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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Glacier Park on Thin Ice

The national preserve's namesakes offer a highly visible omen of climate change: Ice dating to the Stone Age will soon vanish.

November 18, 2002|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

MANY GLACIER, Mont. — When naturalists first hiked through Glacier National Park more than a century ago, 150 glaciers graced its high cliffs and jagged peaks. Today there are 35. The cold slivers that remain are disintegrating so fast that scientists estimate the park will have no glaciers in 30 years.

Boulder Glacier, once massive enough to contain a human-dwarfing ice cave, was gone by 1998. Grinnell Glacier, beloved by tourists and scientists alike, has lost 90% of its volume since 1850.

The dwindling glaciers amid the deeply chiseled landscape of this national park offer the clearest and most visible sign of climate change in America. It is an omen even a child can grasp in an instant: Ice that has lasted in these high alpine valleys since the end of the Stone Age will soon vanish.

"It's not just going to happen in my lifetime," said Dan Fagre, a 49-year-old ecologist who leads the U.S. Geological Survey team working to chronicle climate change in this park known as the Crown of the Continent. "It's going to happen during my career."

The unexpected speed of the demise of the glaciers has left scientists racing against time. They have only decades left -- nothing at all in geological time -- to understand these ancient frozen beasts before they disappear. "The scariest thing to me is realizing how fast these things are happening," said Blase Reardon, 39, an avalanche expert who has worked in the park for the last two years. "Being here is like having a front row seat at the Indianapolis 500."

The melting here is being mimicked around the world, from the snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to the ice fields beneath Mt. Everest in the Himalayas. Experts predict that glaciers in the high Andes, the Swiss Alps and even Iceland could disappear in coming decades as well.

In contrast to these more remote, high-altitude areas, the accessibility of Glacier National Park gives scientists a chance to get the most intimate view possible of a dying glacier.

Since 1991, a team of scientists has measured the most ephemeral details of the glaciers. They have analyzed the cycles of precipitation and temperature that merge into the cold calculus of every glacier. They have dragged ground-penetrating radar over crevasses and risked skiing into avalanches to measure snowfall. They have analyzed soil carbon and counted frog eggs to document the unique ecology of glaciers and their meltwater streams.

But for all the gigabytes of data the team has accumulated, they realize they have only scratched the surface. The transformation of the park has turned out to be far more complex than anyone imagined. For example, even as most glaciers here race toward extinction, a handful seem to effortlessly maintain their grip on mountain peaks.

"It makes you question what you know," said Fagre, "which is the real point of science."

While the team has spent much of its tenure here talking about stream flow data, snowfall records and vegetation dynamics, they have started talking about something new: the loss of beauty. These scientists know they are recording the last vestiges of a world that may soon exist only in their computers, photographs and memories -- a world their grandchildren may never see.

"When the permanent parts of the landscape start disappearing, that's unsettling," said Fagre, who has lived and worked in the park for more than a decade. "It's still a beautiful mountain, but without glaciers, an identity is lost."

To glaciologists who thrill to see the groaning dynamics of ice in real time, there still is beauty in the rocky new landscapes. Glaciers often drip away into milky lakes of "unusual, gorgeous, turquoise, practically indescribable color," said Jeffrey Kargel, a USGS scientist who monitors many of the world's wasting glaciers from space. The color is a product of light reflecting off "glacial flour," or ground-up rock that floats in meltwater.

The terrain left behind by a retreating glacier is like land recovering from fire, Kargel said. It may look devastated, scarred and littered with boulders. But soon, lichens, grasses and wildflowers grow. Those who stand at the edge of retreating glaciers are likely standing where no human has stood before. "It's not all doom and gloom," Kargel said.

Most casual visitors to these mountains have little idea that most glaciers in the Lower 48 are on the way out. The handful of "itty-bitty" glaciers in the Sierra Nevada "are glaciers only by the most technical sense of the term," Kargel said. Most glaciers that remain there are rock glaciers -- flowing fields of rock interspersed with ice that don't look glacial at all. Alaska's glaciers are in dramatic retreat as well.

Some of this epochal change can be hard to detect, particularly for those who have spent much of their lives in the park.

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