They may predict ecosystem changes not only in glacial creeks in the Wind Rivers, but in an intricate water system flowing all the way to the oceans. On one side, glacial runoff forms the headwaters of the Wind River, which flows into the Big Horn, Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi rivers before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. On the other side, the waters make Wells Creek, which runs into the Green River, to the Colorado River and into the Gulf of California.
“The glaciers are the rooftop of the nation,” Thompson said.
'Roadkill' of ice
On Sept. 3, while the scientists sifted through the water and measured algae-covered rocks, a small, over-wing Cessna flew overhead.
Geologist Charlie Love took pictures, monitoring the glaciers' recession from the air. 2010 was Love and Thompson's 25th year studying the Wind River glaciers.
The first time the two Western Wyoming Community College professors went into the glaciers, they were interested in chemicals trapped from industrial development in places as far away as southern Arizona. They also studied glacial flow patterns, how one section moved in relation to another. But when they arrived at Knife Point Glacier in 1985, they knew chemicals and flows weren't the most critical aspects. Comparing the glacier to pictures taken 18 years before, they saw immediately it was receding.
And not slowly.
They measured the shrinkage with landmarks in the photographs, determining that the glacier had receded almost 800 feet. That number was startling. More startling, Thompson and Love said, was the loss of the glacier's volume, or depth. The thinner a glacier, the quicker it melts.
The scientists drilled holes in the surface of Knife Point Glacier and put dozens of plastic PVC pipes three feet into the ice. The following year, all of the pipes were gone. The scientists were stumped. Surely, the glaciers weren't melting that fast.
By 1988, a hotter and drier year than the one before, they found their pipes crushed 1,000 feet down the glacier. The ice had melted so fast that the pipes simply fell out and rolled away. The glacier, they concluded, was melting roughly two meters, or six feet, a year. Not in distance, but in depth.
Since then, the scientists have returned nearly every year, either hiking to the glaciers or flying overhead. What Love saw this year startled him. The annual snowpack is melting earlier in the summer, before it can turn to ice and add to the glacier. Snow also protects glaciers from the sun's hot rays. When the snow is gone, it leaves the glacier's ice — denser and less reflective — to melt.
“I flew it Sept. 4, and it looks like roadkill. All of the ice is exposed,” Love said. “There's almost only ice fields left. You don't have much in the way of snow fields, because it all melts off.”
Wyoming's average temperature has increased 0.65 degrees since 1985, according to data from the National Climatic Data Center. Average precipitation for the state has decreased slightly more than 0.1 of an inch in the same time frame.
The drop in precipitation isn't as important as the increase in temperature, said Stephen Gray, Wyoming's state climatologist. Roughly one-tenth of an inch of precipitation, for example, may only amount to a couple of inches of powder in the mountains.
But even the slightest increase in temperature can mean more days above the freezing point.
“Even a relatively or seemingly small change can translate to the warming season, or melting season, extended for many days or even weeks,” Gray said.
The melting effect intensifies during drought years, causing the exposed ice Love reported seeing to fade even faster.
In our lifetime
Wind scattered their plastic equipment as Thompson, Robinson and the two college students wound their way down the creek and along edges of glacial ice. Each member of the team had his or her task: Some collected rocks covered with algae, others measured chemicals in the water.
Utah State student Morgan Freestone met Thompson at Western Wyoming Community College.
Still an undergraduate, Freestone believes Thompson chose her and David in part because of their youth: “That's the point. They want to educate the younger generation on what's happening in our lifetime.”
For Erica David, a University of California-Davis student who grew up in Daniel, the glaciers are personal. Her parents ranch, as her grandfather did, and glacial water is their lifeblood. Her grandfather used to look at the Gooseneck Glacier in the Wyoming Range and tell David that if the goose's neck broke, there wouldn't be enough water that summer.
“I grew up in ranching community that said we are stewards of the land. The land doesn't belong to us, and we're to leave it better than we found it,” she said.
She believes the work she's doing at 13,000 feet, with bugs barely visible to the naked eye, will impact animals and people living below.
They include Pinedale rancher Albert Sommers, who uses water from the Green River, which starts in the Wind River Range.
“We had very little snowpack last year, but we had a cold spring and that saved our bacon and held the water back,” he said.
“But this inability to have winters anymore will catch up with us.”
Sommers doesn't pretend to be a hydrologist, and he hasn't analyzed the data of how much water has come down at different times, but he has noticed a gradual warming and drying during the last several decades.
For whatever reason, man-made or otherwise, the climate is changing.
“My goodness, it's changed in my lifetime,” he said.
“Our snow has gotten less and less and doesn't last as long, and I think it's going to have lots of effects on lots of species, including livestock.”