Montana’s ‘Argus’ prototype projects glaciers where they once were

In 2068, an augmented reality program takes hold of its designer.

 

This fictional short story is part of our Speculative Journalism Issue, where we imagine stories from a West under climate stress in 2068.

For the past two years, Frannie Tarn, a tech developer at Glacier National Park, has attempted to correct a lie — the one that appears in the park’s name. Since the 2030s, the park’s remaining glaciers have melted past the point of being active, and most have completely disappeared. The park is left with a permanently nostalgic moniker. In 2066, the National Park Service tasked Tarn with resurrecting the glaciers digitally in the agency’s latest augmented reality project. Its working title is “Argus.”

Argus, still in its prototype stage, is currently available on just three sets of goggles, housed at the research station. Put the goggles on, walk around the park, and the misnomer is momentarily corrected: The glaciers appear in front of you, digitally projected onto the mountain faces where they once rested. “If you walk too close to them, the technology starts to glitch out a bit,” Tarn told me. “But from the trails, the glaciers are just right there, looking real. It’s pretty striking.” 

I first learned about Argus from reading about it in a Park Service annual budget report. No one outside the agency had seen the results, and the project appeared to be stalled. I wondered why. Martin Shafer, a longtime Parks tech developer, is Argus’ lead designer. When I called to ask about the project, he explained that a lack of funding had put it at a standstill. Then, toward the end of our conversation, he mentioned Tarn.

“She’s been spending a lot of time in the headset,” he said. “It’s just us two up at the station these days, and I rarely see her because of how often she’s out using Argus. It’s probably fine, but I’m not sure what to think.”

For Tarn, they are the most visceral, concrete symbol of a world she can never live in.

Zoë van Dijk for High Country News

WEST GLACIER, MONTANA, a gateway town to the park, is home to a Park Service field station. In March, when I visited, autonomous buses zoomed crowds up mountain roads on guided tours, allowing people to see the park’s mountains without budging from their seats. Bullet trains deliver visitors from Missoula in 30 minutes. Some wealthier locals come for the pop-up restaurants, where they can try cocktails dashed with moose milk. People swarm the park in the spring, to escape the city’s density, but few will visit later on, when the wildfires start.

The field station is a modest one-story structure on the edge of town, cheaply built from concrete for fire protection. Schafer greeted me, as Tarn hadn’t returned from the field. He showed me around the place, which didn’t take long, and we chatted about other park projects.

A half hour later, Tarn arrived, wearing bright red hiking shorts, her short hair smashed into tufts by the headset’s gray straps. She only remembered to remove it when she caught me staring. “Sorry,” she said breathlessly, smiling. “We made the goggles so comfortable! And the lenses are UV-shielding, so these are also my fieldwork sunglasses.”

We walked down to the Middle Fork Flathead River, which cuts through town, to talk. Tarn’s family fled Salinas, California, when flooding intensified, and she grew up in Missoula. She developed her virtual design portfolio in Missoula’s influential startup scene, working for Google’s autonomous vehicle programs. She helped develop software for mountainous neighborhoods, sharpening cars’ ability to find escape routes from fires in the Northern Rockies.

Since being hired for the Argus project, though, she’s thought about nothing else. She told me that she seldom sees her family, even when she’s in Missoula doing archival research on the glaciers.

“It’s a demanding load. Basically, we’re never finished,” Tarn said. “We could always render the glaciers with more accuracy. I think it’s our duty to honor them, down to every last pixel.” When I asked Shafer about this, he respectfully disagreed. “With no funding, it doesn’t make sense for us to spend entire days on this, now that it’s become a pet project,” he said. “I think she’s overestimating what Argus could become.”

“With no funding, it doesn’t make sense for us to spend entire days on this, now that it’s become a pet project. I think she’s overestimating what Argus could become.”

The project, much like its subjects, is drying up. A Park Service spokesperson wouldn’t elaborate on why Argus is being phased out, saying only that “experimental ventures often must be put on hold as we redefine our public role.” Shafer believes that Congress is wary of the depressing worldview that technology like Argus might promote. The agency is already struggling financially, with tourism shrinking during increasingly hot and smoky years.

In 2031, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its second-annual crisis report, glaciers got little attention compared to other goals — reaching zero carbon emissions, setting refugee policies and outlining coastal relocation plans. On page 357, there’s one sentence: “Glacier National Park has noted the dramatic retreat of its last glaciers, rendering them inactive.”

But Tarn clings to the memory of the glaciers themselves, unlike her fellow researchers who deal with the ongoing consequences of their absence, like drought and disappearing species. Tarn’s parents, who witnessed the glaciers’ final years, always said: Our mountains and valleys couldn’t have been carved without them. The cold water they released fed animals and plants for centuries. For Tarn, they are the most visceral, concrete symbol of a world she can never live in.

“I’ve always felt that way, even if I’ve never really seen one,” she told me.

TARN LED ME INTO THE ARGUS “LAB,” which sprouts from the research station’s living room wall. A broad desk and curved screens dominated the space and cast a soft blue glow onto the room.

