High Sierra Glacial Lakes Project

From La Sportiva Blog – Outrunning Glacial Melt: Original post here.

Growing up in Washington State, my father introduced me to the outdoors and adventure at a very young age, starting with hikes in the Cascades and skiing at the local resorts. As I grew older, these explorations evolved in length and technicality, turning into backpacking and mountaineering trips. Alongside these other activities running, too, has been a constant in my life (also inspired by my father who was a world class runner), beginning in Junior High and including NCAA Division I cross country and track in undergrad. It was in college though where I found my real passion, combining running with my love of wild mountainous places—mountain running. Today, for me it’s all about exploring nature’s beauty and using running as a means to access remote and rugged places.

This aspiration has led me to create personal projects by documenting unique attributes of the wilderness where these adventures take place. My first large scale project was the BIG SUR WATERFALL PROJECT in which I have cataloged 143 waterfalls and counting (many of which are discoveries or first known sightings) in the Ventana Wilderness and Silver Peak Wilderness in the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur. My latest project is to document the colorful lakes and tarns of the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra contains hundreds of lakes in all shapes and sizes but a small subset of lakes feature striking colors that differ from the standard clear blue water.

Most Sierra lakes displaying a unique color are the result of remnant glaciation. Unlike snowfall, which usually melts in-place into clear water, glaciers are moving bodies of ice. As the ice slides down the mountainside, it grinds the underlying bedrock and picks up debris resulting in an extremely fine silt that is embedded within the ice. When the ice finally reaches the terminus of the glacier, sometimes over decades, the meltwater contains a high concentration of this silt, which flows into lakes. The silt is so fine that instead of sinking to the bottom of the lake it remains suspended in the water resulting in varying colors, from milky brown to turquoise, as light refracts on the suspended particles.

The Sierra Nevada is not closely associated with glaciers today as only a few pockets of permanent ice remain. However, evidence of past extensive glaciation is visible everywhere in the range. In fact, some of the most beloved features of the Sierra—including Half Dome and El Capitan—were shaped and polished into their current forms by glaciers. Today, only a few glaciers remain but these remnant bodies of ice continue to produce silt resulting in a colorful lakes and tarns.

My reasons for documenting these colorful lakes are threefold. First, I am captivated by their beauty, a reason that’s worthy enough on its own! Unlike more glaciated ranges in colder climates, it’s somewhat unexpected and unusual to find these colorful lakes in the present-day climate and ecology of the Sierra. Second, the process to find and document these lakes takes me to some of the more remote and wild corners of the Sierra. Similar to the waterfall project, there is some uncertainty what one will find and how to get there which ultimately produces elation when a colorful lake is found. Third, and most importantly, as the climate continues to warm this heritage of glaciation is in danger of vanishing entirely. As the last few patches of ice melt away under warming temperatures, the silt concentrations will decrease and the water in the lakes will become progressively clearer. With climate change accelerating, the days of color in many of these lakes is uncomfortably numbered, and the time is now to document the remaining colorful lakes in a cohesive project.

I estimate that there are around fifty colorful lakes and tarns in all. So far, I’ve been to about half of the lakes I have identified, but it’s entirely possible that there are more. Part of the beauty of the project is the “discovery” element since some of these lakes are difficult to identify by map or satellite—their arresting colors can only be seen for a short time between mid-summer and fall (not frozen and covered with snow). This project will definitely be on hold until next summer (mid-summer for many of the lakes) as they freeze up and become covered with snow. It will probably take another season or two to catalog the lakes that I know about since many are tough to access. Meanwhile, I’ll keep poring over the maps!