The Troubling Consequences of the Vanishing Ice at Glacier National Park

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The very name of Glacier National Park, a 1-million-acre expanse in northwest Montana on the Canadian border, comes from ice. But the name may need to change by 2030: Experts predict the formations could disappear by then.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the glaciers in Glacier National Park have shrunk by an average of 39 percent since 1966; some lost up to 85 percent of their ice. A 2014 study in Science attributes global loss in glacier mass to both anthropogenic (or human caused) and natural climate changes. The study blames human causes for about a quarter of the loss between 1851 and 2010, but that share increased steadily and accelerated to account for almost two-thirds of the loss between 1991 and 2010.

Glaciers are one of the main reasons 2.9 million people visited the eponymous national park in 2016. But the looming loss of these formations has many significant ramifications. Moreover, the changes at the park are representative of what's happening globally—and visitors can see these changes for themselves.

owl in tree
Steven Robinson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Glaciers are masses of ice, snow, water, rock, and sediment that move under the influence of gravity. To determine just how many glaciers it has, Glacier National Park follows the commonly accepted guideline from the USGS Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems Program: a body of ice must be at least 25 acres to be considered a glacier. Based on that guideline, the number of glaciers in the park dropped from 150 in the late 19th century to 26 today. Those that remain have shrunk significantly, as clearly seen in these images of Swiftcurrent Glacier below, from 1930 (top) and 2015 (bottom).

Glacier National Park
Courtesy of USGS

Glacier National Park
Courtesy of USGS

Swiftcurrent is only one example. In 2017, the USGS published a time series analysis of the margins of named glaciers in the park, with measurements from 1966, 1998, 2005, and 2015/2016. Scientists used aerial photography and satellite imagery to measure glacier perimeters in late summer when seasonal snow had melted, revealing the extent of the glacial ice. The data show reduced area of all glaciers since 1966.

person stands by ice and snow in glacier national park
Jinrui Qu, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Photography isn't the only way to monitor the size of a glacier. Scientists also analyze mass balance—essentially, a glacier's gains and losses over a season. According to data, glaciers the world over, not just in Glacier National Park, are seeing more losses in ice than gains. An inventory of the average mass balance of 10 glaciers in Washington state's North Cascades showed that since 1984, they've had a cumulative loss of 43.5 feet in ice thickness. And a report from the World Glacier Monitoring Service—which compiles data from more than 30 countries representing more than 80 glaciers—found that 2015 was the 36th consecutive year without positive annual mass balances. That trend was expected to continue.


Smaller glaciers mean less water. Worldwide, mountain glaciers and snowpacks contribute water used for drinking and irrigation for millions of people.

Few communities rely on Glacier National Park's glaciers for drinking water, but wildlife certainly does. Fewer and smaller glaciers, as well as reduced winter snowpack, mean much less groundwater recharge and summer runoff, resulting in lower water levels in streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands during the growing season. That, in turn, reduces habitats in streams for invertebrates and fish. Less meltwater from glaciers also raises summer water temperatures, which could cause the local extinction of temperature-sensitive aquatic species.

lake
Melissa Gaskill, Mental Floss

The melting of the ice puts animals at risk in other ways as well. Climate change has direct impacts on the movement, migration, and habitats of wildlife. Mobile species with large geographic ranges and more generalist diets can tolerate wider ranges of climatic conditions and likely will better adapt to a changing climate. Ones limited to specific regions fare less well.

David Benson, professor of biology at Marian University in Indianapolis, studies how white-tailed ptarmigan (below) around Logan Pass (above) deal with climate change. Every living organism has three options, he points out—move, adapt, or die—and the birds are using all three: Their territories in early summer and habitat in late summer have moved about 1000 feet farther up slope, their habitat preference has changed, and their numbers have dropped drastically. In the 1950s, the population at Logan Pass in late summer averaged 55 birds. By the late ‘90s, that average had dropped to 35, and in the past five years, to less than 15.

bird in woods
Melissa Gaskill, Mental Floss

Ptarmigan stay cool by hanging out near ice, water, and snow in late summer, and loss of glaciers plus smaller perennial snow packs in the park are forcing them to go farther up slope to find snow and ice. Climate change is also causing movement in the treeline around Logan Pass, which makes the area less suitable habitat for ptarmigan.

