Anthropocene environmental change in Glacier National Park, Montana

What: This Gateway project utilizes the remote and relatively pristine landscape of Glacier National Park (GNP), Montana as a natural laboratory for understanding the impacts of climate change, both natural (e.g., Little Ice Age) and anthropogenic (climate warming, changing snowpack conditions, land use change), on alpine landscapes.

When: June 24 – July 26, 2024 (tentative)

Where: St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota (introduction and lab work) and Glacier National Park, Montana (field work)

Who: Five students, a peer mentor, and project director Dr. Kelly MacGregor (Macalester College,

Prerequisites: Because this experience is targeted for students early in their academic careers, there are no specific coursework prerequisites. We are seeking students who are interested in many or all of the following: limnology, geomorphology, glaciers, wildfires, human impacts to lake ecosystems, natural and manmade climate change, erosion and sedimentation, and using field and laboratory methods to explore scientific questions about earth surface processes.

Ideally, students will have some comfort with (or willingness to experience!) sharing close quarters in tents in cold and sometimes rainy weather, boating and swimming, communicating with the public and tourists ‘on the spot,’ hiking up to 12 miles in a day (typically 4-5 miles a day carrying heavy gear), and being without cell phone coverage for up to two weeks.  Students will need to maintain composure in field conditions that are safe but that may include bad weather, difficult trail and boat conditions, and wildlife (including bears). Support in the form of field gear loans will be provided to students who do not own their own. All tents and cooking gear will be provided.

Expectations and Obligations:

  1. Participation in all project-related work during the summer (5 weeks)
  2. Write a team abstract and present a paper (poster or talk) at the Geological Society of America National Meeting in Anaheim, CA  in Fall 2024 (all expenses covered).
  3. Enthusiasm, a willingness to work as a member of a team, and an ability to follow rules for the safety of the group!

Project Description

This project utilizes the remote and relatively pristine landscape of Glacier National Park (GNP), Montana as a natural laboratory for understanding the impacts of climate change, both natural (e.g., Little Ice Age) and anthropogenic (climate warming, changing snowpack conditions, land use change), on alpine landscapes. Understanding timing and magnitude of 19th and 20th century changes in climate variability is key to assessing potential future environmental change. The climate history of the northern Rocky Mountains is known primarily from lacustrine paleoecological records that are widely spaced in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming (e.g., Karsian, 1995; Doerner and Carrara, 1999; Millspaugh et al., 2000; Doerner and Carrara, 2001; Brunelle and Whitlock, 2003; Hofmann et al., 2006; Shapley et al., 2009). 

Geologists hiking through the high country of Glacier National Park

However, there are fewer records of the impacts of anthropogenic changes in alpine and subalpine landscapes outside of records of glacial retreat (e.g., Brown et al., 2010; Fagre et al., 2017; Martin-Milke and Fagre, 2019). Visitation in National Parks continues to grow each year, with Glacier National Park continuing in the top 10 most visited Parks with almost 3 million visitors in 2022 (NPS website, 2023), with increasing potential impact on the surrounding environment. This proposed research has relevance to communities in geomorphology, Quaternary geology, glaciology, and paleoclimatology, as well as to the general public interested in the impacts of climate change.

Over the past 18 years I have collected lake cores in Swiftcurrent Lake, Lake Josephine, and lower Grinnell Lake, all of which are located downstream of Grinnell Glacier in the Many Glacier region of Glacier National Park, Montana (Figure 1). Work done on these cores by previous students (many of them as part of Keck projects) has provided additional constraints on climate and environmental history in the basin since the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. For example, a continuous core from Swiftcurrent Lake spanning ~17,000 years demonstrates a strong link between climate in the basin and solar forcing on centennial timescales (MacGregor et al., 2011), as well as links between glacier size and detrital dolomite in the lakes (Schachtman et al., 2015). A manuscript in preparation (including two Keck students as co-authors) explores the fire history of the region during the Holocene and demonstrates a link between fire frequency and increased geomorphic activity on the surrounding hillslopes. Another manuscript examines changes in the carbon signatures in lake sediment in Grinnell Valley as a result of human activities in the Park over ~150 years (MacGregor et al., 2023).

