Assessing the Effects of Climate Change on Glaciated Climbing Routes

From GM, Intro to GIS.

Alpinism is a discipline steeped in history and tradition, iconic images of redoubtable landscapes, and bone chilling cold. However, climate change is rapidly altering the glaciated ranges of the world, essentially changing the alpinist’s playing field. Now, the collective history of climbs contained in glaciated ranges and the future prospects of the discipline itself are beginning to melt away.
Already climbers are noticing the effects of climate change on established climbing routes. Glacial recession is in some cases is changing the nature of “classic routes”, making them more dangerous or even impassable.

GIS along with crowdsourcing may prove to be a useful tool in assessing the extent of glacial recession in relation to existing climbing routes. To this end, it could assist alpinist in trip planning by providing information about recent glacial change in areas that, because of their remoteness, may not have current information.

Ideally, a series of DEM’s or remotely sensed images could be collected for an area of interest (e.g. one image every 5 years for the last 20 years). Next, individual images would be used as a base landscape layer in a GIS. A climber, familiar with the area, could digitize his or her climbing routes (this task would be simplified by using the landscape layer as a digitizing base because many climbing routes follow obvious landscape features like ridges). By overlaying the digitized climbing routes layer onto the various landscape layers, any significant change in glaciers that intersects climbing routes would become obvious. Temporal changes could be assessed by comparing the climbing routes layer with multiple DEM’s or remotely sensed images. If more precision were desired, glaciers could be converted into polygons in a vector GIS, or to a land area type in a raster; with Boolean algebra, for example, all the glaciers that intersect climbing routes could be isolated.

From here analysis could begin to quantify glacial change in relation to climbing routes. For most alpinist the most utility would come from the simpler overlay operation. This output would allow climbers, who are generally perceptive to landscape features on a map, a tool to asses relevant changes evident in glacial extent.

As alpinism begins to reorient itself within the context of a warmer climate, GIS, with the Internet, could emerge as a kind of “new school” interactive guidebook: an alpinisim specific Geoweb application perhaps. A web site that featured the spatial output of the previously mentioned process could be made interactive. Climbers that have recently climbed a featured route could add pushpins (like Google maps) that include details about sections of routes that have been altered by glacial recession. In this way, GIS output coupled with user-generated content could improve the scope of information available by combining climbers’ anecdotes with spatial data: a kind of participatory GIS.

I have not found any one person, group or organization doing this exact type of analysis, but there are some examples that closely resemble the general idea. The USDA Forest Service, Mt. Shasta Avalanche Center and Wilderness Department, have GIS maps of climbing routes on Mt. Shasta. Also, the US National Parks Service, has an interesting GIS of climbing routes on Denali and Mt. Foraker.

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