University of Alaska Southeast professor of environmental science Christian Kienholz gets his drone ready for flight on a rock outcrop near Suicide Basin on Friday, June 21, 2019. (Nolin Ainsworth | Juneau Empire)

University of Alaska Southeast professor of environmental science Christian Kienholz gets his drone ready for flight on a rock outcrop near Suicide Basin on Friday, June 21, 2019. (Nolin Ainsworth | Juneau Empire)

Drones on ice: Scientists take to the air to study Suicide Basin

UAS students use drones for environmental science research

Standing over an iceberg-littered Suicide Basin on a sunny Friday, University of Alaska Southeast environmental science professor Christian Kienholz gives some background on glacier lake outburst floods, or jökulhlaups, that originate here.

“There’s some kind of pipe that it finds down there and then it just drains,” said Kienholz, making a small circle with his thumb and pointer finger. “It might be a small pipe at the beginning, a small conduit, and because you have more and more water going out, it’s this exponential increase of this pipe.”

A number of local scientists are studying changes to Suicide Basin, but Kienholz is one of the only ones using drones to analyze ice and water levels in the basin. The use of drones for environmental monitoring has become so common in the professional arena that Kienholz started to teach the methods to students.

“The whole glacier is thinning, it changes year to year, so we’re using drones to measure how fast the ice dam is thinning because that affects the volume of water that can be stored behind the ice dam,” Kienholz said.

Suicide Basin, with Suicide Glacier in the top left corner, seen on Friday, June 21, 2019. (Nolin Ainsworth | Juneau Empire)

Suicide Basin, with Suicide Glacier in the top left corner, seen on Friday, June 21, 2019. (Nolin Ainsworth | Juneau Empire)

Most Juneau residents first became acquainted with Suicide Basin in 2011, when water from the bowl adjacent to the Mendenhall Glacier flooded Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall River. The jökulhlaup has taken place every summer since then, sometimes flooding riverside homes and campsites.

The Suicide Glacier, a hanging glacier located high above the basin, once occupied Suicide Basin. However, sometime in the last 30 years, the glacier split in two parts, with the lower part eventually forming a lake bordered on one side by the Mendenhall Glacier.

The aerial images collected from the drones — flown in a grid pattern over the basin— are turned into photo maps and digital elevation models using special software. By taking comparing these maps and models over time, Kienholz and others can measure things like the lowering of the ice dam, volume of ice in the basin and how much water has left the basin in a flooding event.

Christian Kienholz, research assistant professor of environmental science at the University of Alaska Southeast, speaks with Gabriel Wolken, research assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, while surveying Suicide Basin using a drone on Friday, June 21, 2019. (Nolin Ainsworth | Juneau Empire)

Christian Kienholz, research assistant professor of environmental science at the University of Alaska Southeast, speaks with Gabriel Wolken, research assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, while surveying Suicide Basin using a drone on Friday, June 21, 2019. (Nolin Ainsworth | Juneau Empire)

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Alaska Climate Adaption Science Center have worked closely with UAS to carry out the research.

“We’re doing all the drone work and elevation models, but then we use all the USGS products to actually analyze it more in depth,” Kienholz said. “We’re tracking it over time and seeing how the water is going up using camera images.”

Skye Hart, 20, was one of the students in the drones class, and is helping with the research on Suicide Basin. In the class, students learned drone operation, photogrammetry, GIS (Geographic Information System) skills and GPS skills while studying the erosion of the banks of the Mendenhall River.

“It was really relevant to what we do now,” Hart said. “I get to learn more about what we did in the class and actually use the skills I learned directly.”


• Contact reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or nainsworth@juneauempire.com.


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