Figure 1: Geologic setting of the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park, MT. Geologic units are generally either Precambrian meta-sedimentary formations or Quaternary surficial deposits. The southern valley (Grinnell Glacier Valley) has Grinnell Glacier in its headwaters, and serves as the source of water, sediment, and water-borne debris for most of the lake cores. The northern valley (Swiftcurrent Valley) contributes water to the northern subbasin of Swiftcurrent Lake. Map after MacGregor et al., 2011, courtesy of C. Riihimaki, Princeton University.

In 2018 and 2022 I led Keck Gateway projects working on lakes in the adjacent Swiftcurrent Valley, collecting several short cores from Fishercap Lake and gathering bathymetric data from Redrock Lake (Figure 2). In summer 2022 we used ground penetrating radar data in Fishercap Lake, and demonstrated water levels in this shallow downvalley lake have changed over the late Holocene, likely due to changing snowmelt and hydrologic delivery in the basin. In addition, preliminary lake cores from Redrock Lake showed slower sedimentation rates than those in Grinnell Valley. In summer 2024 I propose to focus on changing lake conditions since the arrival of Euro-Americans in the region (~1850) and subsequent environmental changes in Swiftcurrent Valley. We will collect surface cores in a downvalley transect from Redrock, Fishercap, and Swiftcurrent Lakes and use 210Pb dating to get high temporal resolution age control. We will analyze the cores for organic carbon content and submit a handful of sediment samples for C:N and δ13C analyses to understand algal contributions in lake carbon over this time period. Modern vegetation samples from in/around the lakes will support our interpretations of terrestrial carbon contributions. Finally we will collect water quality data (in both vertical and horizontal lake transects) to better understand modern lake conditions and compare this to historical data from these lakes.

Figure 2: Map of Swiftcurrent and Grinnell Valleys, Glacier National Park, MT. Proposed coring sites shown as red dots. Blue shading represents lake bathymetry collected between 2010-2018.​

Potential Student Projects

The primary research objectives for summer 2024 are to A) collect near-surface lake sediment cores in Swiftcurrent, Fishercap and Redrock Lake, B) subsample cores in the field for 210Pb analysis (age dating), C) collect modern vegetation samples in the field, and lake sediment samples in the lab, for C:N and δ13C analyses, and D) measure lake water quality metrics in vertical transects in Swiftcurrent, Fishercap, and Redrock Lakes (Figure 2). The overarching goal is to better understand sedimentation rates in Swiftcurrent Valley lakes since ~1800, including examining changing sources of organic material during this period. Note that the field research will be conducted in a group, with students splitting tasks in the lab upon return to the Twin Cities; GSA presentation(s) will be in 1-2 groups.

By collecting and analyzing short near-surface lake cores, students will be able to make comparisons of Redrock and Fishercap Lake sediment dynamics to those in nearby lakes in Grinnell Valley, and better understand dominant geomorphic processes operating in the two valleys. In addition to learning to collect cores in the field, students will learn to sample sediment cores for age controls in the field and in the lab (including loss-on-ignition (LOI)), and to sample and pack C:N and δ13C analyses pellets for analysis. Comparing LOI from each lake will provide preliminary data showing the amount of organic and inorganic carbon inputs into the lakes and how that varies in space and time. This speaks to both modern climate change and human impacts on the Park landscape. Using 210Pb age controls will be key to interpreting rates of deposition in the lakes and making comparisons to other cores. I expect that at least two of the 210Pb cores will be ready prior to the GSA poster session.

Water quality data and coring will be conducted using inflatable kayaks carried to and paddled around the lakes of interest. A portable hydrolab measures dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, conductivity, temperature, and other metrics. Comparisons of human-proximal and human-distal regions of the valley can be made, as well as comparisons with historical data collected by the USGS. In addition, students can make comparisons between measurables in GNP lakes and those in other alpine systems affected by climate change (e.g., Fink et al., 2016).

Project Logistics

Students will arrive in the Twin Cities and spend five to six days staying in the residence halls at Macalester College for classroom and laboratory ‘crash courses’ to prepare for the field work and their projects. These will include mini-lectures, hands-on activities, talks by faculty and researchers in the geosciences at the University of Minnesota (UMN) and Macalester, and training at CSD. I envision that most students will have taken no more than one geology course (perhaps none), and that the first several days will be devoted to activities, reading, lectures, and labs to introduce major Earth science concepts and the nature of scientific inquiry in geology. This includes the geologic evolution of GNP (sedimentary rock formation, igneous intrusions, mountain-building), global climate change (Pleistocene, Holocene, and recent), and surface processes (weathering and hillslopes, glacial erosion, fluvial transport). While many of these topics will be introduced during the beginning of the project, I expect student learning will continue during our travel and in the field as a foundation for their projects. I will make sure that all students are properly outfitted for field work (clothing, camping gear, water bottles, backpacks, etc.), and we will do preliminary grocery shopping as a group (including conversations about working, cooking, and living outdoors and in close quarters). In addition, we will spend time on broader impacts activities (as discussed above).

