Ice Patch Studies are Multi-disciplinary Efforts
One trend-setting characteristic of the Glacier Ice Patch project is its interdisciplinary nature: the research blends together archeology, traditional knowledge, ice science, zoology, and botany toward a holistic understanding of the science and cultural heritage of Glacier National Park’s ice patches and the unique alpine and subalpine mountain landscapes where they are found.

The science focuses on the interaction between climate, the ecosystem, and human beings, and it spans multiple scientific disciplines—climate science, archaeology, paleoecology, and ethnography. Consequently, we have brought together a multidisciplinary team of tribal experts, university researchers, agency scientists, and park managers to survey, map, investigate, analyze, protect, and if necessary collect and curate cultural and paleo-biological items from the park’s ice patches. Learn more about two major aspects of the project—archaeology and paleoecology—by clicking on the tabs below.
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Bison-sized lower limb bone exposed from melting ice patch. Bones can tell us about the animals who lived and died here, what time of year they died and how long ago, or if carnivores gnawed on the bones (see upper right end of bone pictured here).
Archaeology
No human-made artifacts have yet been found associated with ice patches in Glacier National Park; however, ice patch investigations in other areas have found many human-made artifacts. Organic artifacts recovered at melting ice patches provide context for the inorganic artifacts that comprise most of the archaeological record. Organic artifacts are amenable to a variety of technical analyses, including the direct assessment of their age via AMS 14C assays that can be made on tiny, discreetly taken samples due to their excellent preservation and rich carbon content. Archaeological remains from alpine ice in western North America include ancient wooden dart shafts and fragments, fletched wooden arrows, antler foreshafts, baskets, numerous wooden artifacts of uncertain function, butchered animal remains, and chipped stone artifacts. Fragments of weapons ranging in age between 10,400 cal BP (calibrated years before the present) and 200 cal BP suggest long-term continuity in ice patch hunting traditions and that these locations were an important element of the sociocultural and geographic landscape for Native Americans.
Paleoecology
Locked in the ice are traces of vanished ecosystems: animal scat, bones, horns, antlers, fragments of ancient wood, even entire “frozen forests”. These paleobiological specimens recovered in North American ice patches range in age from several hundred years to nearly 8000 cal BP. In northern latitudes, caribou are the dominant big-game prey species whereas bighorn sheep are the presumed prey species in the conterminous United States . The remains of bison and other large ungulates also occur in association with mid-latitude ice patches. The Glacier National Park Ice Patch Project recovered cranial and post cranial elements from a male bison at an ice patch in 2012. It dates from 967± years BP.
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Horns found at a Glacier Park ice patches