The big drip 

Why Glacier National Park’s namesakes are melting, and why we should care

Like the melting snows of Kilimanjaro, the shrinking glaciers of Glacier National Park have been stamped on the public consciousness as ominous symbols of global warming.

When explorers first climbed into our high alpine valleys more than a century ago, they discovered 150 glaciers. Today, there are only 26. The ones that remain are rapidly disintegrating—so quickly that this corner of Montana, which has had glaciers since the Stone Age, is expected to have none by 2030.

The ecologist who’s making that prediction is Dan Fagre, the leader of the U.S. Geological Survey team studying global warming in these mountains.

It’s been known for many years that the park’s glaciers have been retreating. As early as 1927, for instance, George Bird Grinnell, the conservationist who championed the park’s establishment, was dismayed when, as an old man, he revisited the glacier named for him and found it much smaller than when he’d first seen it in the 19th century.

But in the late-’90s when Fagre, feeding data into computers in collaboration with another scientist, actually predicted the date of the last glacier’s disappearance, it was still stunning—almost like saying Yellowstone’s Old Faithful was about to stop erupting.

Fagre sounded the death knell for Glacier’s namesakes, and through the media attention that followed, he brought the consequences of climate change close to home for many Americans for the first time.

When his computers churned out that 2030 date, “it surprised me,” Fagre says now. “We expect geological phenomena not to change quickly. There’s an inherent bias. We think that because glaciers are here now, they’ve always been here and will always be here. It was a bit of a jolt even for me to see that they will disappear within our lifetime.”

Fagre is discussing global warming, ironically enough, as a near-blizzard howls through the park. “It’s really pounding down out there,” he says from his office in the cluster of park headquarters buildings at West Glacier. “It’s a wild day. Believe it or not, this is a very busy time of the year for our research. But then it’s pretty hectic year-round. We’re going lickety-split right now.”

Fagre is racing against time, trying to learn as much as possible about the park’s glaciers while they last.

Remote, high-altitude glaciers are receding around the world—in Alaska, the Swiss Alps, the high Andes, and even in Iceland. But Glacier’s vanishing ice is more accessible—there are glaciers at the elevation of Bozeman.

That’s offering scientists a close-up view of a momentous event. Seven thousand years ago, glaciers sculpted the park’s magnificent landforms—the steep mountain peaks, the knife-edge ridges and the hanging valleys. And in only another quarter-century—less than the blink of an eye in geological time—the last vestiges of this ancient ice will be gone. For the past 13 years, the 50-year-old Fagre and his team have been working overtime to make the most of their opportunity to watch these glaciers take their leave of Earth.

They have analyzed more than 100 years of regional climate data to differentiate natural fluctuations from long-term trends. On skis and snowshoes, they have trudged throughout the million-acre park, taking nearly 10,000 snowfall measurements. Standing in the glaciers’ meltwater streams, they have even counted frog eggs to chronicle ecological damage from the warming climate.

One thing they have learned is that the disappearance of glaciers may not be the most important result of climate change in the park. Fagre now is warning against the possibility of worsening droughts and wildfires in northwest Montana’s 21st century. Even our fat trout aren’t likely to escape the coming changes.

More on that later. First, it’s important to consider the cause of all of this. And that brings us back to the glaciers, which in their dying days have become a lively topic of political debate.

Scientists no longer question the existence of global warming. (Worldwide temperatures have increased 1 degree F over the past century. A National Academy of Sciences panel assembled by the Bush administration itself affirmed the reality of global warming in 2001.) And virtually everyone agrees that humans are at least partly responsible through the emission of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide in the soot from smokestacks and tailpipes.

But there is considerable argument over just how much human activity is to blame. Since the melting of glaciers is one of the most observable signs of global warming, these charismatic geological features are at the center of the quarrel.

According to park naturalists, it has dawned on even the most casual tourists that something’s wrong. The pictures tell the story for many.

Conveniently, the park owns an archive of 12,000 photographs dating back to the 19th century. To make comparisons with the aging photos, Fagre’s researchers retook many pictures of glaciers from the same locations. Sometimes, inconveniently, that required trekking into the backcountry for days to reach the same viewpoints.

Before-and-after pictures of Grinnell Glacier, which has lost 90 percent of its volume since 1850 and retreated by more than 3,000 feet, hang in the park’s Apgar visitor center. These are disturbing images for visitors, many of whom come to the park mainly to see glaciers.

“People are very concerned. A lot of them ask, ‘What are you going to call the park once the glaciers are gone?’ And they want to know whether it’s caused by global warming,” says Bill Schustrom, a retired Whitefish High School science teacher who works summers as a park naturalist. “I tell them that’s something the park is working on.”

In 1997, then-Vice President Al Gore chose the park as the stage for a speech about global warming. At Many Glacier Hotel, Gore warned that the park faced “a grave threat to its heritage.” In 30 years, he quipped, “to borrow a phrase from a well-known pop musician, this could become the Park Formerly Known as Glacier.

“What’s happening at Glacier National Park,” Gore said, “is strong evidence of global warming over the past century—the disruption of our climate because of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, all over the world.”