We will spend two days driving to Many Glacier (camping in Glendive, MT on the way out/back), and hope to camp at the NPS group campsite there. I have a cabin with a shared bathroom reserved in the event of illness (or visitors). We plan to cook most meals in the campground during our ~12-14 days in the Park. The first several days in the field will be spent giving the group an overview of the geology, biology, and history of the Park, as well as reading about use conflicts between the Park and the Blackfeet Nation in the region. The group will watch a training video on bear safety at the Many Glacier Ranger Station and learn to safely hike and camp in the Park. We plan to travel and hike (up to 12 miles/day) in other parts of the Park, including Logan Pass (continental divide) and possibly West Glacier (near the major 2017 & 2018 fires) if we are able to secure a day permit to drive Going-to-the-Sun highway. Collection of lake cores and water quality data will be conducted as a group over the course of our time in the Park. As I have done each summer working in the Park, the group will present our past findings and current projects to the Park Rangers during our stay, as well as attend and present at the official Campfire Talks at Many Glacier in the evenings. I anticipate daily interactions between students and the public, as has been our experience in past years conducting research in the Park.

After returning to the Twin Cities, students and the peer mentor will again stay at Macalester (or a nearby Airbnb) and drive daily to the CSD facility at the University of Minnesota (five miles), where they will split, log, photograph, and archive the cores in accordance with standard limnogeological community procedures. Depending on the projects selected, students will spend the final week in the lab conducting analyses, completing reflections and assessments, and the group will work together to prepare a poster for the annual GSA meeting in Anaheim, CA in September 2024.


Brown, J., Harper, J., Humphrey, N. (2010). Cirque glacier sensitivity to 21st century warming: Sperry Glacier, Rocky Mountains, USA. Global and Planetary Change, vol. 74 (2) 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2010.09.001

Brunelle, A. and Whitlock, C., 2003. Postglacial fire, vegetation, and climate history in the Clearwater Range, northern Idaho, USA. Quaternary Research 60, 307-318.

Brunelle, A. et al., 2005. Holocene fire and vegetation along environmental gradients in the northern Rocky Mountains. Quaternary Science Reviews 24, 2281-2300.

Carlone, H. and Johnson, A. (2007). Understanding the science experiences of successful women of color: Science identity as an analytic lens. Journal of Research in Science Teaching Vol 44(8).

Carrara, P.E., 1995. A 12000 year radiocarbon date of deglaciation from the Continental Divide of northwestern Montana. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 32, 1303-1307.

Carrara, P.E., 1993. Glaciers and glaciation in Glacier National Park, Montana. Open-File Report 93-510, 1-18. Carrara, P.E., 1990. Surficial geologic map of Glacier National Park, Montana.1:100,000.

Carrara, P.E., 1989. Late Quaternary and vegetative history of the Glacier National Park region, Montana. USGS Circular,1902, 64 p. Carrara, P.E., 1987. Holocene and latest Pleistocene glacial chronology, Glacier National Park, Montana. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 24, 387-395.

Craig, D.R., Yung, L., Borrie, W.T., 2012. “Blackfeet Belong to the Mountains”: Hope, Loss, and Blackfeet Claims to Glacier National Park, Montana. Conservation and Society, Vol. 10 (3), p. 232-242. DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.101836.

Doerner, J.P. and Carrara, P.E., 2001. Late quaternary vegetation and climatic history of the Long Valley area, west-central Idaho, U.S.A. Quaternary Research 56, 103-111.

Doerner, J.P. and Carrara, P.E., 1999. Deglaciation and postglacial vegetation history of the West Mountains, west-central Idaho, U.S.A. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 31, 303-311. 7

Earhart, R.L. et al., 1989. Geologic maps, cross section, and photographs of the central part of Glacier National Park, Montana. USGS Mapping Project.

