Three decades ago I started monitoring vegetation change in Glacier Bay National Park where glaciers have been retreating and exposing new land to colonization by plants. Each of the 10 sites I study was exposed at a different date over the last 250 years and it’s important to know that date for each site. It seems even more important now that I have so much data from the sites.
Five of the 10 study sites were still under ice when John Muir first visited Glacier Bay in 1879. So maps and photos made by Muir and those who worked with him or after him provide the best clues to the age of my younger sites.
For old photos to be helpful, they must be well-dated. The great photo by Frank LaRoche (Figure 2) is probably from 1893. The photo is somewhat ambiguous about whether the site of the Morse Creek study plots is still under the ice.
Harry Fielding Reid was camping at Muir Point with John Muir in 1890 and making observations and measurements of glaciers for most of the summer. He probably took fewer photos than he had intended because “I unfortunately left the lens of my camera at home,” but J. F. Morse “rigged up one of his lenses, (just like mine) to fit my camera; he has also fitted up a box as a dark room, so I think we shall be able to get some good photographs and develop them here.” (Reid’s journals)
The National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder has a large online collection of photos of glaciers including about 35 taken by Reid in Muir Inlet in 1890 and 1892. I was disappointed not to find the perfect photos of the Morse Creek study site taken from Station K (see Figures 3 and 7), but a few others were helpful.
My working date of 1895 for the Morse Creek plots is probably a good one although it could be a little early.
The glacier terminus position for 1880 (Figure 7, “from description by Prof. Muir”) suggests that my study site at Muir Point (Figure 7, green polygon, lower right) was probably ice free by 1880 if not earlier. My working date of 1883 for that site might be a little late.
The 1886 glacier terminus on Reid’s map is based on “photographs by Prof. Wright.” Wright’s camera must have been one of the first in Glacier Bay, and there are definitely no photos of my four older sites emerging from the ice (the daguerreotype was just being announced in France as the next older site was being exposed by ice retreat). The older sites have been dated using hundreds of tree ages determined by counting rings in tree cores of spruce. Those ages tell us when the trees started growing but not when the ice went away. That lag of a decade or two has to be estimated and we have to live with the unknown error.