He called for reductions in fossil-fuel emissions from power plants and warned that human-caused climate change is not only melting glaciers but could eventually trigger floods on the Gulf Coast, endanger “countless varieties of fish,” and cause trees in New Hampshire’s White Mountains to stop changing colors with the seasons, among other economic and environmental calamities. He asked Americans “to start facing up to our responsibility” to the planet, “not just for the sake of these glaciers, but for the sake of our children.”

Far-right conservatives, who believe global warming is a liberal hoax aimed at strangling free enterprise, were predictably quick to pounce. One self-described think tank, the National Center for Public Policy Research, derided Gore for “exaggerations, spins and outright untruths.”

“Glaciers provide a nice photo op for speeches on global warming,” the center opined. “But scientists disagree with Gore’s belief that past behavior of one or a few glaciers can reliably be used as a predictor of future global temperature.”

That criticism didn’t deter environmentalists from embracing the glaciers as a kind of cause celebre in the fight against global warming. The Bush administration fueled the furor by taking office and almost immediately abandoning the Kyoto treaty, which would have required three dozen developed nations to reduce greenhouse gases.

The Sierra Club’s website now features dramatically alternating, now-you-see it, now-you-don’t pictures of Boulder Glacier. That glacier, once massive, has been gone since 1998. On the National Parks Conservation Association’s website, the group’s representative at Glacier, Steve Thompson, says: “At current projections, Glacier’s glaciers will all be puddles in less than 30 years…The Bush administration should do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to this trend.”

The rhetoric makes many scientists wince. Glaciers take decades to respond to warming. Scientists say today’s loss of glaciers is at least in large part the result of residual warming from the end of the Little Ice Age, a period from 1450 to 1890 when temperatures were a few degrees colder. It’s not known how much of the melting is caused by more recent heating of the planet. Glacier Park’s glaciers actually made their most drastic retreats between 1920 and 1940, scientists say, when human activities could hardly have been responsible.

“Virtually all the glaciers on the planet are disappearing,” Fagre says. “Taken together, that’s strong evidence that the globe is warming. But it doesn’t say what the cause is. All it says is that the world is warming up. There isn’t any measurement we can make on a glacier that says how much is natural and how much is caused by humans. As far as a glacier is concerned, it’s just the climate.”

nd it’s not just temperatures that affect glaciers. Precipitation is the second part of the glacial calculus. Fagre has been studying an El Nino-like Pacific Ocean pattern that can dramatically affect snowfall in the northern Rocky Mountains. This pattern, for much of the last century, has brought considerably less snow than normal. That itself may partly explain why the glaciers are shrinking.

Climate data indicate the pattern is shifting, which could mean colder and wetter decades ahead. That could cause Fagre to tweak his prediction that the glaciers will vanish by 2030. But the overall warming trend will cause the park to lose its glaciers by the end of the century in any case, he says.

Fagre and his team are paying close attention to other changes throughout the park, part of what scientists call “a cascade effect” and evidence of an ecosystem out of balance. Plants are shifting their ranges to higher elevations, for instance. Once-ice-covered high-alpine meadows are filling with fir trees.

The warmer climate will make forests grow more quickly, but that’s likely to increase the frequency and severity of wildfires, Fagre says.

“A thunderstorm going through could hardly drop a lightning bolt without starting a fire because of heavy fuel loads everywhere,” Fagre says.

Mountains are the water towers of the world, and glaciers feed much-needed summer water to drier farms and valleys. Without glaciers, more frequent droughts are thought to be likely in the land below.

Trout and other cold-water fish will be threatened with loss of their habitat by the warming of lakes and streams. A 2002 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife estimated that global warming could cost trout and salmon nearly 40 percent of their habitat by the year 2090.

Although stream flow and temperatures have already begun to alter, these consequences of climate change are undetectable to park visitors. It’s the glaciers that are making people think about global warming and how to combat it.

In the short run, there’s not much chance of stopping a great deal of the damage, but agreements like the Kyoto treaty might slow things down and give ecosystems a better chance to adapt, scientists say.

According to Fagre, though, nothing can save Glaciers’ glaciers.

“I’ve always been fascinated by glaciers,” he says. “I certainly would like to have glaciers continue to be a part of Glacier National Park in the future, but I probably will have to go to Alaska to see glaciers after 2030.”

Some friends of the park are more philosophical than others about the changes.

“It’s just a natural process that in this case may be accelerated somewhat by human activity,” says Joe Decker, a park naturalist.

“The Earth abides. Whether we as human beings remain part of it over the next thousands of years remains to be seen.”

For many locals and visitors, there’s also a sense of regret. It’s the loss of beauty, and of something hard to describe—an elemental connection to history that they feel through glaciers.

Whitefish’s Doug Follett, who is 77 and has given nature talks at the park for 43 summers, says he feels it. Maybe 100 times, by his count, he has hiked 10 miles into the backcountry so he could set foot on Sperry Glacier.

“It’s amazing how many people don’t just want to look at glaciers, but they want to stand on glaciers and touch glaciers,” he says. “It’s like going to the sea. Glaciers are one of the fundamental change-makers on the face of the Earth. People want to be able to stand on the eternal things. So we’re all really impressed by the melting of these glaciers. Mostly, though, we’re just sad.”

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