Wednesday, March 21, 2012

3-18-12 Attempt to Measure Ice Thickness, Lakes of the Clouds

Beech trees basking in early morning sunlight near the Gale River Trail Sunday (3-18-12). The utter absence of snow on the ground in the middle of March is striking. Normally there would still be at least a few feet. Temperatures here at home scaled the high 70s through the week. Bright yellow brush strokes of forsythia blazed in back yards and beside driveways like a Christo art installation along with daffodils and trees flowering prolifically nearly three weeks earlier than normal. The Gale River road was still closed as of 3-18-12 but dry enough to bike on if you're heading to the Gale River Trail.

This is where I was heading for the day: Lakes of the Clouds on Mt. Washington, to experiment with what I hoped would be a totally cool, easy way to measure ice thicknesses in the high lakes in the White Mountains (a magic wand, so to speak). The weather forecast for Sunday in the vicinity of Mt. Washington was for lots of sun and high temps. A good chance existed that the record high temperature for the date of 37 degrees (F) set in 1945 would fall and it did as the temperature climbed to 40 degrees (F) on the summit. Warm temperatures were expected through the week so I decided to try for an ice measurement at Lakes before serious melting occurred. It was not as important to get the measurement this late in the season as it was to find an easy way to do it in the future. A week ago at Lonesome Lake, using a short handled ice chisel that I borrowed from the hut, it took an hour to chip a hole through two feet of ice. I figured the ice on the larger of the Lakes of the Clouds would be around three feet thick (36 inches). My plan was to use a 3/4 inch metal rod that I'd heat to a high temperature with a propane torch, like those used by plumbers, and use a hammer (actually a rock) to help drive the rod through the ice as I heated it repeatedly with the torch. My scheme failed miserably although I learned a bit.

I chose the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail for the hike up to Lakes and was greeted by this sign as I entered the parking lot at the Cog Railway Base Station. The draconian "Absolutely NO" was a bit jarring. For years the cog railway, under different owners, has worked collaboratively with the hiking community. Tensions between hikers and land owners at the periphery of the White Mountain National Forest have been rising for more than a decade as the number of hikers (and cars) has increased. A lot of hikers have not been particularly sensitive and/or respectful of the rights of the private land owners, particularly around parking issues, which is where a lot of the tension sits, but at stake is the whole concept of accessibility to the forest (public lands) and how that will be managed in the future. I know I've mentioned this a few times in this blog, but as years pass the distance between the hikers wanting access to the national forest and landowners will grow more desperate and the forest service will end up spending more money on changes in trail access, parking, etc. I hope we can secure access to all trails for the future.

As it was the parking lot at the base station was nearly full. I was running a little late after a long drive so skiers were already on the mountain trying to stay ahead of the heat that was coming and before the snow turned to "mashed potatoes" or worse. Herds of hikers, too, were heading up to towards the Ammonoosuc Ravine and Jewel Trails as I drove into the parking lot a little after 9 am. The Dartmouth Range is in the back ground with Mt. Mitten, right, Mt. Dartmouth (middle) and Mt. Deception.

It's hard to believe that it's been more than a year and a half since I've been to Lakes of the Clouds. It certainly doesn't seem that long but then I was on the lower "Ammy" back in September after Hurricane Irene. It was stunning to be hiking it again.

There was a lot of snow at this elevation (about 2750' asl) with 3-4 feet on the sides of the trail. The trail has been well packed and sculpted by skiers descending from the the upper regions of the mountain Saturday afternoon.

The lower section of the Ammonsoosuc River with the debris from the massive 2010 avalanche still plainly visible. The storm surge of Hurricane Irene removed some of the debris but there's still ample evidence of the power of the avalanche.

Once past Gem Pool, climbing steeply through these impressive balsam firs there is that familiar feeling of being on the mountain and that sense of being in a sanctuary. There was an impressive amount of snow in this tree-shaded, northwest-facing flank of the mountain. I post-holed in over my hip in one faulty step.

The rewards for all the hard, steep climbing are sweet! The Ammonoosuc cascades down beside and across the trail a few times and just ahead is the transition from forest to "treeline" and the nearly treeless alpine zone.

Looking west and a bit towards the north is this fine view towards the base station and across to the Dartmouth Range with Cherry Mountain just behind Mt. Desolation. Vermont and Quebec are in the distance.

A few more steep yards uphill and the summit casually greets you with this view.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut.

The summit from the back of the hut.

