Article by Maryann Gaug
As we explore Glacier National Park during our conference, we may hear about shrinking glaciers. Could the park become glacierless in the future?
I recently stumbled upon an interesting book that focuses on a five-year study of six glaciers in the park — The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers, by science writer and naturalist Christopher White. I decided to download it to my iPad to see what I could learn.
Before writing The Melting World, White tagged along with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) team that performed glacial studies between 2008 and 2012. Bottom line, the park’s glaciers are shrinking. Some have shrunk enough that they are now considered snowfields, which don’t slide downhill like glaciers. For quick reference, in 1850 the park reportedly contained 150 alpine glaciers. By 1966, the number had been reduced to 37. An aerial survey in 2005 documented 27 remaining glaciers. Some predictions estimate the remaining ones will vanish by 2030 (or sooner). White also notes studies on other glaciers worldwide, most of which are suffering the same fate as Glacier’s.
The book takes you through the natural history of Glacier’s glaciers as well as a short history of the park’s creation. White intersperses some of his own mountaineering adventures along the way. Being a nerdy type, I enjoyed the descriptions of the USGS team’s survey methods and adventures while studying their different subjects. In addition to surveying the changing boundaries of a glacier, measuring the ice mass and thickness is also important in determining its health.
The glaciers are not only the main attraction of the park — they are also an intricate part of Glacier’s ecosystems. White discusses some of the interactions and how the disappearance of the glaciers may influence the plants and animals of the park. Glaciers store snow and ice that melt gradually throughout the warmer months. Without them, water runoff might diminish, causing problems for everything from stoneflies to westslope cutthroat trout to crop irrigation and human consumption. With temperatures increasing in the Glacier area (evidenced by shrinking glaciers), the snow and rain patterns are changing. Interestingly, the occurrences of avalanches may change, affecting everything from forest fire patterns to wildlife habitat. White notes evidence of trees and plants growing into high alpine meadows. The little pika, who makes its home above tree line, may sometime in the future run out of alpine tundra in which to live. Another concern about the changing glacial scene is the potential loss of biodiversity.
The book also touches on the topic of ice sheets and glaciers melting due to temperatures rising on average across the earth. Meltwaters will create a rise in sea levels (potentially displacing millions of people). Shrinking/disappearing ice could cause water shortages in countries like India and a change in the natural balance that creates the climate we’re used to. A way to think about climate and weather is “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”
If you have time, check out this book for an interesting behind-the-scenes look at Glacier’s glaciers. For a quick look, go to the USGS site about glacial retreat at http://www.nrmsc.usgs.gov/research/glacier_retreat.htm.
See you in Glacier!