The Science of Poop

May 25, 2016 Posted by: Laura Wright

Each year, approximately 1000 people attempt an ascent of Denali via the West Buttress, located on the 77km long Kahiltna Glacier.Climbers generate over two metric tons of human waste annually, the majority of which is disposed of in crevasses. This human waste has been traveling down glacier via ice flow and meltwater runoff since the 1950s. We established several water sampling sites… both on the Kahiltna River and side streams. The goal is to monitor annually for fecal contaminants in the Kahiltna River. The purpose of sampling these is to provide a control—if climbers are the primary source of contaminants, these side streams should be consistently coliform-free.

Lastly and perhaps most grossly… we began a poop degradation experiment. The purpose of this experiment is to observe breakdown of poop (open piles, and in degradable plastic bags) on the glacier surface. We placed a 50 lb. bag of human waste (taken from a used Clean Mountain Can) for a melt-out experiment and put a temperature probe with the pile. A time lapse camera is set up nearby. This site will be monitored for the next four years. You are probably wondering who the lucky folks are who get to do this experiment. It is NPS Physical Scientists, Michael Loso and Ken Miller!

Monitoring equipment on the Kahiltna Glacier

Michael Loso, along with Ken Miller also completed installation of equipment and related material to facilitate long term glacier monitoring on the Kahiltna Glacier.

Glacier stakes were installed at 10,300', 6500' and 3,500'. This will allow us to track annual changes in mass balance (snow accumulation and snow/ice melt), and by relating those changes to climatic (temperature, precipitation, etc.) and dynamic (changes in glacier geometry) forcings. Periodically, the stake is re-visited to measure the change in exposed length (a measure of melt) and other variables.

With the installation of the stake at 10,300' it was determined that the snow pack from last winter was 25 feet.

Mike Loso installing glacier monitoring equipment at 10,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier


Last updated: August 18, 2016

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