National Geographic
Menu

Glacier National Park Prepares for Ice-Free Future

Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard hike up to Grinnell Glacier.

Allie Goldstein (left) and Kirsten Howard hike up to Grinnell Glacier.

Text and photos by Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard

Our hike up to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park winds through alpine meadows, along the edge of ice-cut cliffs, up a waterfall staircase, and around a stubborn ram. The views are breathtaking in the most literal sense of that word.

The three lakes filling the valley below us are an impossible blue. As the trail cuts back and forth, we catch glimpses of Grinnell’s steel white face. And then finally, we’re there, standing at the edge of a giant ice bath as two young boys skip rocks across the mirroring water.

Though beautiful, the hike feels a bit like a hospice visit. Grinnell Glacier has lost 90 percent of its ice in the last century. Of the 150 glaciers that speckled Glacier National Park at its founding in 1910, only 25 remain. The latest predictions indicate that all of the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone by 2030. Cause of death: slow retreat due to temperature rise.

A glacier is defined as a body of snow and ice that moves, and when a glacier dwindles to 25 acres or less in size, it lacks the mass that gives it mobility. It begins to break up into smaller chunks, each year shrinking more in the summer than it grows in the winter. And then, one day—probably in August—it flickers out. So we’re meeting Grinnell Glacier for the first time, but we’re also saying goodbye.

Looking at repeat photography images of Grinnell Glacier in 1887 and 2008 while Park Interpreter Bob Schuster talks to a captive audience about why the glaciers are disappearing.

Looking at repeat photography images of Grinnell Glacier in 1887 and 2008 while Park Interpreter Bob Schuster talks to a captive audience about why the glaciers are disappearing.

The Glacial Face of Climate Change

These days, more and more visitors to Glacier National Park are coming to pay their respects to the last of the powerful ice bodies that carved this landscape. Lisa McKeon, a physical scientist at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in West Glacier, Montana, has noticed a new attitude among park visitors to “see the glaciers before they’re gone.” The 2030 expiration date for the glaciers—though only one approximation—sticks out in people’s minds as their deadline to experience the Park’s namesakes.

The connection between glacial retreat and climate change is pretty straightforward. Since 1900, the mean annual temperature in Glacier National Park has increased by 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1.3 degrees Celsius)—1.8 times the global mean increase. Snowmelt is occurring up to a month earlier, and more precipitation is falling as rain rather than snow. Though glaciers have grown and retreated throughout geological history as Ice Ages come and go, the rate of glacial retreat currently occurring is unprecedented and can only be explained by the warming effect of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

For many Park visitors, the retreating glaciers provide physical evidence of a phenomenon—climate change—that is otherwise so global and decadal in scale as to be unobservable. And McKeon is actually one of the main reasons visitors are now able to “see” climate change. Since 1997, she has run the repeat photography project out of USGS’s Global Change Research Center in Glacier. McKeon finds a photograph from the early 1900s, then goes out to the exact spot the image was taken at the same time of year and snaps a new one. Sometimes, the change is so dramatic that it’s hard to believe the two photographs were taken in the same place.

The side-by-side comparison photos have been used frequently in the media, in books, and in the “Losing A Legacy” museum exhibit currently displayed in Many Glacier Hotel at the base of the Grinnell Glacier hike. McKeon told us that when she goes to the exhibit to do maintenance or add a new display, she overhears peoples’ reactions. Some people seem saddened; others emboldened. “Get these to Congress!” one visitor remarked.

Grinnell Glacier won't look like this much longer

Grinnell Glacier won’t look like this much longer.

Road trippers Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard sit atop a big rock with Grinnell Glacier in the background

Road trippers Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard sit atop a big rock with Grinnell Glacier in the background.

Communicating the Crisis

A few years ago, Glacier National Park adopted climate change as a key message of its interpretive program, meaning that park employees and volunteers are encouraged to talk with visitors about the ecological impacts of climate change in the Park. A program entitled, “Where Have All the Glaciers Gone?” is given by park interpreter Bob Schuster once a week.

Schuster said talks like the one he gives are part of a shift in the Park’s attitude towards climate change communication: “At first, [the Park Service’s] attitude was, ‘people are on vacation, don’t upset them by talking about global warming.’ Now, we have a mandate to talk about it.”

