You are here

Climate Change Continues To Melt Glacier National Park's Icons


The "Repeat Photography Project" performed by U.S. Geological Survey researchers demonstrates how the glaciers in Glacier National Park have shrunk down through the decades.

From their vantage point high above the glacier, it was readily apparent that the ice sheet was waning, even in its death throes.

While standing upon that peak overlooking the terrain above the rim wall, we got the thrill of thrills, for there lay the glacier, shriveled and shrunken from its former size, almost senile, with its back against the mountain walls to the east of it, putting up its last fight for life. It was still what seemed to be a lusty giant, but it was dying, dying, dying, every score of years as it receded, it was spewing at its mouth the accumulations buried within its bosom for centuries.

Albert Sperry, the nephew of Lyman Beecher Sperry, jotted down those thoughts after their first visit, in 1894, to the river of ice that took his uncle's surname. Of course, more than a century later Sperry Glacier is still alive, its glacial melt spilling in long, wispy tendrils into Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park. But whereas the size of Sperry in 1901 has been estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey at 3,237,485 square meters, today the mass has been shrunken to about 874,229 square meters; more than two-thirds of that behemoth that Albert Sperry described as "dying, dying, dying" having been lost to a warmer climate.

Against that history, and against recent years' predictions that Glacier would be glacier-less by 2030, last week's news that two of the park's glaciers, Shepard and Miche Wabun, had had their "glacier" status removed by the USGS because estimates of their masses had dwindled below 25 acres, was not earthshaking. It was eye-catching, though, as perhaps no other national park is so strongly connected with a single aspect of its contents as Glacier is with its glaciers.

"You know, it’s funny," Jack Potter, Glacier's chief of science and resources management, said in the wake of the flood of news reports about the two delisted glaciers, "just yesterday I had somebody call up and say, ‘What are you going to do about my melting glaciers?’ Well, the answer is nothing. There’s nothing that we can do about that.

"...It's not so big a deal," he said a few minutes later. "It's going to happen, so you might as well get ready for it."

Placed side-by-side, Albert Sperry's notes and the latest USGS findings deliver the same message, that Glacier's glaciers are in retreat. Though not as dramatic in description, the USGS news was more expansive, for in its finding that Shepard and Miche Uban no longer should qualify as glaciers, the agency also found that of the 37 named glaciers in the park, only 25 remain large enough to still be considered glaciers. Of the 12 that have melted away, 11 have done so since 1966, according to the USGS.

Things appear even more daunting when you consider that "it has been estimated that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, and most glaciers were still present in 1910 when the park was established," the latest USGS analysis points out.

* * * * *

Glacier National Park is suffering from heat stroke, a malady that could melt all of its rivers of ice not by 2030, but by 2020. Such a prospect would send shudders not only across the park's landscape and through its plant and wildlife resources, but also deliver a jolt to Montana's economy. That message was rekindled last week by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, which released a 35-page report that, while not breaking new ground when you consider all the clamor that's been raised in recent years over a changing climate and its impact across the National Park System, does cohesively present both on-the-ground impacts and projected threats that will sweep across the 1-million-acre park and the resulting fallout, both biologically and economically.

Glacier National Park in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption is the first comprehensive assessment of climate change on not just Glacier, but on any national park, says Stephen Saunders, a former deputy assistant Interior secretary over the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who now heads the climate organization.

“We hope to raise awareness, in Montana in particular, but across the country as well, that climate change is not just something happening to the polar ice caps and something that is distant from people’s everyday lives," Mr. Saunders replied when asked about the report's purpose. “It is affecting and threatens to really affect places that are really special to the American people, so we wanted to lay out that information. We hope that it helps to build public support for taking decisive actions that need to be taken to protect Glacier and other special places.”