"Ptarmigan are the only bird that spends its entire life above the treeline and are very susceptible to heat,” Benson tells Mental Floss. "Their means of getting away from heat is limited." The birds will die within a few hours at high temperatures in the 80s.

Other species are moving, too. Among them are meltwater stoneflies, a favorite food of black swifts and even bears. According to Daniel Fagre, a research ecologist at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, the bugs are endemic to cold water streams in the park and generally live in only the first few hundred yards of those fed by glaciers and snowmelt. They are experiencing "elevational squeeze," or shrinking of available habitat between too-violent waterfalls and overly warm glacier ponds.


Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Cutthroat trout require water below 67.3°F, typically found in lakes and streams just below glaciers. This species already suffers from habitat fragmentation and faces competition from and hybridization with rainbow trout—an invasive species. Cutthroat trout return to birth streams to breed, but hybrids lose that homing instinct and spread farther and farther from their original habitat. Recent monitoring indicates that hybrids also produce fewer offspring.

In all waters west of the Continental Divide, Midvale Creek in the Two Medicine River drainage, and Wild Creek in the St. Mary River drainage, the national park allows only catch-and-release fishing for cutthroat trout.

meadow
Melissa Gaskill, Mental Floss

Warmer temperatures also increase the frequency of wildfires in the park; fire season in the northern Rockies now runs 78 days longer. Last year, the Sprague Fire southeast of Glacier’s Lake McDonald began on August 10 and continued to burn well into September, well past the time rain and snow would normally have extinguished the fire. Its smoke limited visibility at 6646-foot Logan Pass, as you can see in the photo above.

The rising temperatures that are melting the glaciers are also leading to an increase in the black mountain pine beetle population, to damaging effect. The insects have always been in the park, but extremely cold winter days used to reduce the overwintering population of eggs and larvae. With fewer of those extremely cold days, pine beetle outbreaks have grown larger, Fagre says, resulting in more dead trees, which provide additional fuel for fires.


Jennifer DeMonte/Getty Images

It's also changing the distribution of plants. Open subalpine meadows around the Pass are experiencing invasion by small seedlings, mostly firs. Heavy snowpacks, which used to suppress these seedlings and keep them from being established, have been in decline. Open areas contain edible plants, so their loss affects wildlife such as deer, birds, bees, ground squirrels, marmots, and bears.

bear shaking water off in glacier national park
Rene Leubert, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The park's treeline has shifted upward in elevation, Fagre says, and climate change has already altered tree distribution and ranges in Glacier National Park. Subalpine tree species are encroaching into higher elevations. Changes in the type and distribution of plants affects animals that depend on them for food and shelter and other plants adapted for certain conditions, such as shade or lack thereof. A number of high-elevation plants depend on snow fields; the alpine poppy, for example, grows only downhill from a source of water such as a snowbank or glacier and could ultimately disappear as that habitat does.

Heavens Peak

GlacierNPS, Flickr // Public Domain

Melting ice also leads to fewer avalanches—which is a bad thing. Avalanches create disturbances important for the landscape, Fagre says, creating meadows up and down mountain faces, which are critical for foraging wildlife. Avalanches require snow as well as storm systems that set up weak layers, rain on snow events, or rapid warming to trigger them. Climate change affects each of these events and, therefore, the number and size of avalanches. Long-term loss of snowpack will mean fewer or no avalanches, leading to loss of the disturbance they cause and indirect effects from that on habitat and wildlife populations.

In general, climate change is affecting interacting forces that have always been around, according to Fagre, and it often isn't clear how those will ultimately play out. "We know some parts of this story well, other parts we can hazard guesses, and in others, we'll be surprised," he says. Those surprises likely won't be pleasant ones.