During his August 8th program, Schuster’s explanation of glacial retreat was, for the most part, accessible and captivating. He used a bank account metaphor to describe how a combination of less ‘snow deposited’ and more ‘snow withdrawn’ can lead to glacial retreat over time. And he described how he has witnessed the changes himself over the years, stepping dramatically across the hotel hallway to show that, over the years, his tour groups had to walk further and further to get to the Grinnell Glacier ice. Eventually it was too dangerous to trek across the glacier at all.

When he got to the tricky part—the why—Schuster acknowledged that climate change is sometimes a controversial topic. But anthropogenic carbon emissions are, unfortunately, the main driver of the glacial retreat currently occurring in the Park. He encouraged the audience to go online to calculate their carbon footprints.

“We probably can’t save these glaciers, but there are things we can do,” Schuster said.

Some audience members nodded in agreement; one woman jotted a reminder on a notepad. But at least a few people seemed skeptical. One man we spoke with after the talk thought that humans were egotistical for “taking credit” for altering something as fundamental as our atmosphere.

And in some ways, that man was expressing what the existential crisis of Glacier National Park is really all about. It’s not about having to rename the landscape the “Park Formerly Known As Glacier,” as Al Gore has quipped. It’s really about looking at the photographs of Glacier’s quickly disappearing ice giants and recognizing their undoing as our own doing—a consequence of our carbon-laden economies.

A longhorn sheep takes over the path up to Grinnell Glacier

A bighorn sheep takes over the path up to Grinnell Glacier.

Glacier Beyond the Glaciers

Though glaciers are the charismatic “poster child” of climate change in Glacier National Park (and around the world) and their inevitable loss is heart-wrenching, warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns will also have severe impacts on the Park ecosystems below the glaciers. Streams may heat up and dry out with less dependable pulses of summer snowmelt, disrupting fish spawning. Forest fires may intensify. As spring appears earlier, seedlings may get a head start on growth, transforming ecologically valuable alpine meadows into new-growth forests. Avalanches may become wetter and slower, acting more like bulldozers than the “dry” avalanches that shape 50 percent of alpine terrain.

As Dan Fagre, a research ecologist at the USGS Global Change program and one of the lead scientists on the “gone by 2030″ study, explained it: “We’re ecologists, not glaciologists. We’re using glaciers as bellwethers for what’s going on in the rest of the ecosystem.”

Fagre, who once climbed a glacier with Al Gore, realizes the political power and nostalgic pull of glaciers. But the more ecologically important loss happening in the Park is that of snow. Fagre notes that alpine ecosystems sometimes have poor soils that don’t retain water well, so without the snowpack that provides a continuous, slow-releasing source of water and protective cover to vegetation, “you can go from being buried by snow to desiccated in a very short period of time.”

The mountains also have a granitic tree line, meaning the vegetation is delineated by soil type, not climate. Because they’re tied to a specific soil type, plant species cannot easily move up the mountain as the climate changes—an ecological adaptation that has been documented in other places.

“The terrain is not available for these orderly, progressional migrations,” Fagre said. “If we have changes, they’ll be step functions, not incremental changes.”

In other words, ecosystems in Glacier National Park may shift dramatically rather than gradually, and some plant species may not be able to survive in the new conditions.

Our minivan made it from Michigan to Massachusetts to Montana on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip

Our minivan made it from Michigan to Massachusetts to Montana on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip.

Managing Park Ecosystems in Uncertain Times

How is the Park Service preparing for the changes that are coming? Preparation is challenging when, unlike with the glaciers, there is no estimated date when affected species will disappear. Fagre describes a “threshold effect”—a kind of ecological tipping point beyond which species will not bounce back. The trick is that no one knows exactly where those thresholds lie.

“Where do we need to put money into extreme fire suppression because it may be the last chance to save that ecosystem?” Fagre asked.

In the face of this uncertainty, the strategy has been something we hear a lot: the Park Service is “keeping options open” as a way of building resilience and maintaining flexibility. When it comes to ecosystem management, this sometimes means intervening in natural processes—and with climate change, the Park Service is intervening perhaps a little more heavy-handedly than they have in the past.