Fagre et al. (2017). Glacier margin time series (1966, 1998, 2005, 2015) of the named glaciers of Glacier National Park, MT, USA. 10.5066/F7P26WB1

Fink, G., Wessels, M., Wuest, A., 2016. Flood frequency matters: Why climate change degrades deep-water quality of peri-alpine lakes. Journal of Hydrology 540, 457-468.

Hanauer, D.I., Graham, M.J., Hatfull, G.F. 2016. A Measure of College Student Persistence in the Sciences (PITS). CBE-Life Sci Educ vol. 15, no. 4, ar54. doi: 10.1187/cbe.15-09-0185CBE

Hofmann, M.H. et al., 2006. Late Pleistocene and Holocene depositional history of sediments in Flathead Lake, Montana; evidence from high-resolution seismic reflection interpretation. Sedimentary Geology 184, 111-131.

Horodyski, R.J., 1983. Sedimentary geology and stromatolites of the Mesoproterozoic Belt Supergroup, Glacier National Park, Montana. Precambrian Research v. 20.

Karsian, A.E., 1995. A 6800-year vegetation and fire history in the Bitterroot Mountain Range, Montana. MSc. Thesis, University of Montana, Missoula. 54 p. Key, C.H., D.B.

Fagre, R.K. Menicke. 2002. Glacier retreat in Glacier National Park, Montana. In R.S. Williams and J.G. Ferrigno, eds., Satellite image atlas of glaciers of the world: North America. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1386-J, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. p 365- 381.

Klasner, F. L. and D. B. Fagre. 2002. A half century of change in alpine treeline patterns at Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.A. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 34(1):53-61.

MacGregor, K.R., Riihimaki, C.A., Myrbo, A., Shapley, M.D., Jankowski, K. 2011. Geomorphic and climatic change over the past 12,900 years at Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana. Quaternary Research, 75(1), doi:10.1016/j.yqres.2010.08.005.

MacGregor, K.R., Myrbo, A., Anderson, H., Oddo, P., Riihimaki, C., Williams, C. (in prep). Post Little Ice Age and Anthropocene environmental change in eastern Glacier National Park, Montana, USA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

MacGregor, K.R., Myrbo, A., Anderson, H., Oddo, P., Riihimaki, C., Williams, C. (2023) Anthropocene and Little Ice Age Lake Sedimentation in Eastern Glacier National Park, Montana, USA. American Geophysical Union Meeting Abstract EP11D-1773, December 11-15, 2023

MacGregor, K., Wirth, K., Davidson, C., Myrbo, A. (2023). Fostering science identity through research experiences in a National Park: stories from a Keck REU Gateway project. American Geophysical Union Meeting Abstract, December 11-15, 2023

MacLeod, D.M. et al., 2006. A record of post-glacial moraine deposition and tephra stratigraphy from Otokomi Lake, Rose Basin, Glacier National Park, Montana. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 43, 447- 460.

Martin-Milkle, C., Fagre, D. (2019). Glacier recession since the Little Ice Age: Implications for water storage in a Rocky Mountain landscape. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research. Vol. 51(1) 10.1080/15230430.2019.1634443 Mehringer, P.J.,Jr et al., 1984. The age of Glacier Peak tephra in west-central Montana. Quaternary Research 21, 36-41.

Millspaugh, S.H. et al., 2000. Variations in fire frequency and climate over the past 17 000 yr in central Yellowstone National Park. Geology 28, 211-214. 8 National Park Service website, accessed October 1, 2023. 2022-visitationdata. htm#:~:text=%5BMarch%2014%2C%202023%5D%20%E2%80%93,October%2C%20November% 2C%20and%20December.

Schachtman, N., MacGregor, K.R., Myrbo;, A. Hencir, N.R., Riihimaki, C.A., Thole, J., Bradtmiller, L., 2015. Lake core record of Grinnell Glacier dynamics during the Late Pleistocene and Younger Dryas, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.A. Quaternary Research, v. 84, no. 1, p. 1-11, doi:10.1016/j.yqres.2015.05.004.

Shapley, M.D. et al., 2009. Late glacial and Holocene hydroclimate inferred from a groundwater flowthrough lake, northern Rocky Mountains, USA. The Holocene. V. 19 (4), p. 523-525.

Whipple, J.W., 1992. Geologic map of Glacier National Park, Montana.1:100,000.