5 Ways You Can Help California's Wildfire Victims

Fire Captain Steve Millosovich carries a cage full of cats after a wildfire destroyed homes and land in Paradise, California.
Fire Captain Steve Millosovich carries a cage full of cats after a wildfire destroyed homes and land in Paradise, California.
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

The “Camp Fire” in Northern California’s Butte County has killed more than 40 people and destroyed more than 7100 homes since it started tearing through the region on November 8. Authorities are still investigating the cause, but it has already been labeled the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. At the same time, two other fires—Woolsey and Hill—have been wreaking damage in areas northwest of Los Angeles. Here are some ways you can help the victims.

1. DONATE MONEY

Making a financial contribution to a nonprofit that’s helping wildfire victims is usually the best way of ensuring your donation will be utilized, according to the Center for International Disaster Information. The flexibility of a monetary donation lets disaster responders decide what’s most needed at any given moment. Listed below are a few of the charities and companies accepting donations on behalf of victims, according to The New York Times.

American Red Cross

California Community Foundation’s Wildlife Relief Fund

California Fire Foundation

Enloe Medical Center

Google (Scroll down and click "Yes, Donate")

Humane Society of Ventura County

North Valley Community Foundation

Salvation Army

United Way of Greater Los Angeles

Before determining which charity to choose, it pays to visit Charity Navigator and do a little bit of research to determine which organizations are the most reputable, and how much of your donation will make it directly to the victims.

2. DONATE FOOD

If you’re based in California and want to contribute something other than money, you have a few options. But first, make sure you’re choosing an organization that has the time and resources to coordinate these donations. Los Angeles firefighters, for example, received way more goods (to the tune of 5000 pounds) than they could handle. However, you can still donate non-perishable food items to the Salvation Army Ventura Corps, which is assisting individuals affected by the Woolsey and Hill fires in Southern California. If you happen to see days-old requests for donated goods, just visit that organization's website or social media channels first to make sure they aren't at full capacity.

3. OPEN UP YOUR HOME

Airbnb is encouraging people in the Butte County region to open up their homes to wildfire victims while the figure out longer-term arrangements. From now through November 29, Airbnb users can advertise their homes as free, temporary shelters for aid workers and evacuees, The New York Times reports. Hosts have the chance to communicate with potential guests in advance, and hosts can also determine the length of stay. Hosts in Butte County are welcome to sign up (click here for more info), as well as those living in Ventura, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego counties (click here for info).

4. FOSTER OR ADOPT A PET

Just as humans are being displaced by California's wildfires, so too are their pets. Whether it's because they've been separated from their families or their pet parents are in a temporary living situation that does not allow for animals, hundreds of now-homeless pets are arriving at shelters around California every day. In order to make as much room as possible for more intakes, LA Animal Services posted an urgent call for fosters and adopters on its Facebook page. If you're not in the California area, donating money and supplies to these same shelters is also an option. SPCAla, for example, has set up an Amazon Wish List.

5. VOLUNTEER YOUR TIME AND EXPERTISE

Caring Choices, a nonprofit in Northern California, is currently accepting applications from volunteers with medical backgrounds or other skills—such as data entry, radio communications, or animal care—that are currently needed. (Manual skills, like being able to remove debris, are also listed on the volunteer application form.)

They’ve already received thousands of volunteer applications and aren’t able to sift through them all immediately, but they’re still urging volunteers in the region to apply. “This a marathon and not a sprint,” the organization wrote on its website. “We will need more volunteers in the coming weeks and months as we continue through the disaster response, relief, and recovery efforts.” To apply, fill out this application and email it to aavendano@caring-choices.org. You may also want to consider volunteering with the United Way or The American Red Cross.

Keep checking California Volunteers for additional volunteer opportunities.

5 Odd Suggestions About How To Fight the Dust Bowl

It was a disaster of mankind’s own making. By the 1930s, chronic overfarming in the Great Plains had devastated the native grasses that had held topsoils in place. As the plants were uprooted, the dirt dried and loosened, setting the stage for an environmental catastrophe.