She touched the screen, and images appeared. The U.S. Geological Survey has a database of glacier pictures, taken from identical lookout spots over many decades; the first images date to the early 1900s. Tarn scrolled through more than a century’s worth, lingering on a black-and-white shot of the Boulder Glacier ice cave. Taken from a distance in 1932, it shows a mammoth chunk of frozen water, blindingly white and scored with ridges, an arched opening leading into a dark tunnel in the center. Four men in suspenders stand on sheets of ice at the cave’s entrance.

Tarn stared at the screen. “Sometimes, after taking off the headset, it takes a second for me to adjust,” she said. “I have to remind myself that this is all gone.”

I asked Tarn about Argus’ financial prospects; her commitment to the doomed project seemed to reveal a rift within the agency. She acknowledged that they were struggling, but said she hoped that she and Shafer could find the money somewhere. We had not been talking an hour before she suddenly announced that she needed to do some more tests.

“How many hours do you spend on that?” I asked her as she pulled the headset back over her eyes.

“I have to be in it a lot when I’m working.”

“How many hours?”

She pointed to a corner of the screen, where the program tracks her daily average time in the goggles: “12:02:19,” it read.

“Sometimes, after taking off the headset, it takes a second for me to adjust. I have to remind myself that this is all gone.”

Many people have become functionally attached to augmented reality. Even public schools have relaxed their restrictions on headset time in class. But had Tarn been spending too much time with Argus? It seemed to me, I told her, that she was clocking in headset hours worthy of Auggers, the online community dedicated to abandoning the real world for that of self-coded realities.

“This is my work, so I think it’s a little different,” she said. “It also seems important that what I’m immersing myself in … it was once real,” she said. “This isn’t a fantasy world that I created.” For her, being inside the world of Argus seemed almost like penance.

THE FOLLOWING DAY, Tarn and I began a two-day trip to the Boulder Glacier. We hiked all day to a helipad, and the chopper delivered us to the trail nearest to Boulder Mountain, just north of the Continental Divide. Before it disappeared, the glacier called this area home. We approached the peak, which skews sharply out of the earth like a colossal cruise ship hull. No matter how much I thought about the glaciers, the heat distracted me, and the mountain looked naked: All rock, no ice.

Tarn didn’t give me the headset until we reached the foot of the peak itself, a precarious, sloped surface. I put the goggles on, stretching the gray straps over my hair. At first, the single transparent lens was noticeable, but my eyes quickly adjusted. It was miraculously clean, and I barely felt the foam perimeter on my forehead and cheeks. Then Tarn pressed a button on the side.

Suddenly, the Boulder Glacier ice cave snapped into view. It glistened in front of me, long and cavernous, its shape reminiscent of blue whales I had seen in pictures. I found it difficult to focus on one feature. It seemed to sweat in certain places, as if it responded to the same sunlight under which I stood. The cave opening in the middle looked dark, gnarled and impossibly cold.

I had never seen so much ice in my life. I wanted to see inside the cave, to be dwarfed by it, and I thought of what it would feel like to the touch. I began walking forward.

“Stand back!” Tarn said, putting her hand on my shoulder. At first, I thought it was a technical warning — the illusion could glitch if I got too close. But when I looked back at her, she was gazing at the exact space where the cave’s opening would be. Tarn wore no goggles — by now, she could see into the past without them. She knew where the glacier should have been, and she didn’t want me to spoil the picture.

Elena Saavedra Buckley, a former High Country News fellow, firmly believes that virtual and augmented reality will change the world. While she fears the technology, she trusts that there will be beauty, and sadness, worth experiencing within the goggles, contacts, or brain implants. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

STORY NOTES: In 1910, when Glacier National Park was established, 150 glaciers, all over 25 acres, clung to the park’s mountain ranges. In 2015, only 26 remained. As spring and summer temperatures rise, and precipitation falls more as rain than snow, the park’s glaciers and others around the world continue to retreat. In 2003, one model predicted that, under carbon dioxide-induced global warming, the glaciers in the Blackfoot-Jackson Glacier Basin of the park would disappear by 2030. (“It was conjectured that if the largest glaciers disappeared by 2030, most of the smaller ones would probably disappear too,” Daniel Fagre, a USGS researcher who helped author the paper, told a NASA publication in 2015.) Other models are more optimistic, one predicting that certain glaciers will last through 2080.

Sources: Brown, J., Harper, J., & Humphrey, N. (2010). Cirque glacier sensitivity to 21st century warming: Sperry Glacier, Rocky Mountains, USA. Global and Planetary Change, 74(2), 91-98.

Dzaugis, M.P., D.R. Reidmiller, C.W. Avery, A. Crimmins, L. Dahlman, D.R. Easterling, R. Gaal, E. Greenhalgh, D. Herring, K.E. Kunkel, R. Lindsey, T.K. Maycock, R. Molar, B.C. Stewart, and R.S. Vose, 2018: Frequently Asked Questions. In Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 1444–1515.

Hall, M. H., & Fagre, D. B. (2003). Modeled Climate-Induced Glacier Change in Glacier National Park, 1850–2100. BioScience, 53(2), 131.

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