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Citizen scientist records retreat of Colorado glaciers one ski run at a time

Public policy analyst Jonah Siefer has skied every month of the last three years and his casual observations mirror those of climate scientists tracking the loss of ice fields.

Jonah Seifer skinning up the southeast side of Mount Bancroft, above Lake Caroline, with his backpack and safety gear, in an area adjacent to the James Peak Wilderness. (Provided by Jonah Seifer)
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It’s the middle of summer and most people’s ski gear is packed away, but not Jonah Seifer’s.

The moon is out, Denver streets are buzzing with people enjoying the cool night and Seifer is inside packing his gear to go skiing in the Front Range the following morning. He’ll begin his day carrying skis, a raincoat, an avalanche shovel, an ice ax, a personal locator beacon and many more pounds of necessary gear as he hikes a glacier in the Colorado mountains.

At a dirt trailhead early the next morning, Seifer grabs his well-used pack and sets out to chase some snow on his second glacier of the season. He has skied every month this summer, hiking up to remnant snow fields and scanning for safe ascent and descent routes. And each time he’s noticed something about Colorado glaciers: They’re shrinking.

Seifer has been skiing the glaciers for almost 10 years. And his informal observation of taken photos mirrors the formal work of climate scientists and glaciologists that glaciers are melting away.

Seifer grew up skiing competitively in New England. For the past three years, he’s skied every month, exploring landscapes, reading the snow and learning how to safely travel through mountains to ski on Colorado’s few remaining glaciers.

“Glaciers have created some of the most brilliant landscapes in Colorado, and these places are testament to the awesome power of natural forces over time,” Seifer says.

Colorado glaciers help sustain unique environments as they provide water throughout the late summer, melting during a time when other sources of water may be starting to dry up.

Dan McGrath, assistant professor in the Department of Geoscience at Colorado State University, and others hiking up to do field research at Arapaho Glacier in mid-August 2021. (Photo by Ellis Berry provided by Jonah Seifer)

Dan McGrath is an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Colorado State University. He studies glaciers in the Rocky Mountains and has been called the “go-to person” for Colorado glaciers.

Small glaciers like those in Colorado play a role in mountain biodiversity, sparking discussion and study as the climate changes. Global temperatures have increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit during the industrial age, and glaciers around the world are becoming smaller and melting away. The existence of these unique environments is threatened.  

There are currently 16 cirque glaciers in Colorado and they tend to be remnants of larger glaciers from the last ice age. Cirque glaciers, also known as drift glaciers, are unique when compared to other types of glaciers around the world, a uniqueness that is helping them survive longer.

“These glaciers receive less of the sun’s energy in the summer due to shading from the surrounding mountains and extra snow accumulation in the winter from wind and avalanches,” McGrath says. 

However, even though cirque glaciers are uniquely positioned to be somewhat exempt from climate change due to their geographical placement, they too are ultimately melting from human-induced climate warming. And scientists say in order to keep glaciers from rapidly melting, global warming will soon have to stop or slow.

“An important factor for Colorado glaciers is that they continue to exist in the current climate only because they are fed by wind redeposition of snow from the western sides of the ridges,” says Bruce Raup, senior associate scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder.

Bruce Raup, senior associate scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, and a group of other researchers gather to plan how to reach Arapaho Glacier in hazardous weather. (Photo by Ellis Berry provided by Jonah Seifer)

Raup and his team monitor Colorado glaciers using satellite imagery from GLIMS: Global Land Ice Measurements from Space. The analysis is made up of optical imagery, similar to digital photos from space, which results in primarily digital glacier outlines, related metadata, literature references, and increasingly includes snow lines, center flow lines and hypsometry data. 

They also occasionally conduct ground-based measurements of Arapaho Glacier, studying its mass and using radio-echo sounding to measure ice thickness. Ice thickness is a good indicator of a glacier’s health and how it’s changing over time.

Arapaho Glacier is the largest in Colorado and a key component of Boulder’s water supply. Over the last 100 years, it has receded dramatically.

“Low snow levels and glacial retreat are absolutely on my mind these days. My partner and I talk about ‘climate dread’ or ‘climate anxiety’ often,” Seifer says.

Seifer is a public policy advisor during the day, a woodworker by night. He builds, designs and sells pieces that are often inspired from forms he sees in nature. He says he’s spent most of his professional and personal life stewarding and appreciating public lands and the glaciers contained in them.

For Seifer, skiing cirque glaciers is becoming increasingly more hazardous, since they are in a constant state of flux. They range from forgiving slush to icy rocks, sometimes in a single run. Some of Seifer’s old runs have melted away. Because of the hazardous conditions, he says, it’s more about lowering mental noise and reconnecting with the land than getting a good ski run.

“‘Enjoy it while it lasts’ may sound like a dark perspective, but alpine environments are extremely sensitive to change,” Seifer says. “The writing is on the wall and the snow and ice will be first to go.”

Jonah Seifer, who in the last three years has skied every month, navigates hazardous conditions St. Mary’s Glacier north of Empire in September 2020. (Provided by Jonah Seifer)

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