USGS Logo Geological Survey Professional Paper 631
Analysis of a 24-Year Photographic Record of Nisqually Glacier, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington


A systematic coverage of Nisqually Glacier by photographs taken from a network of stations on the ground was begun in 1942 to explore the value and limitations of such photographs as an aid in glacier study. Principles developed may be of value elsewhere, especially for the program "Measurement of Glacier Variations on a World-Wide Basis" of the International Hydrological Decade.

Nisqually Glacier in Mount Rainier National Park, Wash., covers 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) (1961) and extends from an altitude of about 14,300 feet (4,400 meters) near the top of Mount Rainier down to 4,700 feet (1,400 meters), in a horizontal distance of 4.1 miles (6.6 kilometers).

Analyses were made of the annual photographs taken by the writer for 24 years from about 20 stations. A number of pictures taken sporadically from 1884 to 1941 by others were also available for use in the study. Where possible, the results obtained from photographs were compared with those from the available engineering surveys. Such detailed analysis of an extensive photographic coverage of a single glacier may be unique.

Photographs illustrating the retreat and advance of the glacier's west ice margin in a reach extending for about a mile (1.6 kilometers) downstream from Wilson Glacier show that, by 1965, most of the ice thickness lost in that area between 1890 and 1944 had been recovered. Withering of the stagnant valley tongue down glacier from the nunatak is portrayed, as is its spectacular reactivation in the 1960's by a vigorous advance of fresh ice. Some of the visible characteristics of advancing and receding termini are noted.

Annual values of the glacier's surface slope (5 to 10 degrees) at a cross profile were measured on photographs with respect to a projected vertical line identifiable in each picture. The results were found to average about 2 degrees less than those obtained from the 5-year topographic maps, but they are thought to be a little more accurate owing to lack of a sufficiently small contour interval on the maps for this special purpose.

Year-to-year variations in the surface slope and other characteristics from place to place along the glacier are portrayed by pictures to a degree not economically attainable by any other means.

Annual changes in the glacier's thickness at two locations were determined from photographs and found to agree well with the results of stadia surveys.

A summary of conclusions reached in regard to other data or features of the glacier that were illustrated by annual photographs follows:

1. Toward the end of the ablation season, position of the annual snowline ranged between altitudes of about 5,800 and 7,300 feet (1,750 and 2,250 meters). The altitude limits within which firn was observed on the glacier were about 6,000 and 7,300 feet (1,850 and 2,250 meters).

2. Sources from which debris reaches the glacier are evident.

3. Medial moraines and other persistent patterns sometimes overlooked in the field are more noticeable in photographs. Ice-cored moraines and patterns of multiple lateral moraines are visible.

4. The extent, severity, and nature of crevassing in an area reflect the dynamic condition of the glacier at that location.

5. Erosion has caused certain bedrock areas or features on canyon walls to become unrecognizable within less than 15 years.

6. Effects of the 1932 and 1955 outburst floods on the stream channel and trees for a mile (1.6 kilometers) or so below the glacier are shown in comparison with ordinary, lesser floods. Visible effects include degradation, widening and changes in configuration of the channel, formation of small terraces, removal of vegetation from the flood plain, and the deposition of huge boulders on the stream banks and flood plain.

Some photographic procedures recommended for use in a program of this type are described in the section on "Recommended Photographic Procedures."

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Last Updated: 01-Mar-2006