One example of human intervention to protect important ecological features is the Park Service’s decision-making during the 2003 Robert Fire that burned 13 percent of Glacier National Park. In addition to protecting critical infrastructure, managers chose to guide the fire away from huckleberries that bears snack on. Another example is the decision to construct a barrier in Quartz Creek to prevent nonnative fish from reaching Quartz Lake, home to some of the strongest remaining migratory bull trout populations in Glacier. (Of the 17 lakes on the west side of the Park, 10 have been compromised by invasives.)

Three brilliant blue lakes lie in the valley below Grinnell Glacier.

Three brilliant blue lakes lie in the valley below Grinnell Glacier.

These two actions have one key thing in common: they provide ecological insurance in the face of uncertainty. When the thresholds for species and ecosystem collapse—the “points of no return”—aren’t clear, Park managers are erring on the side of intervention rather than letting nature take its course.

“Climate change is always one of many stressors, but it has cast all of those other stressors in a different light,” Fagre said. “It’s the one thing that’s always changing the game, and making the other things you’re doing moving targets.”

The main obstacle to preparing for climate impacts, Fagre said, is funding: “The limitation is funding more than anything—the know-how and recognition is there.”

 

Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard spent three months traveling around the United States uncovering stories of climate resilience–examples of people and places using their wits and resources to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s master’s program at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, they drove Allie’s mom’s 2000 Toyota Sienna minivan, visiting 31 states and exploring 7 national parks. You can view more stories on their blog, www.adaptationstories.com, follow them on Twitter @kirstenandallie, like them on Facebook at Great American Adaptation Road Trip, or even email them at adaptationstories at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Wolverine Mike
    September 29, 2013, 9:57 am

    The interesting thing about this debate is that you can manipulate the data and skew it from any angle you wish. Mother Nature and the almighty can change it all on a moments notice. What do you suppose the planet was like during the volcanic era when gases spewed up from the interior of the planet, magma flowed on the surface, mountains were forming and toxic gases enveloped the surface? There were no SUV’s to pollute the planet and obviously oxygen was at a premium.

    If the warming of the planet troubles you, consider that any effort to improve air quality, slow ozone depletion, etc. would take a unified collaboration of every world government and individual to even make a minimal/negligible improvement and create any change. And one stray asteroid or meteor could also send us into a tail spin, generate another ice age and recreate those diminishing glaciers in a blink of an eye.

    So don’t get your undies in a bundle because your life span is minute as it equates to total elapsed planetary time and all of these studies are skewed therein. We should continue to protect these beautiful areas, but also realize that plate tectonics will continue to alter and shift the earth’s crust and people living along or near the shores of the oceans will be in danger as water is spread across the surface of the planet causing water levels to rise and super storms wreak their havoc therein.

    Enjoy your life, protect the National Parks and enjoy each day to the fullest!

  2. Abbey Dufoe
    Missoula, MT
    September 17, 2013, 12:30 am

    Yes, it is important to realize that the glaciers have been melting for thousands of years because of the ice age ending, but in response to the comments, glaciers are retreating due to man-made climate change on a small scale.

    Regardless of that, this project is really cool! I’m in grad school for environmental journalism and I am envious of this project!!

  3. GRR
    United States
    September 15, 2013, 8:56 pm

    Significant differences between alpine (mountain) glaciers and continental glaciers. The studies of ice cores in Greenland ice sheets over the past two decades provide best evidence of past glaciation events; the evidence demonstrates that the surface temp. actual increase during continental glaciations. Take that one step further – we are warming up but arctic is melting instead of head of glacier building up. Glacier is beautiful. The alpine glaciers are disappearing. A little knowledge is very dangerous; a geography major who lives nearby with a myopic view of science needs to open his blinders.
    ..

  4. Maria
    New York City
    September 15, 2013, 6:45 pm

    Humans have polluted the planet, in some cases, disastrously. We have altered the climatic conditions with our pollution, without a doubt.

    Stop using silly excuses. It is not an issue of “warmer or colder” AND your SUV does cause a lot of damage.

  5. Maria
    New York City
    September 15, 2013, 6:40 pm

    Without a doubt humans have polluted the planet, in some cases, disastrously. We have altered the climatic conditions with our pollution, without a doubt.

