top of page

McCarty Glacier

Spy satellites at work for the environment

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

This post continues the Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition, gathering photographic evidence of global warming in Alaska with researchers Bruce Molnia, Shawn Dilles, and Kim Angeli on board the Endeavour.


I was still in bed when Patsy came down from the galley and told me there were rocks at our stern and the tide was going out. On deck in my robe, I could see a line of boulders 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 the alarm hadn’t gone off. This happens a lot up here. You anchor in deep-enough water, the tide goes out, and you find a surprise. I mark these surprises on my charts.

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 covered in clouds, but we waited to see if it would clear, engine off, drifting. It started to rain. Bruce went out on the bow alone with an umbrella and his camera, hopeful.

Later, on our way back down the fjord, Patsy took the wheel. I joined Bruce, Shawn, and Kim in the salon.

“When you three were in the government, what did you guys do about climate change?” I asked.

“Global Fiducials are these reference points we identified around the Earth, Shawn said, “in every climate zone and every environment.”

“The Fiducials were set up by the CIA,” Bruce said. “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.”

“It was a moment of exceptional creativity in government,” Shawn said.

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

“And so,’ Shawn went on, “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 US Geological Survey can look at the US sites.”

“So, the CIA identified about 50 senior scientists,” Bruce said, “and gave them security clearances, and they initially picked about 200 fiducial sites around the world. The US Geological Survey got involved because it could process the imagery. The office 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. On the collection side, this all cost essentially nothing since we already had the capability. The cost is in the analysis.”

“In other words,” Shawn said, “we were using satellite image technology we had developed to prevent us from getting surprised during the cold war to help tell us what was happening environmentally.” This was called the MEDEA program, he said.

“Then the 2000 election happened,” Bruce went on, “and almost instantly – because Gore’s name was attached to it – the project was shut down. But no one actually told us to stop. We continued collecting these images. No one knew what we were doing, no one asked.”

“Then, in the summer of 2006, I get a call that Senator Feinstein is going to give us 10 million dollars to restart MEDEA, the program we never really stopped. A very short time later the National Academy says, ‘having sea ice imagery would really help in understanding how climate change is impacting the Arctic.’ The next day we released over 1,000 images.”

“So, the program was a success?” I asked.

“Well, the ice is still melting,” Shawn said.

“The hardest thing is just getting it known in the academic and research community that the imagery is there. We can give you 10,000 images at the highest resolution at no cost. Absolutely free.”

The MEDEA program was shut down again in 2015, after Bruce retired, Kim said, but the images are still available online, still for free.

We got back to Moonlight Bay and 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 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, a big swell would be coming from that direction, with the wind and the chop from almost the opposite direction – washing machine conditions – still “fishable,” my salmon troller friends would say, but uncomfortable.

I would check the forecast again in the morning.

— William Urschel


The Global Fiducials Library Data (the MEDEA images) are still available online here. You have to create an account with a username and password, but an account is free. The image files are detailed and enormous, and they are astonishing.

bottom of page