Then and Now: Washington's Receding Glaciers
Washington's glaciers were first explored and studied over 100 years ago. How many of them will be around in another century?
Seeing a glacier from afar or even climbing on one evokes a sense of grandiose beauty. Like the mountains they rest on, glaciers are formed over prolonged periods of time that can be hard to put in perspective given the length of our lifetimes. These incredible formations of ice have immense power, carving out rock with ease as they slowly move over mountainous terrain.
Glaciers have shaped Washington's landscapes, and they've been a hallmark of mountain hiking here. But that's changing, and fast.
In 2005, WTA interviewed Jon Reidel, a geologist who frequents the North Cascades to study the glaciers in the area. His findings showed that glaciers were receding at a rapid rate and that human impacts on the environment were speeding that process up.
“The trend is very bad for glaciers,” Riedel said. “In general, glaciers in the North Cascades have lost 40 percent of their ice over the past 150 years, roughly. And in the last 40 years, they’ve lost about 13 percent".
Now, 11 years later, a tiny blip in the lifetime of a glacier, we're seeing the trend continue as they continue to melt before our eyes.
Then: before the shift
If we rewind the clock about 50 years (to when WTA was established) you'd find that Washington would be covered in far more ice and snow than it is today. Glaciers that no longer exist, or are fragments of their former selves, would have dominated mountain landscapes in the Olympics and North Cascades.
If we went back just 30 years you'd find glaciers that were 15 percent larger in volume and in some cases, over one hundred feet higher in places.
Now: fragments of the past
There is no denying that Washington's glaciers are melting. Their rapid shrinking is due in large part to human impact on the environment in the form of pollution and emissions. Where once giant sheets of ice rested, bare rock is now exposed to the baking sun. The grandeur of these massive formations is gone, at least for our lifetimes.
More than 50 glaciers in the North Cascades alone have already vanished since the 1950's. Now, Mount Rainier and the Olympics have also noticed glaciers diminishing in size, with some disappearing completely. Olympic National Park has reported that 82 glaciers disappeared over a 27 year period from 1982 to 2009. Those glaciers are now permanently erased from the landscape.
The rate at which glaciers are vanishing has far-reaching impacts on the environment and ecology of Washington. It's not as simple as a formation of ice vanishing. The effects trickle down to the flora and fauna of the area. In some mountainous regions of the state, goats, pikas and marmots are being displaced as their means of remaining cool during hot summer days melts from beneath their hooves and paws. When glaciers disappear they also dry up lakes and creeks that once formed below them, changing behaviors of the animals that live in and near them, like salmon and trout.
Glaciers have provided habitats and valuable resources for animals over their tenure in Washington. Their health is imperative in keeping the fragile ecosystem in our state running smoothly. If one population is displaced or eliminated due to glaciers melting, it can have a chain reaction throughout the environment that will have long lasting consequences.
For a close look at what the future holds for beloved hiking spot like Mount Rainier, this multimedia piece from The Olympian and The News Tribune are well worth a read.
How can you help?
Just because the numbers look bad doesn't mean we can't reduce our impacts on the environment. Here are a few ways you can help limit your impacts on the environment and glaciers:
- Carpool to the trailhead to reduce emissions (WTA also offers a carpool opt-in for work parties)
- Practice Leave No Trace ethics
- Think about a hybrid or electric vehicle when looking for your next car
- Consider hikes closer to home to reduce driving distances
- Ride a bike or use public transit to reach the trailhead