CASPER, Wyo. — High in Wyoming's Wind River Range, the largest glacial complex in the American Rocky Mountains sits largely unstudied.
Several groups in the past decade have packed the 25 miles into the base of some of the larger glaciers. Kyle Cheesbrough, a former graduate student in civil engineering at the University of Wyoming, spent two summers studying the glaciers and their retreat. Until the late 1990s, the only group consistently in the range was a pair of scientists from Western Wyoming Community College, engineer and earth sciences professor Craig Thompson and geologist Charlie Love.
But information is still lacking, experts say.
Without more information about specifically how and by how much the glaciers are receding, some scientists aren't sure how to make predictions for the future.
“Specific information on climatic influences on glacial variability and the contribution of glacial melt to stream flow have not been addressed,” Cheesbrough wrote in a research paper with the Wyoming Water Development Commission.
Scientists need to better understand how mountain systems are responding to climate change, said Daniel Fagre, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geologic Survey in the Northern Rockies.
That doesn't mean scientists have to study the Wind River Range specifically, but there does need to be a survey of many of the Western mountains.
“In an ideal world, all the major mountain areas would be monitored so we can better understand water supply and timing,” he said. “Things like whitebark pine demise are tied to climate in general and snow in particular.”
Studying the timing and delivery of the water is almost as important as understanding the amount.
Even though models can be made from other glacial complexes, the Wind River Range is still a large geologic gap, Fagre said.
Study of the Wind River glaciers is blocked in part by the physical remoteness of the ice. None of the glaciers are easily accessible by road, and many are a 20- to 25-mile hike on thin, winding trails. Two national forests — the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton — and three wilderness areas — the Fitzpatrick, Bridger and Popo Agie — cover the region, as does part of the Wind River Indian Reservation. Motorized vehicles are prohibited in many areas.
“If you gave me a million dollars a year and permission from the Forest Service, I could build a weather station, but short of that we're in the dark on what's happening up there,” said Stephen Gray, the state's climatologist and director of the Water Resources Data System.
Climatologists and glaciologists can guess at the annual precipitation and temperature on the top of the Wind Rivers, but no weather stations exist to give accurate readings. Scientists use individual spots to make broader estimates.
“If we look at the high elevations, or where we think the snow is piling up, we don't know. We're flying blind,” Gray said. “It's a question if we want to spend the money monitoring the resources, or if we're happy to be surprised with the results.”