Digital outlines and topography of the glaciers of the American West

Open-File Report 2006-1340

Prepared in cooperation with the Departments of Geology and Geography, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon
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Alpine glaciers have generally receded during the past century (post-“Little Ice Age”) because of climate warming (Oerlemans and others, 1998; Mann and others, 1999; Dyurgerov and Meier, 2000; Grove, 2001). This general retreat has accelerated since the mid 1970s, when a shift in atmospheric circulation occurred (McCabe and Fountain, 1995; Dyurgerov and Meier, 2000). The loss in glacier cover has had several profound effects. First, the shrinkage of glaciers results in a net increase in stream flow, typically in late summer when water supplies are at the lowest levels (Fountain and Tangborn, 1985). This additional water is important to ecosystems (Hall and Fagre, 2003) and to human water needs (Tangborn, 1980). However, if shrinkage continues, the net contribution to stream flow will diminish, and the effect upon these benefactors will be adverse. Glacier shrinkage is also a significant factor in current sea level rise (Meier, 1984; Dyurgerov and Meier, 2000). Second, many of the glaciers in the West Coast States are located on stratovolcanoes, and continued recession will leave oversteepened river valleys. These valleys, once buttressed by ice are now subject to failure, creating conditions for lahars (Walder and Driedger, 1994; O’Connor and others, 2001). Finally, reduction or loss of glaciers reduce or eliminate glacial activity as an important geomorphic process on landscape evolution and alters erosion rates in high alpine areas (Hallet and others, 1996). Because of the importance of glaciers to studies of climate change, hazards, and landscape modification, glacier inventories have been published for Alaska (Manley, in press), China (, Nepal (Mool and others, 2001), Switzerland (Paul and others, 2002), and the Tyrolian Alps of Austria (Paul, 2002), among other locales.

To provide the necessary data for assessing the magnitude and rate of glacier change in the American West, exclusive of Alaska (fig. 1), we are constructing a geographic information system (GIS) database. The data on glacier location and change will be derived from maps, ground-based photographs, and aerial and satellite images. Our first step, reported here, is the compilation of a glacier inventory of the American West. The inventory is compiled from the 1:100,000 (100K) and 1:24,000 (24K)-scale topographic maps published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The 24K-scale maps provide the most detailed mapping of perennial snow and ice features. This report informs users of the data about the challenges we faced in compiling the data and discusses its errors and uncertainties.

We rely on the expertise of the original cartographers in distinguishing “permanent snow and ice” from seasonal snow, although we know, through personal experience, of cartographic misjudgments. Whether “permanent” means indefinite or resident for several years is impossible to determine within the scope of this study. We do not discriminate between “glacier,” defined as permanent snow or ice that moves (Paterson, 1994), and stagnant snow and ice features. Therefore, we leave to future users the final determination of seasonal versus permanent snow features and the discrimination between true glaciers and stagnant snow and ice bodies. We believe that future studies of more regional focus and knowledge can most accurately refine our initial inventory. For simplicity we refer to all snow and ice bodies in this report as glaciers, although we recognize that most probably do not strictly meet the requirements; many may be snow patches.

Additional publication details

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Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Digital outlines and topography of the glaciers of the American West
Series title:
Open-File Report
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U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Woods Hole Science Center
v, 23 p.
United States
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