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The Last of the Glaciers

By Lindsay Parker

Grinnell Glacier and Upper Grinnell Lake

Grinnell Glacier and Upper Grinnell Lake

You may look at the photo above and only see a patch of leftover snow. However, this is one of the few remaining glaciers in Glacier National Park (GNP). In 1850, the park held an estimated 150 glaciers whereas today, less than 25 remain. Experts predict that by 2030, they will disappear completely. This rapid geological recession is largely a result of climate change; many are disappearing faster than predicted.

A hike for climate change awareness!

For these reasons, I joined a group of environmental activists to explore the park, to learn about the ecology, to see the namesake glaciers first hand before they are gone, and to hear what we can do about it. I signed up for a 5 day, 45-mile hike organized by Climate Ride, a non-profit organization that supports fundraising and awareness for environmental causes by arranging life changing hikes and bike rides throughout the country.

I was joined by a friendly bunch of volunteers from Citizens Climate Lobby, a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots advocacy organization, with the aim to pass positive legislation that addresses climate change. Together, we were led and educated by local guides well-versed in the park’s history, landscape and ecology. The experience renewed my awareness of our precious natural resources and of the urgent need to protect them.

Lake Josephine and purple wild fireweed

Lake Josephine and purple wild fireweed

As part of our trip through GNP, our group hiked to the banks of the Grinnell Glacier. We started by trekking almost 4 miles along the tiny trail etched into the mountainside, viewing steep drop-offs, Lake Josephine, beautiful alpine meadows replete with wildflowers and a few big-horn sheep. After some steep inclines and freezing rain, we reached the remnants of the tiny glacier. Grinnell Glacier Overlook offered views of the 152-acre glacier, the Garden Wall (Continental Divide), Upper Grinnell Lake and the 9,553-foot Mt. Gould. It was breathtaking to see something so old up close.

Glaciers and climate

Glaciers are geological wonders. They are large, dynamic packs of snow and ice that are formed when snow melts slower than it collects. The glaciers in GNP were part of the last ice age, formed approximately 7,000 years ago. Glaciers grow and recede based on climate, making them a perfect indicator of long term shifts in climate.

Iceberg in Upper Grinnell Lake below Grinnell Glacier

Iceberg in Upper Grinnell Lake below Grinnell Glacier

While they typically grow during the winter, overall, glaciers are retreating due to higher temperatures and a reduced snowfall. During the summer, glacial ice melt cools streams and regulates water flow. Without this glacier melt, increased stream temperatures and lower water levels affect local aquatic species adversely, including the endangered bull trout. Warming temperatures bring a real threat to biodiversity, especially the 140 plant and animal species living in GNP that are listed as “Species of Special Concern.”

Wildfires and other effects of climate change

As if receding glaciers isn’t enough to contend with, some of the largest wildfires are sweeping through the Western states this year. Sixteen wildfires are burning in Washington State, impacting over 920 square miles and threatening more than 12,000 homes. This includes the fire in Okanagan County, which is the largest single fire that the state has ever seen. In California, over 120 wildfires have already occurred this year.

If temperatures continue to rise, wildfire impacts are estimated to double by late this century, with special impact on Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah. According to one study, “fire season has gotten longer for more than quarter of the Earth’s vegetated surface, from 1979 to 2013. Globally, fire weather season increased by nearly 19%.”

Smoke from Reynolds Creek Wildfire in Glacier National Park

Smoke from Reynolds Creek Wildfire in Glacier National Park

A main culprit of increased wildfire activity is climate change. A few factors fueling the infernos are:

  1. record-high temperatures,

  2. low-humidity levels,

  3. mega-droughts since 2010,

  4. dry vegetation, and

  5. lightning from increased thunderstorms.

In addition, warmer temperatures and droughts weaken trees and supply prime conditions for infectious insects that contribute to tree death and further tinder for the fires. Furthermore, global warming creates a feedback-loop, where CO2-absorbant trees burn, releasing carbon, effectively exacerbating the problem.

In 2015 alone, the Forest Service will spend an estimated $1.7 billion and use 10,000 people to combat wildfires. The sooner policy makers and the public understand the affect climate change is having on the duration, intensity and frequency of wildfires, the sooner they can develop better responses to handle them.

Call for action

This all sounds pretty bleak, right? Well, below are a few ways to make an impact, as suggested by the National Wildlife Federation:

Personally, I recommend visiting the park, supporting the National Park Service, and remembering that living sustainably isn’t just about your monthly energy bill, but about something much bigger.

Lindsay Parker is a Texas native with a Masters of Public Policy focused on energy and climate policy from the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany. She is currently working at the U.S. Department of Energy on energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. When she’s not hiking, she enjoys choir, running, swing dancing, and yoga.



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