In 1931, a drought hit the region—it would last eight years—and the exposed soil was blown away by a series of gigantic dust storms. Mountain-sized dirt clouds became a common sight all over Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Nobody who lived there had ever experienced anything like it: skies were blackened, barnyards were buried, and millions of farmers became homeless refugees. As the crisis raged on, people piped up with some wild ideas about how to finally put an end to this “dust bowl.” Here are five of the most peculiar suggestions.

1. PAVE OVER THE GREAT PLAINS.

Many well-meaning citizens assumed that if they could just cover up the loose dirt somehow, it would stop getting blown around so much. New Jersey’s Barber Asphalt Company reached out to the federal government and offered to pave over the afflicted area. Their price? Five dollars per acre. Sounds like a bargain—until you consider the fact that the dust bowl had engulfed around 100 million acres. Meanwhile, a Pittsburgh steel manufacturer wanted to install wire netting over multiple counties, and a company known as Sisalkraft proposed blanketing the ground with its rugged brand of waterproof paper. A similar idea involved laying concrete down over every field in the region and leaving a few holes for future crops.

2. COVER THE TERRAIN WITH BROKEN-DOWN CARS.

One North Carolinian’s suggestion ideally would have killed two birds with one stone. As environmental historian Donald Worster wrote in his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, “Mrs. M.L. Yearby of Durham, North Carolina saw an opportunity to beautify her own state by shipping its junked autos out to the plains to anchor the blowing fields.”

3. BOMB THE SKY.


Getty Images

Explosives expert Tex Thornton tried ending the drought with dynamite. In a sales pitch given to the citizens of Dalhart, Texas, he explained that if the explosive was launched skywards and detonated aerially, immediate rainfall would follow. Embracing Thornton’s idea, the town gave him $300 to cover his expenses. Judgment day came on May 1, 1935, when the would-be hero set up shop by a local lake. Thousands of curious onlookers watched from afar as Thornton tied balloons to his dynamite sticks, which had been fitted with timed fuses.

Things quickly went awry once a violent dust storm arrived on the scene. The high winds made it too dangerous for Thornton to even think about releasing the explosives, especially now that a crowd was present. So in a last-ditch effort to deliver the goods, he buried his dynamite and set it off under the ground. Thornton’s Plan B backfired spectacularly: The blast just propelled extra dirt into the dusty atmosphere.

After a few more attempts, rain did come to Dalhart—as well as in regions too far away to be affected by his explosions. A victorious Thornton left Dalhart supposedly saying, “I’m mighty glad that the people of Dalhart and the Panhandle got moisture—and if I had anything to do with it, I’m doubly glad."

4. USE DEAD REPTILES AS YARD DECOR.

Contemporary folklore claimed that if you hung a deceased snake belly-up over a fence post, it would rain the next morning. When all else failed, some farmers actually tried this during the dust bowl years. Ironically, live snakes would have been far more useful to them. Back then, famished jackrabbits regularly turned up in droves to devour the few crops that were still being grown on the Great Plains. In western Kansas, the situation was so bad that citizens responded by organizing what became known as “jackrabbit drives.” Those involved formed huge lines and marched side-by-side for miles on end. Using their own bodies, they’d corral every rabbit in sight into an enclosure and club them to death. Yet if the species’ natural predators—like certain snakes—had been a bit more common, this drastic measure might not have been necessary. Who knows?

5. BRING THE RAIN WITH A FAUX MILITARY BATTLE.

Many of the more intense showdowns in the American Civil War, including Gettysburg, were followed by severe rainfall. This and other accounts over the years helped give rise to the once widespread belief that artillery caused downpours—a notion that was still fairly pervasive in the 1930s (and was broadly the same hypothesis that Thornton was working with).

One soldier from Denver petitioned the federal government for $20 million worth of ammunition, after which he would round up 40,000 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps for a couple of phony battles. After some non-lethal cannon fire, the rains would return—or at least, that was the plan.

“Try it, if it works, send me a check for $5000 for services rendered,” wrote the soldier.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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