McCarty Glacier

August 8, 2021

[Note from the present. It's April 19, 2022. In two days, Alaska Endeavour will host a webinar called Warm Ice with Dr. Bruce Molina. If you have any interest in glaciers or in the data behind climate change, you'll find this talk interesting. It's absolutely free. You can sign up by clicking here. Now, back to the past....]

This is 10 of 11 log posts covering The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition.

Midnight Cove – McCarty Fjord – long haul N to McCarty Glacier – long haul S past Little Dinglestadt Glacier – Moonlight Bay

Molnia, waiting for the shot at McCarty Glacier. (Photo: Author)

McCarty Fjord

I was still in bed when Patsy came down and told me there were rocks at our stern. On deck, we could see them under the water right off our swim step. Our depth sounder was mounted on the hull halfway toward the bow and still read 40 feet – which is why our depth alarm hadn’t gone off.

These rocks were the furthest rubble of a rockslide, forming a ridge under the surface extending out into the cove. The rocks were, of course, not on the charts. When I dropped anchor last night, I had noticed the scar on the steep hillside, to the left of the waterfall, but I hadn’t thought the rubble would extend this far. The rocks may have rolled farther under water, partially buoyed. In any case, the much-lower tide had increased the distance we could swing on our chain, and the current had pushed us over to the side.

This happens a lot up here where the charts look more complete than they are: you anchor in deep-enough water, the tide goes out, and you find a surprise. I mark these surprises on my charts. Maybe someday I’ll send them in to NOAA.

We pulled anchor, motored out a few hundred yards to the middle of the cove, and dropped anchor again. It was time for breakfast.

Later, heading north up McCarty fjord, the weather was still sullen. It was a 15-mile run from our anchorage up to McCarty Glacier at the head. We crossed the shallow top of the moraine at James Lagoon and kept going. The only other glacier in the fjord, Little Dinglestadt Glacier, on the west side, was almost completely obscured by low clouds. We kept on.

At the top of the fjord, McCarty Glacier was hard to see, but we waited, engine off, drifting. It started to rain. I went below to work on something. Bruce went out on the bow alone with an umbrella and his camera, hopeful.

Eventually, the clouds moved just enough and Bruce got a few usable photos and locations. Then it was a long haul back down the fjord.

Patsy took the wheel. I joined Bruce, Shawn, and Kim in the salon. I wanted to continue our conversation.


Bill: What have you three done on climate change inside the government?

Shawn: Global Fiducials are these reference points we’ve identified around the Earth in every climate zone and every environment.

Bruce: The Fiducials were set up by the CIA. The mission was to understand how environmental change is being driven by global warming. It was Al Gore who was responsible for getting it going. When he was a senator, he went to Carl Levin, Chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, and asked why we couldn’t use some of the intelligence assets to understand how the Earth was changing.

Shawn: It was a moment of exceptional creativity in government.

Bruce: It has national security consequences, as well. They’ve spent so much money on bases along the coast…

Shawn: And so some odd duck at the CIA said, “We can do that. The intelligence community can’t spy on Americans, but we can look at sites around the world. And the USGS can look at US sites.”

Bruce: So the CIA identified about 50 senior scientists and gave them security clearances, and they initially picked about 200 fiducial sites around the world.

Bill: Like the S&P 500, it’s an index.

Shawn: Yes. But the CIA can’t do it on their own. No single agency controls all the parts.

Bruce: The US Geological Survey got involved because they could process the imagery. And then the facility I’m part of – that I ran for a decade – ended up being the site where all the imagery that is in the public domain, or that we’re hoping to get into the public domain, resides.

We now have over 10,000 fiducial images that are free and unclassified. Or, rather declassified. You take the classified image and you make magic with it so no one can figure out what the pixels looked like initially, then make it available at 1.3- meter or even 0.5-meter resolution, which is better than anything available in the public sector unless you have thousands of dollars to buy commercial imagery.

Shawn: We were using satellite image technology we had developed to prevent us from getting surprised during the cold war, and we didn’t want the bad guys to understand our capability.

Bruce: Although we do give all the data needed for our sea ice imagery. We have released over 1,500 of them.

Shawn: On the collection side, this all cost essentially nothing since we already had the capability. The cost is in the analysis.

Bruce: Then the 2000 election happened, and almost instantly -- because Gore’s name was attached to it -- this project was shut down. The project ceased. From our perspective we’re collecting images that we are using and need. We continued collecting. We never stopped. No one knew what we were doing, no one asked. No one told us to stop.

Bill: That sounds very government.

Bruce: Then in the summer of 2006, I’m in Denali, I’m at the only place there where there is cell reception, and my phone rings. And its Linda. Linda Zall, the woman who ran the program. She said, Senator Feinstein is going to give us 10 million dollars and we’re going to start MEDEA again. MEDEA was the formal name of this project. She said we’re going to start collections again. I said we’ve been collecting. We never stopped. She had no idea.

Then the National Academy puts out a report saying, “having Arctic sea ice imagery would really help in understanding how climate change is impacting the Arctic.” The next day we released over 1,000 images. That National Academy report was the trigger and cover we needed to release the imagery to the public.

The MEDEA program is not classified. An internet search tells its story. Bruce’s work is cited often.

Bill: Was the program a success?

Shawn: Well, the glaciers are still receding.

Bruce: We want people in the academic community to be using our imagery for education, for research, and that has been the hardest thing -- just getting it known that the imagery is there. We can give you 10,000 images at the highest resolution at no cost: free.

But getting the word out that it exists is the hardest thing. So I organized a session at the Fall 2020 AGU [American Geophysical Union] meeting last December. It has 100 thousand members worldwide. I had the former director of the National Science Foundation, the then-director of the US Geological Survey, four MEDEA scientists, and a couple of other scientists, all talking about how Global Fiducials can be used in research.

We had a good session − eight presentations − and all were captured on video and posted to an FTP site where anyone could see them. I went to the site the other day and couldn’t find them. The fellow who runs it said, yeah, after a certain period of time the content cycles off. He put them back up.

Bill: So you guys want to see your work being used to raise awareness and make decisions …

Shawn: That’s our goal. ….

The MEDEA program was shut down in 2015, but the data is still available.


We were passing Little Dinglestadt Glacier again. It had cleared, a bit. We got a usable photo and position, and continued on down the fjord.

Moonlight Bay

We got back to Moonlight Bay but didn’t go back into Midnight Cove. The Coast Pilot, a set of sailing directions, mostly notes on weather patterns, landmarks, and anchorages, is published free by NOAA. It says Moonlight was a better anchorage than Midnight, so I decided to try it. At least there were no scars on the slopes suggesting underwater rockpiles. We dropped anchor down at the far east end in 80 feet of water.

With the boat shut down I rechecked the weather. The forecast wasn’t good. The barometer was falling (I keep an old-fashioned aneroid barometer in the pilothouse, next to a very accurate clock with hands on it), and the NOAA radio weather broadcast called for increasing winds the day after tomorrow, reaching 30 knots from the west with 14-foot swells. Given that the wind had been from the southwest for the last few days, that big swell would be coming from that direction, with the wind and the chop from almost the opposite direction – washing machine conditions. This wouldn’t be anywhere near dangerous (“fishable,” the troller guys would say), but it would be uncomfortable.

I would check the forecast again in the morning. It updates every day at about 0300.

−William Urschel