Disappearing Glaciers – their impact effects us all

Melting World bookMost Americans have never visited Glacier National Park, which straddles northern Montana and southern Canada. Yet these beautiful ice-rock formations provide more than sixty five percent of the world’s fresh water – for drinking, irrigation, and for hydroelectric power.

The glaciers at Glacier National Park are disappearing faster than anywhere else in the world, says Christopher White, author of the new book “THE MELTING WORLD: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers.

White has climbed and explored numerous glaciers including those on Mt. St. Helens (before it blew, he said), Mt. McKinley, Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier.

Deeply moved by how our glaciers are disappearing, White recognizes that glaciers are an indicator of what’s happening with climate change.

“It’s a simple relationship between glaciers and the atmosphere – the hotter the atmosphere, the quicker the ice melts.”

Glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate

Glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate, photo courtesy of Christopher White

“Heat melts ice,” he stressed.

Glacier National Park, White says, is on a fast track to having all its glaciers disappear.

To put things in perspective, in 1850, there were 150 glaciers in the area now known as Glacier National Park. Established as a National Park in 1910, by the 1900’s more than two-thirds of these were gone.

When White joined what became a five year project to measure the glaciers in the Park, there were 27 glaciers. Today there are 25.

White said what’s happening there is what’s going to happen 20, 30, 50 years down the road in the Alps, the Andes and the Himalayas.

Melting glaciers and dramatically reduced snowpack are already effecting water supplies worldwide. Water scarcity is being felt in such diverse areas as Peru, many Middle Eastern countries, Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa. In the United States we’re seeing water shortages created by the lingering drought in Texas and parts of the Midwest.

A newer view of the above glacier shows the shocking difference a few years makes

A newer view of the above glacier shows the shocking difference a few years makes, photo courtesy of Christopher White

Humans aren’t the only ones effected.

“Alpine ice feeds innumerable watersheds that harbor ecosystems crucial to fish and wildlife,” writes White.

.White found many effects of glacier melt that never anticipated.

Avalanches in the Park are more frequent now because of global warming, he said.

Known for its cold winters, Montana now has rain in January, something unheard of before the past few years. “This,” says White, “has prompted more avalanches across the road in areas where there weren’t any for 50 to 100 years!”

There’s another consequence of melting glaciers. Glacier National Park’s native trout are in trouble.

Cutthroat trout need the cold glacial water to survive. As the streams become warmer, exotic rainbow trout that had been brought in from the West Coast are interbreeding with those cutthroat trout that survive, hybridizing them and essentially wiping out the native fish.

There are natural cycles to the ebb and flow, or Ice Ages, of glaciers.

Montana’s mountains have been warmer. What’s different from today, said White, is that when the mountains began melting 18,000 years ago, changes happened over thousands of years.

“It was a slow change over time,” he said.

Today, says White, “the local plants and animals can’t adapt. They can’t respond gracefully to this happening in 50 years, (this) cataclysmic event. It’s the speed of things that are happening that’s so dangerous for ecology.

“It’s like dominos falling down the mountain,” he said. “As the glaciers are melting, the dominos are knocking over the ecological resources one after the other,” he said.

Researcher taking updated GPS readings to measure changes in the glacier

Researcher taking updated GPS readings to measure changes in the glacier, photo courtesy of Christopher White

Glaciers are in retreat. “We’re losing over 3 acres of glaciers a year,” said White.

“Glacier National Park is one of the best barometers of climate change in North America,” he writes.

White partnered for this project with Dan Fagre (pronounced fa’ gray), a climate scientist and ecologist with the U.S. Geological Society (USGS).  In 2003, Fagre – who’d been monitoring these glaciers for twenty years – predicted the remaining glaciers had thirty years left—until 2033. Ten years later he has revised his forecast to 2020.

The main culprit is believed to be greenhouse gases, which have been escaping into the atmosphere for years from factories, automobiles, airplanes and a myriad of sources around the globe.

This carbon will have an effect twenty to forty years from now, said White. “We’re up against a wall.”

The UN International Panel on Climate Change said in 2007 that if the CO2 level doubled (560 parts per million), global temperatures will go well over 5 to 7 degrees.

A model done by the University of Zürich that showed if there’s a 5 degrees F. increase in global temperatures, 80 percent of glaciers in Alps will disappear. If there was a 9 degree F. increase, all the glaciers of the Alps will be gone.

In just a century, CO2 levels have increased more than 40 percent. This past spring, levels rose to over 400 parts / million.

“That’s a hugely significant moment, White said.

“It’s an international problem, he noted. “It requires the action of nations.”

One wonders if Glacier National Park will keep its historic designation once the glaciers are gone?

By 2020, the entire park could look like this - no snow and no glaciers

By 2020, the entire park could look like this – no snow and no glaciers

The response by the National Park Service to this question is that Glacier National Park earns its name as a national Park for two reasons:

  1. Because of the present day glaciers and
  2. Because the mountains there were caused by glaciers from the Pleistocene era, which sculpted the park.

So the Park Service says it still warrants being called a national park.

But, says White, “it’s going to be a shock to everyone in the country when that happens (the glaciers are gone).”

Glacier National Park glaciers are lost, said White, “but what can we learn from it. “If we act now, we can save the Himalayas.”

“THE MELTING WORLD: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers” is a thought-provoking, easily read and important book. You can find it at some libraries and online at Amazon.

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