Given some lower temperatures, but certainly not on this Sunday, this could become a glacier in time. It's a vast areas of ice, a formation emerging from the overflow from the larger of Lakes of the Clouds.
There were a few people on the trail above the hut slabbing towards the summit and others enjoying the sun and wind protection of the hut. A number of hikers were scrambling up Mt. Monroe. I'd hiked the last 1/2 miles with a couple from Long Island that are frequent visitors to the region and who set the tone for the day with their infatuation with the mountains and their refreshing sense of humor.

I'm an inveterate "gear head" and am genuinely impressed with how savvy hikers are becoming and fortunate to have the newer, lighter, warmer equipment available. I usually focus on what's most sustainable, e.g. what's most durable and then what's most sustaining, e.g. what provides essential warmth, wind and precip protection, plus low weight, etc.

This group is a good illustration of what I mean by quality gear with Kahtoola micro-spikes on their boots (almost everyone hiking on Sunday wore Kahtoola micros as opposed to crampons, etc.), the windproof vests and pants, and base layers of merino wool. The high tech revolution and return of merino wool has produced great clothes for hikers and skiers: it's being used in everything from base layers to mittens, gloves, pullovers sweaters, as well as durable outerwear. We always used to say wool was the best protection in the mountains because it keeps you warm even when its wet.

This group looked like they stepped out of an ad for Alpine skiing and riding in New Hampshire.

A group already returned from the summit sitting on a peninsula of snow jutting into an area of ice that formed on the runoff from the large Lake of the Clouds.

The ice here is plentiful almost every winter. On warm days it feeds the Ammonoosuc and on Sunday, coming up from the base station, the river was muted by the cold overnight temperature but it will be roaring in the late afternoon with the high volumes of water from melting snow and ice.

The source of the water is this overflow from the larger of the two lakes.

The lake itself is iced over but with a channel that has opened much earlier than usual which is a conduit for daily melt-water from the snow around and above the lake.

In the summer the lake looks like this. This photo, taken in August 2010, shows the water level at its seasonal low point. The large "shark tooth" boulder in the foreground is a good measuring stick for water depth. You can see it in the above photo from 3-18-12 as just sticking above the ice surface on the right side of the photo.

The west end of the larger lake is shallow with these rocks that line the area near the outlet. I took this photo also taken in August 2010.

The east end of the lake has a soft, sandy bottom covered with these quillworts. In the summer it is 6 feet deep in this quadrant.

In the distance to the right you can see my "equipment"'; the solid metal rod and propane torch that turned out to be rather useless as I tried to make a small hole through the ice. A first trial hole, where this photo was taken, hit a rock at 2' 5 ' (29 inches) depth. I went to the east end and "drilled" where you see the rod in this photo but the top-most layer of snow on the lake was melting rapidly and covering the lake surface with 3-4 inches of water. My downward progress stopped. The melt water filled the hole when I retracted the bar and reheated it, then cooled immediately when it was immersed in the water again. I continued hammering but to little avail. Probably and manual drill or auger would be more productive.

This shows the extent of the melting of the snow on the lake surface that occurred by noon.

On January 30, 1940 Slim Harris cut through 39 inches of ice in the area to the left in this photo and found 6 feet of water. I'm curious, as at Lonesome Lake, how much the thickness varies from year to year. And, if it varies, does the thickness of the ice reflect seasonal temperature changes. In his write up in Appalachia (December 1940) Slim wrote that alpine lakes greater than 6 feet in depth do not freeze to the bottom. "The density of the water at near freezing temperatures increases. Maximum density if reached at 39 degrees (F). In the fall the surface water cools and sinks. Warm water near the bottom rises. It gets cooled but the surface water drops below 39 degrees (F) and becomes lighter. It stays near the surface and later freezes. The second layer down, what had originally been warmer water near the bottom forms a layer of insulation under the ice." p. 113. The implication is that the thickness of the ice will reflect average temperatures through the fall and winter for any given year.

Solar heating of these rocks was melting the ice but only on the north side of the lake that receives much more sunlight.

On April 20, 1940 Slim along with Uncas (Paul) Gerhard again measured the ice on the larger lake and it was still 39 inches thick. They cut a hole through the ice on the smaller lake and measured it at 43 inches thick but discovered that there was no water under the ice. The small lake is only 4-5 feet deep.

Mt. Monroe reflected in the lake. The surface water was getting deeper by the minute so I abandoned my efforts and headed back to the hut and my lunch.

Snow cover in the vicinity of the hut is sparse and may indicate a dry spring and possibly a dry summer coming.