Data assembled in the report examine various impacts climate change is exacting on the park:

* Within the last decade alone the increase in temperatures at the park huddled along the Montana-Canada border has been twice that experienced anywhere else on Earth. " the one weather station in the park with relatively long-term records, a West Glacier station at park headquarters, the average temperature for the decade just completed (2000-2009) was 2.0 F degrees hotter than the station's 1950-1979 average," the report states. "That is exactly double the average global temperature increase of 1.0 F degrees in the past decade..."

* A loss of wildlife in Glacier could result from human-caused climate change. This could disrupt the unique mix of natural wildlife the park now supports, which offers Americans the best chance they have in the lower 48 states to see the full range of mammal predators present at the time of European settlement of the continent, including grizzly and black bears, wolves, lynx, wolverines, mountain lions, and more, as well as other large mammals including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and elk. The park's staff is concerned that climate change could lead to "wholesale changes in species composition."

* According to a recent study updated by RMCO for the report, western Montana in 2000-2008 experienced "eight days more per year of 90-degree Fahrenheit or higher and eight fewer days a year of 0-degree Fahrenheit or lower, compared to 1900 through 1979."

* Seven years ago, "scientists projected that even modestly hotter summers could eliminate by 2030 all glaciers in one basin in the park. Since this study was published, the glaciers in the basin have melted faster than projected. Now, one of the study's authors believes they might be gone in just 10 years."

* "A hotter climate is also expected to reduce snowfall and snowpack accumulation in the park. One recent study projects that near the end of this century, peak snowpack levels in the park may be reached 41 days earlier than in mid-20th century, and that snow could cover the ground for about 70 fewer days a winter. With mountains not snow-capped as much or as long into the summer, the scenery that draws most visitors to Glacier would be affected."

If these projections play out, the ramifications to Glacier National Park will go beyond the disappearance of the park's glaciers. There likely will be potentially severe hydrological shifts, vegetative transformations, and even species upheavals.

“The whole thing about hydrology is a huge issue," said Chief Potter. "When you talk about precipitation, not runoff, the models don’t clearly say you’re going to get more or less precipitation, but what you can always say is there’s going to be less snow, your hydrology is going to be altered, and you’re going to get a lot more transpiration and evaporation, so things are going to dry out. And of course, if you green up months earlier, fires seasons could be starting in June.”

Not only could the fire season be moved up earlier in the season, but without the slow release of snowmelt that glaciers now produce, vegetation in the park could change, fisheries could be disrupted, forests in some areas could be replaced by grasslands, while meadows elsewhere could see incursions of forest, the RMCO report says. Torrential rainstorms, such as the one that flooded the park in November 2006, could become more frequent and devastating. That November 2006 storm, which arrived at Glacier after raking both Olympic and Mount Rainier national parks in Washington state, dumped 6 inches of rain on Glacier in 24 hours, the report notes.

"The flooding washed away all or parts of the Going-to-the-Sun highway at several points, necessitated $7 million in emergency repairs, and delayed the opening of the highway the following year until July," noted the report's authors. "The 28-mile Inside North Fork Road on the park's west side was also closed from the flooding and did not fully reopen until July 2009, a full two-and-a-half years later."

Economically, the predicted warming could deal a devastating blow to nearby communities, according to Glacier National Park in Peril. Currently, 63 percent of the park's visitors come primarily to see the snow-capped landscape, the report notes, adding that Glacier's drawing power could be fueling as much as $1 billion worth of Montana's tourism economy, a prize that could melt away along with the glaciers.

* * * * *

Despite its icy landscape, Glacier is warming faster than many other areas because of its location, said Mr. Saunders. Research has shown that the interior West has heated up more than most of North America, he said, and there are some studies that claim that higher elevations are warming faster than lower elevations.

While there are those who maintain that the outcome of climate change over the next five decades is settled, that nothing that is done now will alter those impacts, Mr. Saunders is not one. He believes the impacts can be muted by slowing climate change.

"We are going to have further warming, for sure," he said. "How much depends on how much we continue to do. One of the things we do in this report is try to present that information. We lay out where the information exists, what are lower emission scenarios and what are higher emission scenarios, and which way we go will really tell the tale. Which way we go in the sense, do we continue to pollute at the rate we’re going, or do we begin to reduce emissions?"

