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WWRC 89-05
Long-Term Trends in Glacier and Snowmelt Runoff Wind River Range, Wyoming


The Wind River Range is an unbroken 100-mile long barrier in west central Wyoming that is host to 63 glaciers covering 17 square miles in area. Seven of the ten largest glaciers in the American Rocky Mountains are found in the Wind River Range, with areas from 393 to 1130 acres (Bonney, 1987) while the total area of glaciers in the Wind River Range is larger than that of all other glaciers, 134 covering 12 square miles, in the American Rockies (Field, 1975; Davis, 1988).

Glaciers contribute an undocumented amount to streamflow in Wyoming. Glaciers can be considered as natural reservoirs which store water in the winter and release it in the summer. Glacier runoff is likely to be most important during the late summer and early fall when low flows are critical for consumptive water users and instream flow needs. In addition, glaciers may release especially large quantities of water in years of low precipitation when water from other sources such as winter snowpack may be in short supply.

According to most authors (e.g., Meier, 1951; Dyson, 1952; and Mears, 1972), glaciers in the Wind River Range have generally been in a negative regime since 1850. While the most pronounced retreat occurred in the late 1930s, the glaciers continued to retreat, some at an alarming rate. Dyson (1952) reported that glaciers in the Wind River Range were retreating at a rate of 7 to 41 percent per year. Systematic studies of glacier mass balance have not been conducted on Wind River glaciers since the one- or two-year studies in the 1950s. Trends in glacier regime over the last four decades need to be documented and modeled relative to external and internal controls to better understand the implications of long-term trends for water supply in the Green and Missouri River drainages and obligations under interstate compacts.

Objectives The objectives of this study were to:

  1. analyze temporal trends in snowdepth and/or water equivalent for all climatic stations in the Wind River Range,
  2. analyze temporal trends in runoff from existing streamflow gaging stations affected by glacier runoff and snowmelt from the Wind River Range,
  3. use aerial photos and ground photos to document the trends in glacier regime as far back as photos are available, and
  4. perform field reconnaissance for direct measurements of runoff from the Wind River Range glaciers.

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