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Glacial Caves: Dynamic Wonders

Clark Students and faculty packed into STEM room 151 on Nov. 17, where Deschutes National Forest ranger and TED speaker Eddy Cartaya presented photos and videos of glowing ice tunnels as part of Clark’s STEM Seminar Series.  

Cartaya, who lives near Bend, Oregon, researches glacier caves, tunnels carved into glaciers by snowmelt and expanded by air currents. He works with a team of researchers on Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens, mapping them regularly for Search and Rescue. In 2011 Cartaya and his team discovered and named three cave systems at the bottom of Sandy Glacier on Mt. Hood: Pure Imagination, Snow Dragon and Frozen Minotaur.

National Park Service ranger Eddy Cartaya poses for a portrait at Clark College on Nov. 17. Cartaya spoke at Clark about his caving experience.
(Andy Bao/The Columbian)

Clark Microbiology professor Dr. Roberto Anitori and Portland Community College Microbiology professor Dr. Rick Davis accompany Cartaya’s team to Mt. St. Helens each year to collect and reset samples of bacteria that live on rocks in glacial caves. Davis and Anitori said they look forward to the genome analysis of the bacteria, which thrive without carbon and light.

Davis said being in the caves was “like going to another world.”

Cartaya, who co-founded the group ‘Glacier Cave Explorers’ with Brent McGregor, said he wants to give the public the chance to experience wonders they might not otherwise see and to warn them about the fragility of the caves.

“They think it’s just a dirty crack in the snow,” he said. If a rock in the caves were touched, he said, the whole microbial environment could be disturbed.

The researchers face danger too, wearing 70-90 pounds of gear, sometimes in 80 mph wind. In a video Cartaya presented, the team yelled to be heard over howling wind, huddled inside a large tent that trembled like a leaf.

When rocks work their way down through the glacier after years of snowfall, they can drop into the caves at random, where the sloped mountain and the ice tubes act like chutes for the rockfall, Cartaya explained. When Cartaya said rocks could “bowling ball” into their tent, the room erupted in giggles.

“It’s no joke,” he said. “You can hear them crashing through the night.”

Cartaya recalled an experience when a researcher almost died inhaling carbon dioxide when he slipped down a shaft.

“He thought he was dizzy because he fell and was at high altitude,” Cartaya said. When the researcher realized he was about to pass out, his carbon dioxide monitor “started screaming and yelling at seven percent CO2, which you’re not gonna last long in.”

The researcher scrambled out just in time. The near-death experience prompted the team to purchase better gas gear. Other dangers include floods, which the glacier can release at any moment to fill the caves and spill out at the bottom of the glacier.

When a student asked Cartaya what the strangest thing he’d seen in the caves was, he described the discovery of Lake Adelie at the bottom of a glacier cave on Mt. Rainier.

Cartaya and his team will make their next trip to Mt. St. Helens in May, after avalanche season and before ice gets too unstable to be safe.

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