Goodbye to glaciers in Washington's North Cascades?

Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, Washington. Photo by Marshmallow, Courtesy Flickr.

A few years ago I did a multi-day backpacking trip that took me through some  spectacular terrain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of Washington state’s North Cascades.

On the second day of this 8-day trip, my small team of three left the beaten trail and hiked up Spider Glacier to Spider Gap and then down into an enchanting lake basin. The lakes, Lyman Lakes, are fed by nearby Lyman Glacier.

One might think that hiking up a glacier would entail ropes, crampons, helmets and ice axes, and this is usually the case, but Spider Glacier has declined to the point that you can only call it a glacier in historic terms – Spider Glacier is now just a permanent snowfield.

In the summer of 2005, known as a low snow year in the North Cascades, a photo that I saw on a Pacific Northwest hiking forum showed that Spider Glacier had detached into three snow patches – the largest was only the size of a basketball court.

But Spider Glacier is not the only glacier facing extinction. Spider’s neighbor, Lyman Glacier might also face the same fate.

In a September 2008 Wenatchee World newspaper article, Mauri Pelto, an environmental science professor at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., who has studied glaciers and climate change for more than two decades, including 25 years of glacier study in the North Cascades, estimated that the Lyman Glacier has shrunk about one-third of its former size and for the past 50 years it has receded about 33 feet per year.

In 30 to 50 years, Pelto predicts that the Lyman Glacier will have completely disappeared.

In the article, Pelto states that one-third of glaciers in the North Cascades will likely disappear. The other two-thirds may still have a chance, if we do something to stop global warming.

Glaciers: A Valuable Resource

Washington state has more than 700 glaciers, the most of any state except Alaska. Of those 700 glaciers, North Cascades National Park Service Complex (NOCA) can pride itself on having 45% (312) of those glaciers alone. In fact, NOCA recognizes that glaciers are one of the most valuable resources it has.

National Park Service scientists are tracking glacier melting rates in North Cascades National Park. Jon Riedel, the geologist in charge of the project, says the ice is melting faster, especially in the last 16 years.

"The loss of glaciers has meant a decline in our 'glacial bank account,' if you want to call it that, of about 400 billion gallons of water. That is the net loss from this increase in melting. And that represents about one month of flow of the Skagit River."

The Skagit is the largest river feeding Puget Sound, explains Riedel. Less snowpack means less water for fish and wildlife, hydropower, forest fire control and agriculture.

Says Riedel, "the information is in front of us: It's getting warmer, and that trend likely is related to humans and our impact on the atmosphere. It's certainly time that we do something, but it is such a political issue and, frankly, right now there's a lot on the agenda in Washington, D.C."

To read up on how the Northwest region and Cascade Mountains are being affected by climate change, check out the new report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, issued by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

The report contains a special section dedicated to the Northwest. The report also highlights measures that we can take to help moderate global warming, such as the preservation of key ecosystems.

Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, Washington. Photo by Marshmallow, Courtesy Flickr.
Spider Glacier, Washington. Photo by Marshmallow, Courtesy Flickr.
Lyman Glacier and Tamaracks, Washington. Photo by Marshmallow, Courtesy Flickr.