    Stop using silly excuses. It is not an issue of “warmer or colder” AND your SUV does cause a lot of damage.

  6. Dan Chamney
    Windsor, Ontario
    September 15, 2013, 2:21 pm

    There were at least 8 investigations of the allegations that resulted from the cherry-picked data taken from the East Anglia emails and although none found any evidence of scientific misconduct, lots of evidence was found for deliberate misrepresentation of the email data by the climate change denialists that stole the data.

  7. Kevin
    Indiana
    September 15, 2013, 1:34 pm

    Guest Blogger obviously hasn’t gotten the news that the Arctic has been reliably measured this year and found to have 60% more ice cover than last year, with more expected as Winter approaches. Since the Maunder Minimum is also closing, and sunspot activity is declining, cooler temperatures will soon be coming as well. Predictable, and reliable, unlike the ever changing bilge from the global climate change alarmists.

  8. Doug Brockman
    September 14, 2013, 9:20 pm

    So the answer to what can we do to adapt to the painful world of a glacierless Glacier park is to:

    guide fires away from huckberries and build trout barriers????

  9. Sixto Sicilia
    Los Angeles
    September 14, 2013, 2:49 am

    Climare change is a reality. Forget the studies, look at realities.

    We have had weeks of relentlesss heat and humity above 85 percent. That’s not “or reality. ” and it has been happening for the last three years.

  10. Robert LaCoe
    Texas
    September 13, 2013, 9:59 pm

    New report this week. Artic ice cap cover 1 million Sq. miles more than at the same time last year. We are due for another ice age, and I’ll bet it will be a lot harder on the human population than warming. Al Bore’s time has passed and it is time to look at honest science. The it might, could be, possible, BS is not science, it is a way to control people.

  11. Dan Walker
    United States
    September 13, 2013, 9:04 pm

    Excellent article. Climate change is something that even the Department of Defense is taking seriously and it is now also a significant consideration in US strategic policy due to the increase in severe natural disasters, drought, sea level rise, etc. It is no longer a debate if or how it is occurring anymore.

  12. C Watson
    Tampa FL
    September 13, 2013, 1:11 pm

    climatscentThe issue is not that glaciers are melting, but that they’re retreating at such an artificially high rate.
    The planet is warming, and will continue to do so at an artificially high and accelerating rate. Likely for decades if not centuries, even if we take drastic action to curb our carbon emissions immediately. The anomalously high annual global temperature 15 or so years ago actually reinforces this concept, rather than disproving it.
    Anthony Watts’ “science” has been repeatedly and thoroughly discredited, as have all claims that those stolen emails in any way call into question the methods, motives, and conclusions of the climate science community.

  13. Eng.Naseer Al-Atabie
    Iraq - Baghdad
    September 12, 2013, 9:48 am

    I love travel , but I have no enough money to Makes my dream be troth .
    thanks to National Geographic for all photo and Topics .

  14. John Galt III
    Columbia Falls Montana
    September 12, 2013, 9:29 am

    I live 15 miles from West Glacier. I go to the park a lot. I totally disagree that the glaciers disappearing is a tragedy. If this were 15,000/20,000 years ago, my house would be covered with up to 6,000 feet of ice. The fact that the Cordilleran Ice Sheet has retreated is terrific as far as I am concerned. The plants and animals have come back.That bighorn sheep you have taken a picture of would not have been here at all.

    As far as the Robert Fire, you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. If it were not for the incident commander from Alaska, there would be no Apgar. He chose the right day to backburn or a lot more of the west side of the park would have been burned including Apgar. The berries didn’t figure at all. I was in the park the day the fires started, hiking up from the Loop to the Granite Chalet.

    Lastly, I am A Geography major and climatology minor. Please stop the global warming BS. No one believes that nonsense any more after the East Anglia emails finally showed the Warmists as totally fraudulent.

    It will be getting cooler over the next 30 to 40 years, Start by reading the new studies that don’t have an axe to grind. You can find it all at http://wattsupwiththat.com/

  15. Tom Paine
    San Francisco
    September 12, 2013, 9:12 am

    The author may not realize this, but glaciers have been melting in North America quite consistently for the last 10,000 years or so. In fact, New England was once covered in ice, a mile thick, all six states. My SUV didn’t cause that to happen.