While recent polling points to a decline in the number of Americans who believe society is accelerating climate change, and while Congress and the Obama administration of late have been consumed with steadying the country's shaky financial system and grappling over health care, Mr. Saunders is optimistic that, in the long-run, the country will tackle anthropogenic climate change.

"I think the scientific evidence is mounting so quickly, and in particular the evidence of changes occurring on the ground that people can witness will change attitudes," he said. "And once we change attitudes, the good news is the things we can do are mostly things that save us money. Not all of them, but most of them, a lot of them. And it is not going to be a wrenching economic transformation to protect the climate. In fact, we will have a huge wrenching transformation if we don’t protect the climate.

"So in the long term I am very optimistic that we are going to get what we should be doing to protect the climate and ourselves," said Mr. Saunders. "In the short-term I am certainly frustrated. I’m frustrated that we have not done more yet, but I am very optimistic that we will soon do so.”

Featured Article


If glaciers in GNP have been melting since 1850, then that fact alone could be interpreted as proof that humans are not causing the climate change. The amount of CO2 in the environment did not start to change significantly until nearly a century after that.

I'd have to disagree considering the 1st Industrial Revolution started in the late 18th century (that's the 1780's folks). They primarily burned coal to run steam engines and such. Lots and lots of coal has been burnt since then. Doesn't anyone think that 70 years (say the 1780's to 1850) of this couldn't start a very slow change?

I'm not that smart but it seems reasonable to believe that climate change is natural and we are currently on a warming phase. It also seems reasonable to believe that with the abundant amount of carbon emissions humans are putting out, as well as the reduction of oxygen by cutting down rain forests / sea forests, humans must have a profound effect on at least speeding the process up of warming the globe.

I love the "comic" above. The question is what do we tell our children if we do nothing and the "warmers" are right?

this is an awesome article. i am writing an essay on depleting glacial runoff and tis really helped. i've also heard that countries like chile and peru need the glacial runoff for their ony water source.

@ Jeff

Just so we are on the same page, I think it is important to identify the goal of science. Science does not prove anything. In fact the theory of gravity is not even proven, it is however, well supported. Science builds support for or disproves a theory. Because the glaciers were in retreat in 1850, does not prove that climate science (with humans as a major player) is wrong. However, it does support the theory that the Industrial Revolution did not trigger the start of the retreat.

There have been many conclusive studies that support the basic concepts of human induced climate change. One of those being: CO2 is one of many powerful greenhouse gasses that the human race has dumped into the atmosphere. The discovery that CO2 is a greenhouse gas was not made by the IPCC, nor, when it was first discovered, were scientists trying to prove a connection between humans and climate change (it was made in 1859 by John Tyndall who was just a curious "natural philosopher").

Further, CO2 levels were on the rise pre-industrial revolution. Before you make the conclusion, this doesn't disprove human induced climate change. What did change since the industrial rev is that CO2 is rising faster than it has in the past 400,000 years (according to ice core data and even further back using other sources).

The part of the atmosphere in which all the weather and much of the climate occurs is thin. A good coat of lacquer on a globe is just about a scale equivalent. We humans have the ability to cause a great deal of change to that thin layer. And that layer has a huge influence on the film of life that encrusts this planet.

While, as you point out, the debate is not over (nor is it ever over in science), there is overwhelming evidence that the theory is correct. You comment that the truth should be able to defend itself... when it come to things like gravity, the fact that the earth is round, or that it gets dark at night, that is true. However, when the general population does not understand something or cannot see something with their own eyes, then the "truth" cannot defend itself. It is not that the general population is stupid, it is just that they are not specialists in climatology. Scientists have to stand up and fight for their ideas to be heard. They have to fight to better educate the general public (which is an immensely difficult task when such a complex issue is at hand).

