One man’s quest to find Glacier Bay’s ecological Holy Grail

Brian Buma received funding support from the National Geographic Society. (Photo courtesy of Brian Buma/University of Alaska Southeast)

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is home to some of the oldest ecology records in the world. But until fairly recently, nobody knew where to find the metal nails that marked the research plots. They were left by scientists over 100 years ago and buried beneath a carpet of soil and shrubs.

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When William S. Cooper arrived in Glacier Bay in 1916, he did so in a large, comfortable research vessel. But Brian Buma’s transportation around the inlet was a little more modest. Buma led three scientists along the coastline this summer in kayaks.

Sometimes the group would have to wait in the water, as a sow and her cubs nibbled on wild strawberries on shore. Patience would become a reoccurring theme in Buma’s quest to find the lost plots.

He’s an ecology professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.

And there are two characters who have influenced his academic pursuits. One is William S. Cooper — the godfather of modern ecology. The other is referenced in Buma’s yellow notebook – the one he takes with him out into the field. On the inside it reads, ‘to the canyon of the crescent moon,’ a nod to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy searches for the Holy Grail.

In some ways, Buma would embark on his own journey looking for his version of buried treasure. He would combine the spirit of his two idols and set out to find Cooper’s lost plot points in Glacier Bay.

The research began over 100 years ago when Cooper traveled from his home in Minnesota to Alaska. Cooper wanted to see how the landscape was adapting to glacial melt, and that meant returning to the same spots overtime to see how the vegetation changed.

When the researchers weren’t in kayaks, they spent time in a small float house in Glacier Bay. (Photo courtesy of Brian Buma/University of Alaska Southeast)

By the 1930s, Cooper had stopped coming to the area.

“So we have all these really interesting and really exciting studies that he did but then a big gap,” Buma said. “So I thought it might be just possible to retrace his steps.”

To pinpoint the exact locations in Glacier Bay, Buma flew to the University of Minnesota last year to look through Cooper’s journals for clues. He found exhaustive notes, photographs and sketches about where the plots could be found. But finding Cooper’s exact locations would still prove to be a challenge.

“He did a lot of distance in paces, which is generally not a standard unit of measurement,” Buma said. “So frankly, on paper, it looks pretty easy and then when you get out there it turns out to be very, very difficult.”

Buma would have to navigate through a different landscape than in Cooper’s day.

In the early 1900s, there was lots of exposed rock in the area. Glaciers had recently retreated from the plots, but there was still more ice visible.

Today, the surroundings are largely a tangle of shrubs and trees.

“It’s like trying to push through a jungle gym. They just don’t give, and so you’re constantly contorting yourself to slope yourself sideways and get yourself diagonal,” Buma said. “And you’ve got a backpack and a metal detector and bear spray.”

Buma and his team have spent two weeks over the last two summers looking for Cooper’s plots. After bushwhacking for hours, sometimes days, they would get an inkling they were in the right location.

Maybe it came from Cooper’s old black and white photographs or the compass bearings retooled for today’s magnetic north. In any case, that’s when they would bring out the metal detector.

The team documented the GPS coordinates so the plots will be be easier to find in the future. (Photo courtesy of Brian Buma/University of Alaska Southeast)

“You’re thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’” Buma said. “No one’s been here for a very long time. This is the spot I read about as an undergrad.”

It took Buma about a week in 2016 to locate all eight of Cooper’s plots in Glacier Bay.

After cataloging the species of plants in the area, his team did something not possible back in Cooper’s day. They took a nitrogen sample from the soil with the hopes that scientists can better understand how vegetation grows in a place that used to be covered in ice.

“All that information will make us better modelers of climate change in the future,” Buma said.

Buma said observations like Cooper’s are rare. Most climate change research didn’t start until decades later. So this kind of record can help tell us where the future is headed, as more of the world’s glaciers retreat.

It’s unclear if Cooper knew that warming would become a threat over 100 years ago. But Buma said he did know people could have an impact on the environment. Cooper even lobbied Congress to protect Glacier Bay as a national park.

“It makes him prescient in a sense,” Buma said. “Even in his very first paper saying, ‘The value of this study … will only increase with time. So I’m leaving directions so that it can continue after I’m gone.’”

Buma said Cooper was right. The value has increased, and he plans to return to Glacier Bay to help maintain this research for the rest of his life.

(Photo courtesy of Brian Buma/University of Alaska Southeast)