Comparing this photo from just below the summit of Monroe taken early Sunday afternoon with the one below taken two years ago dramatically illustrates variations in snow cover. This is not to say winter is over on Mt. Washington. Historically snow can accumulate here right into early May so this scene could look far more wintery two weeks from now.

Same scene March 6, 2010

Looking south into the Saco River Valley with Mt. Kearsarge in the middle distance on the left, the Moats just behind Attitash ski area on the right and Oaks Gulf in the foreground.

Krummholz that has adapted to this niche by hunkering down.

Bare ground means more frost action impacting the soil which, depending on the slope, creates these kinds of cracks in the surface.

Diapensia, Bigelow Sedge and Hair Cap moss getting some March sun. If the present snow conditions continue with a lot of ground exposure it may alter the flowering dates of the alpine flowers. It will be interesting to see. As noted, plants in Western Massachusetts are flowering 3 weeks a head of schedule due to a lingering heat wave. Temperatures in the alpine zone have also been above average for the past week.

Speaking of alpine plants, these ski tracks are crossing a large gravel bed where dwarf cinquefoil grows. The lack of snow cover around the hut and on Monroe means the barren ground is taking a beating from skiers and hikers this spring which raises the possibility of damage to plants.

Mt. Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge in the distance over the Twin Range (North Twin has the large slide scar).

The descent was unbearably hot even with a good breeze and the snow and ice were breaking down to a watery slurry that was slippery.

The lovely Ammonoosuc. The river rose by a foot in the course of the day accounting for a lot of snow-melt water coming off the ridge.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

3-11-12 Measuring the Ice Thickness on Lonesome Lake

Last Sunday (3-11-12), with the day's temperatures in the Franconia Region slated to get into the low 50's, my daughter, Liz, and I drove North to hike once more up to Lonesome Lake and meaure the thickness of the ice before serious melting gets underway as it feels like spring is a month early. I also wanted to get more winter photos of the lake particularly looking down on it from high up on Cannon Mountain.

The ice was still solid. The top three inches were slushy due to a relatively thin crust of ice over a layer of liquid water, a deposit from recent rains. Underneath the water was a thick layer of ice.

Liz coming across the lake with Franconia Ridge in the background.

For those of you who were cheated out of a winter there are still wintery scenes like this one in the White Mountains. This photo was taken just below the hut on the south end of the lake. A light covering of new snow dusted the mountains on Saturday above the 2700 foot level.

And it still looks wintery around the hut. The temperature here at 11 am Sunday was 48 degrees and climbing.

For the umpteenth time here's another photo of Cannon Mountain rising above the lake. The first "Cannon Ball" is to the left. The depression between the Cannon Ball and Cannon Mountain is Coppermine Col. Getting good "aerial" photos of the lake is a bit easier with the foliage off the trees as it is now. The best photos are available from the top of the ledges on the far right hand side of Cannon that are accessed via the HiCannon Trail.

This is a photo of Lonesome Lake from the top of the first Cannon Ball. The goal of Sunday's hike was to get photos but also to obtain an accurate measurement of the thickness of the ice on the lake and get additional photos, if possible, of the structure of the ice, as well as get depth and water temperature measurements all as a first step in keeping a record of the ice thicknesses, from winter to winter, of Lonesome Lake (just under 3000 feet) and Eagle Lake on Mt. Lafayette at 4,000 feet, and Lakes of the Clouds located at 5000 feet on Mt. Washington.

The project has been inspired by my finding records from the 1930s and 1940s of ice thickeness measurements made by Uncas Gerhard and Slim (Stuart K.) Harris and recorded in several issues of Appalachia. It would be useful, I think, because it's interesting and fun but also to have accurate measurements taken over time as a means to study yearly temperature fluctuations.

Lizzie looking resplendent on top of the first Cannon Ball with Cannon Mountain (far left) and, barely visible, the summit of Mt. Lafayette behind her.

South and North Kinsman. Sunday was lovely from dawn to dusk.

Hiking from Coppermine Col to the summit of Cannon included icy spots.

Franconia Ridge from the summit of Cannon.

Lonesome Lake from just above the ledges on the HiCannon Trail. Like the other high "lakes" in the White Mountains which include Speck Pond, the two Carter Lakes, Lakes of the Clouds, Eagle Lake, and even Star lake, Lonesome Lake nestles into a glacially formed depression on a "shelf"; a relatively level area but surrounded by high ridges. With the exception of Lakes of the Clouds all of these lakes are in advanced stages of a naturally occurring successional process. They are all shallow and becoming more so in small increments that progress exponentially. They will eventually revert to forest (unless another glacier happens to pass by).

