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Diving Into Mt. Hood's Glacier Caves

OPB | Oct. 10, 2013 12:06 p.m. | Updated: Oct. 10, 2013 2:06 p.m.

Under the Sandy Glacier on the northwest side of Mt. Hood there’s over a mile of a mysterious ice tunnels. The system consists of three distinct caves: Snow Dragon (discovered in the mid-2000s), Pure Imagination, and Frozen Minotaur (both discovered in 2011). Together, they may be the largest glacier cave system in the lower 48 states.

Until recently, very little was known about these caves, because they are so hard to find, and so few people have the skill or inclination to navigate them. But Eddy Cartaya and Brent McGregor have spent the last few years going to the Sandy Glacier caves over a dozen times, mapping every passage and corner of the vast underground system.

Glacier exploration is a race against time. Unlike a limestone cave, for example, which can exist for millions of years largely unchanged, glacier caves are delicate. They are often created when a glacier has become too thin due to climate change, which allows for gaps in the ice. Warm air can then enter the glacier, melting out those gaps. Scientists believe that as more warm air enters and as water runs along the edges of the cave, more ice melts, accelerating the expansion of the cave. Within decades the caves can disappear entirely.

OPB’s Oregon Field Guide and EarthFix teams have collaborated on an extensive multimedia investigation of the caves and the people exploring them. We’ll hear from the reporting team, and from Cartaya, about Mt. Hood’s labyrinthine underground ice world.

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