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‘New to humanity’: Never-mapped glacier discovered on South Sister

(Update: Adding video, comment from Carlson, state climatologist)

'Intriguing find' not recently formed, but missed in previous mapping efforts

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- There's been a new discovery on South Sister: A glacier, never before mapped, near the summit of the mountain.

Anders Carlson, president and founder of the Oregon Glaciers Institute (OGI), discovered the glacier more than 9,000 feet above sea level, with OGI co-founder Aaron Hartz.

“(It’s) new to humanity, you would say, but a new glacier on South Sister on the north side of the most climbed, glaciated peak in Oregon," Carlson told NewsChannel 21 on Tuesday.

It's about the size of nearly 30 football fields, so the obvious question is, how did it go unnoticed for so long?

"It's probably a combination of that it's on the north side of the volcano, so it's always going to be in the shade," Carlson said.

That makes it difficult to spot during aerial mapping, which hasn't been done in 70 years, anyway.

The other factor Carlson pointed out is that the glacier’s location causes it to have rockfall covering the surface most of the time.

Carlson said the discovery of the glacier comes as South Sister is losing glacial ice.

Including the new one, just seven of the 12 known glaciers are left on the mountain.

Larry O'Neill, Oregon's state climatologist and an Oregon State professor, said, “Basically, it's going to affect both how much runoff that we get, and it will also affect the timing of the runoff during seasons."

O'Neill attributes that to climate change. Carlson said it's time to learn more about and protect Oregon's glacial ice.

"We really should get out there to study and work on preserving our natural resources," he said.

Press release from the Oregon Glaciers Institute:

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – Amid the wildfires that tore through the Oregon Cascades last fall, something novel occurred: A glacier was discovered, a mass of ice in motion covering 30 football fields, on South Sister.

A field team from the Oregon Glaciers Institute says it recently located and conducted the initial survey of this new glacier on the northern flank of 10,358-foot South Sister Mountain.

This glacier is not really "new," in a sense that it is recently formed, but rather because it was simply missed during the mapping efforts over the last hundred years.

It has never been noted, described or mapped, with the U.S. Geological Survey and Forest Service maps showing bare ground where glacial ice exists today, as well as in the past, OGI announced. 

Peter Clark, a professor at Oregon State University, stated: “This is a very intriguing find. While OGI is conducting much-needed documentation on the decay or disappearance of glaciers in Oregon and the attendant consequences, their discovery of a hitherto unknown and active glacier in the continental USA highlights the critical nature of this work. How many glaciers remain? What is their fate?”

Mapping efforts during the mid-20th century relied heavily on aerial photographs to identify features that would be included in topographic maps.

"It is likely that this glacier was not clearly visible in air photos due to its positioning in a shaded high mountain cirque and therefore was never mapped," the institute's news release stated.

The glacier probably formed during the Little Ice Age before 1850, OGI said. Undoubtedly, this glacier had been seen by a select few mountaineers exploring the remote side of the mountain. However, this knowledge was never passed on to the U.S. government or glacier scientists. 

OGI President Anders Carlson, Ph.D. commented that “despite more than a century of exploring the Oregon High Cascades by mountaineers and government scientists, we know very little about our own backyards. The age of discovery is not over, even here in Oregon!”

Glaciers are an important part of the mountain environment and factor heavily into the supply of freshwater streams and groundwater during the warm summer months, when glaciers typically undergo some degree of melting.

In particular, ranchers and farmers use glacier meltwater as an irrigation source, while the near-freezing meltwater cools streams for fish spawning, as well as cools forests to reduce fire risk.

In short, these glaciers act as natural reservoirs, or mountain water towers. This previously unmapped glacier can now be added into what is known about Oregon’s water resources.

OGI co-founder and head of field operations Aaron Hartz noted that “as snowpack and glaciers decline, so too will water flowing out of the mountains into the forest and fields below. This decline will lead to drier mountain forests and increased risk of fire.”

OGI has been working in recent months to document the condition of Oregon's remaining glaciers. Their field work has also shown that many mapped glaciers in Oregon are now only remnants and are essentially dead ice bodies, meaning the ice is no longer flowing and deforming under their own weight.

Glaciers hang in the balance of accumulating winter snow and summer melt. When summer melt exceeds snow accumulation, glaciers decline in mass.

OGI said its goal for the coming summer and years is to set up a proper glacier monitoring network that will inform on glacier changes and their attendant consequences. This will allow for projections of future glacier viability to determine if, or when, they may disappear from Oregon’s high Cascade summits.

NewsChannel 21's Jack Hirsh is speaking with Carlson Tuesday about the recent find. His report first airs on NewsChannel 21 Fox @ 4.

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Jack Hirsh

Jack Hirsh is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Jack here.

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