Lonesome Lake sits at the lowest altitude of the lakes mentioned above. It has ample supplies of water from several sources including springs, a brook that falls from Kinsman Ridge on the west side of the lake, and runoff from the surrounding ridges including Cannon Mountain. In the photo above it's possible to get a sense of the topography to the east of the lake where you can see a "berm" formed just at the top of the ridge where the flank of the mountain dives down towards Franconia Notch. This berm helps to keep and collect water that eventually feeds the lake. The shelf resembles the upraised palm of a person's hand with a shallow cup in the center. The white line on the floor of the notch is Interstate 93.

Two summers ago I snorkled extensively in Lonesome Lake in an as-yet-unfinished project to identify the aquatic plants growing on the bottom of the lake (see blog entries for July 27, 28, 29 and August 8, 2010 for photos, etc. taken below the lake surface). That project will continue this summer.

There are fancy tools for cutting through ice quickly but I used what was available at the hut which took some time and energy. I started with a hole 16 inches in diameter.

Progress was a bit slower than I had expected.

At 11 am, roughly, the number of passers-by increased exponentially. This group was cheery and curious and chatted for a bit. The guy on the right introduced himself as a "local" who has lived his whole life in Thornton, NH, just down the road, at the foot of Coolidge Mountain, and home of the world famous Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest where I worked briefly in my youth. We shared a few memories and one comment he made interested me regarding a study published by a Thornton resident on white tailed deer. I seldom mention animals in the blog although I mean to. I asked him to send more information if he could and I'll re-publish it here. In the December 1943 Appalachia (p. 548) there's a good article titled: "Animals, More Animals and Further Animals of the Presidential Range" by Uncas (Paul) Gerhard who came across a beaver hiking over the top of Mt. Washington the summer of 1943. I found a beaver laboring over the felsenmeer on the summit in the summer of 1963. How many beavers would you guess hike Mt. Washington? On the other hand, almost every warm blooded, four footed animal native to northeastern North America has been seen on or near the summit of Mt. Washington including: beavers, fox, mink, weasels, chipmunks, skunks, racoons, black bears, white tailed deer, moose, lynx, wildcats, snow shoe hares, porcupines and fishers. I'm leaving out rodents as there's a large number of them as well as amphibians, reptiles, insects including beetles and spiders, and birds. The list of birds who inhabit the White Mountains for various segments of the year is impressive as the birds, themselves, are and of intense interest to many of us.

If you're interested in animals native to the White Mountains a wonderful source of information is a book published by the State of New Hampshire in 1957 and written by Helenette Silver titled History of New Hampshire Game and Fur Bearers. It's available at on-line book sellers.

It took 45 minutes to chip down 16 inches.

Some folks were into hamming it up for the camera. A lot of them asked me if I was fishing!

I finally broke through (3-11-12, 12 noon) at just under 25 inches (24 7/8 inches). Older records speak of ice 38 inches thick.

I made quite a mess making this small hole in the ice. There are a couple of interesting things I rediscovered about mountain lake ice. One is that in profile the ice is constructed in layers and is not a homogeneous whole. In this case there were layers of water sandwiched in between solid ice. The other is, of course, that ice forms downwards so that one thinks the water level of the lake is not effected but it is pushed down considerably by the weight of the ice. The lake bottom was at 5 feet, 1/4 inch below the top most surface of the ice including the sandwiched layer of unfrozen water and the uppermost "crust" recently formed over the rain and melt water. The bottom temperature of the water was 36 degrees (F) but the thermometer I used may not be accurate so it leaves the actual temperature in question. My guess would be slightly warmer than that, possibly 38-39 degrees. Many interesting questions arise about the ice's impact on lake water in winter. This winter has been strange in New England, to say the least, and can best be viewed as an anomaly, but I'm curious how much the ice creates a thermal "blanket" on top of the lake water and if under the ice the lake water exhibits marked temperature variations from fall to spring and that would effect plant and animal life.

By early afternoon crowds were arriving dressed in all kinds of attire....

as if they were just out for a stroll. The lake passage was like a city sidewalk. Chad, the hut caretaker, posted warnings about the safety of the lake ice advising hikers to use the trail that circles the lake but the preferred route was the straight line.

Liz and I headed down in mid afternoon as the light and the snow softened.

The snow on the trail was soft enough for all-out running making for a quick descent.