What happens to the majesty of the purple mountains of “America the Beautiful” if all of their glaciers are gone? “It’s a very sad thing to contemplate,” said Christopher White, Santa Fe resident and author of The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers (St. Martin’s Press).
White spent five years in Glacier National Park chronicling the work of U.S. Geological Survey ecologist and climate scientist Dan Fagre, who has monitored Rocky Mountain glaciers for two decades. One of his research strategies is comparing current scenes with photographs from the 1800s.
Glacier National Park, in Montana on the U.S.- Canada border, is at the center of a crisis of disappearing glaciers caused by climate change from the burning of fossil fuels. “Globally, alpine glaciers are an indication of climate change, and we see huge changes in other ranges,” White told Pasatiempo. “For example, in the Andes, glaciers have decreased 20 percent since 1970, and in the Alps they’ve decreased 60 percent since 1860.
“Glacier National Park will be the first to lose all its glaciers. The park has had 1.8 times the temperature increase of the global average since 1900. The reason for that is its location: first, the altitude, which means there’s more solar radiation on the glaciers; and, second, you have the warm jet stream from the Pacific.
“In 1850, there were 50 glaciers in the area that would [in 1910] become Glacier National Park. When I started the project in 2008, there were 27 glaciers, and two have disappeared since then. Dan Fagre says they’ll all be gone in 10 or 12 years. There will still be ice in pockets, but it won’t be moving, so they won’t be glaciers.”
Huge glaciers are called ice sheets and small ones glacierets, but movement is common to all types. According to one definition cited in The Melting World, a glacier is made up of ice (from compacted snow) at least 100 feet thick, with a weight sufficient to cause it to move forward and downward.
A crucial point about the moving ice masses in Glacier National Park is that the normal balance between winter snow accumulation and springtime melting is “all askew now,” White said. “One of the essential things is that global warming is melting the glaciers in the summer, but in the winter there’s not as much snow falling. Precipitation is the other significant factor in all this.”
The claim by global-warming naysayers that the changes — including to plants and wildlife — documented by Fagre and other scientists are merely part of a natural cycle doesn’t hold water for White. “Look at the Pleistocene ice age that began a couple million years ago and dissipated about 18,000 years ago; that took place over more than a million years,” he said. “This change we’re seeing now is so fast. The difference is the speed of the disappearance of the glaciers, and species can’t adapt to changes that quickly.”
These dramatic environmental shifts in Glacier National Park don’t bode well for humans. Glaciers and snowpack store nearly 75 percent of the West’s drinking, irrigation, and hydroelectric-power-generating water. The water originating in Glacier National Park flows in three directions, feeding a huge area: the Columbia River goes west to the Pacific Ocean, the Saskatchewan River flows north through Canada to Hudson Bay, and the Missouri River feeds the Mississippi River.
Most people will not witness the shrinking of mountain glaciers simply because they don’t go there. The importance of potentially dire changes to mountain habitats will only be understood abstractly by the majority of people who are experiencing what has been called “nature-deficit disorder.”
“How can the next generation of kids appreciate glaciers if they don’t have the opportunity to see them and walk around them?” White said. “On the trails hiking up to the glaciers in Glacier National Park, at least twice hikers commented to me or Dan Fagre that they were there to see the glaciers before they disappear. That really hit home.”
White is a mountaineering aficionado who has climbed Glacier Peak, Mount St. Helens (before its 1980 eruption), and Mount Rainier in the Cascade Range and Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn in the Alps and has taken diving expeditions to the Caribbean and the Great Barrier Reef. Among his other books is Skipjack: The Story of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen, and he has written for National Geographic and Chesapeake Bay Journal. He earned a degree in biology from Princeton University and formerly was a staff biologist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“Things are happening so fast in Glacier National Park that it’s really a snapshot of what we’ll see in other mountain ranges around the world,” he said. “And it’s not just that glaciers are disappearing; it’s the downstream effects that everyone is worried about so much.” There are threats to mountain wildlife species in just about every direction you look. The snowshoe hare, a rabbit of the northern forests, changes the color of its fur from brown to white to maximize its camouflage in the summer and winter seasons. However, unlike a chameleon that shifts color with the background on which it happens to rest, the hare’s transformation is triggered by the waning daylight of autumn. “So they’re turning white in November even though there’s no snow on the ground because it’s warmer now, and the lynx are eating them left and right.”
The pika, a diminutive relative of hares and rabbits, is endangered for different reasons. “They only live in rock piles in scree, the loose rock below the snowfields and glaciers,” White said. “They don’t hibernate; they live under these rock piles, and to keep alive they have a very high metabolism. When summers get warmer, they can’t turn down that internal thermostat, and they overheat and die.”
The pika can’t simply move up the mountain where it’s cooler because the rock-pile habitat it requires is absent higher up. The animal can’t move north, either, because it’s too small to undertake such migrations and would be more vulnerable to predators.
Even the formidable wolverine is in danger from climate change. “One wolverine [a big one is just 40 pounds and 3 feet long] was documented taking down a full-size caribou in Canada,” White said. “They’re just gnarly beasts, but they’re having trouble because the decline of the snowpack, which parallels the situation with glaciers, impacts their denning ability in the spring.”
At least one animal species is flourishing: the bark beetle. This is a different insect than the ones affecting piñon trees in Northern New Mexico; the beetles in Glacier are attacking spruce trees and lodgepole pines. “Its main limiting factor is cold, and during warmer winters, it can complete two life cycles in a year, so the population is skyrocketing.”
The dominant trees in Glacier National Park are climbing higher up the mountains in search of cooler temperatures. Up high, more trees are reducing the size of alpine meadows, and the mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and other animals that live there are in trouble; one reason is because their predators have more cover for hunting.
The westslope cutthroat trout is similarly facing possible oblivion. “That’s the main native trout in northwestern Montana, and as the rivers and streams get warmer, their habitat disappears,” White said. “Rainbow trout, which were introduced for fishing, are outcompeting the native cutthroat.”
Some people might say, So what? There would still be trout there. But the cutthroat is beautiful, it’s prized by anglers, and its struggle to survive independent of the big, ubiquitous rainbow epitomizes one of the rationales of biodiversity. “I believe that every species has a right to exist on Earth because of its authenticity and its originality,” White said. “It’s arrogant to think that we can decide who lives and who goes.”
In the book’s epilogue, he quotes Fagre on this point: “It’s a moral issue, not a scientific one. Science is like a navigator on a ship. It can point the way. It can enlighten people on which direction to take. That’s all. The crew has to do the heavy lifting, out of some sense of responsibility. If we have enlightenment, the way forward becomes obvious.” ◀
▼ Christopher White, author of The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers, in conversation with writer William deBuys
▼ 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8
▼ Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., 988-4226