Welcome to the Glacier National Park Ice Patch Project
A Project Funded by the National Park Service's Climate Response Program
Ice patches are accumulations of windblown snow in alpine and subalpine areas that have existed for thousands of years. Large animals such as sheep, bison and elk go to these locations to cool off and escape biting insects in the warm summer months, as well as to access running water and enhanced foraging opportunities. This predictable behavior was targeted by ancient hunters searching for game. For thousands of years, anything that fell on one of these patches could become encased and frozen, including tools—a fragment of basket, a digging stick, the shaft of an ancient spearthrower— that were discarded or lost. Such items are rarely preserved in the archeological record.

Now climate change is melting these ice patches, revealing ancient materials that, until recently, were hidden and safely preserved. In 2009, a multi-disciplinary team of tribal experts, university researchers, and park managers undertook a project to survey, map, protect, and if necessary collect and curate, cultural and paleo-biological items from Glacier National Park’s shrinking ice patches. Visit these pages to learn about the project and its findings as well as ice patch projects in other parts of the world.
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Our tribal partners have led the way in developing protocols for the recovery, handling, analysis, and documentation of artifacts, an important milestone for this kind of research. We hope our protocol is a model for other parks and federal agencies with emerging climate change-related impacts.


PROJECT HIGHLIGHTS

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ANIMATION

View an animation showing how artifacts become trapped in ice and then discovered. Click on the image to view the animation.

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3-D ROTATION

View a 3-D rotation of a bison skull discovered in one of Glacier Park's ice patches.

VIDEO

View the project video: alpine archaeology in the land of the Blackfeet, Pend d'Oreille, Kootenai and Salish.

What We’re Up To:

  • Kathy Puseman, Paleoscapes Archaeobotanical Services Team (PAST), completed identifications of the lag deposits from the ice cores – among the plants and charcoal identified were mountain avens (Dryas), willow (Salix), bluegrass (Poa) and sedge (Carex). The latter two are good forage and were likely deposited on the ice patch via the digestive tracts of ungulates.
  • Dr. Beth Shapiro and team at University of California Santa Cruz successfully recovered a complete mitochondrial genome from the Glacier National Park ice bison as well as three comparatives from other Rocky Mountain ice patches. The Glacier NP (femur) fragment had very high endogenous DNA and genetically it falls within the diversity of living bison as opposed to extinct forms.
Below: Glacier National Park overflight as part of a survey of ice patches. Videography by Chris Boyer of Kestrel Aerial.