There is no purposeful censorship of good science aiming to disprove human induced climate change...there just isn't much good reliable science to do the disproving.
Now... the IPCC did make some mistakes in the data it chose to include in its most recent report. That does not mean that all the science in that report is bad. While the IPCC does do a lot of basic climate change science, much more of the data used by the IPCC comes from unassociated scientists.

Finally, you call for scientists, and the institutions they work for, to release their data so that outsiders can get a good hard look at the real numbers. To many institutions, that would be equivalent to Google releasing the secrets of their search engine, or KFC giving away the list of secret spices. Those data, are worth lots of money to research institutions. They give one university a competitive edge over another and win one scientist a grant over another. It is unlikely that all the data will be immediately released even if it could have the positive affect of backing up the research findings.


If the glaciers have been melting since 1850, humans cannot be the only cause.

Humans may or may not be a major contributing factor in Global Warming. Personally, from a geologic standpoint, I think 'we're' a minor contributor. The planet has a history of cycling in and out of ice ages. My concern with AGW is the 'cures' will do absolutely nothing to solve the problem. If human's are the problem, then simply taxing them (and forcing them to work harder to maintain their standard of living) more will do nothing to solve the problem. If there is a problem, remove the problem. However, population control (war, vaccines, food aid, etc.) is not popular with the same folks who believe in Global warming. When AGW proponents also embrace an end to new vaccine development/deployment, an end to all forms of food aid, and an end to welfare, then, something might happen to help the planet. Deep Ecology is a cruel mistress.

I love glaciers. I love people... just not billions and billions of them. Quality vs. Quantity.

I guess I'd better head to Glacier NP before all the ice is gone ...

So the extrapolation that needs to be made with this article and the situation at Glacier is this: how would this impact large population centers if any existed in that part of Montana?

This is the extrapolation that countries like Chile and Peru need to make in South American, and India needs to make in Asia. In these places, large quantities of people rely on glacial runoff for either their own drinking water or for irrigating their crops. Elimination of glaciers would mean elimination of glacial runoff and THAT would cause massive social and economic upheaval in these countries.

That's the real big risk of climate change, and that's why entities such as the Department of Defense are taking it seriously.

As far as Mike Kennedy goes, I urge you to sit down and think about it:
-- millions of years for carbon to convert from gas to petroleum or coal through photosynthesis, activities of the food chain, death and decay, and high pressure and/or seepage
-- a century or two to burn it all up

Doing that math alone, I don't think there's any way you can logically deny burning fossil fuels can't have consequences.

If glaciers in GNP have been melting since 1850, then that fact alone could be interpreted as proof that humans are not causing the climate change. The amount of CO2 in the environment did not start to change significantly until nearly a century after that.

For those not following the news, the IPCC results have been thrown into disrepute from a series of errors and revelations of faulty data. Not to mention Climategate, which has devastated European popular support for climate science. And when you take into account that the IPCC and the highly corrupt U.N. expects to gain financially by acting as the clearinghouse for the international carbon credit exchange (for a fee of course), the IPCC can only be regarded as a highly biased and untrustworthy source of information.

Furthermore every time some idiot insists that "the debate on climate change is over", they only succeed in stirring up even more belief that something is amiss. If a scientific theory is true, then there is nothing to be lost by further debate. Truth can defend itself, and further investigation by honest critics will only uncover more evidence of the theory being true. Scientists do not typically attempt to shut down debate on a topic because more debate and analysis should only strengthen the claim of truth. But if a theory is false or based on a lie, then the side that is wrong knows that there is everything to be lost since further critical analysis might expose the untruth. The fact that many who support the theory of anthropomorphic climate change have repeatedly tried to malign their critics or stop all debate has done nothing but fuel doubts for those who refuse to drink the Kool Aid.

If anthropomorphic climate change is true, then those who believe need to start acting like scientists instead of corrupt politicians. They need to release their raw data (which they have refused to do) and let scientists who aren't getting kickbacks (i.e., research funding) from the IPCC and UN to get a chance to evaluate the data without bias.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments