Action 73. Be Grateful for Glaciers.

I’ve taken a bit of a break from this here blogging thing, in order to get my thoughts in order and mind recharged. Writing and thinking on a regular basis about the topic of climate change can be, frankly, rather depressing, and I got to a point a couple weeks ago where I just needed a breather, a few days to step back and put my brain somewhere else so I could return rejuvenated. Plus, I just had to get out and enjoy this stunning summer we are having here in the Pacific Northwest!

Our family just came back from a camping trip to Mount Rainier National Park, where we hiked, saw hugenormous trees, ate too many s’mores, and of course, gazed upon the absolute stunning beauty that is Mount Rainier.

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One of the most amazing things about Rainier has to be its glaciers. Rainier has some pretty darned impressive glaciers- in fact, it is the largest glaciated mountain in the contiguous US and has 25 major glaciers on it. Glaciers are awe-inspiring and adventure-inspiring. Sitting up at Paradise and watching the tiny little fleaspecks of people climbing the mountain thousands of feet above us really puts people in perspective in this enormous, breathtaking landscape.

The irony is, even though we are so tiny we can look like a dust mote on the surface of a Rainier glacier, our impact on these massive fields of ice is so huge. We know with increasing certainty that climate change is having enormous effects on many of our glacier systems around the world, as has been documented in the incredible film Chasing Ice (see Action 53). Mount Rainier is no exception: scientists estimate that the North Cascades glaciers have seen a 50% decrease in area over the last century; Rainier’s glaciers have shrunk by more than a quarter over this time period.  Scientists estimate that billions of gallons of water are being lost in the amount of glacial area lost from two of the major glaciers on Rainier- Nisqually and Emmons- each year (hear more about these facts and the folks studying Rainier’s glaciers in this short film from the Park Service). What does this mean? Our North Cascades glaciers fuel the Pacific Northwest’s Hydroelectric industry, for one. They also fuel a whole lot of tourism, with people coming from around the country and the world by plane, train, car and on foot to see and climb them (about 1.5 to 2 million people visit Mount Rainier National Park every year). They also are the major source of water to a huge number of the lakes and streams all along the western side of Puget Sound and beyond, and are particularly critical for keeping streamflows stable during the dry summer months that are a regular component of the Pacific Northwest climate. As the glaciers have been pulling back, we are losing a major source of stabilization of runoff and gaining exposed unstable debris, likely contributing to the observed increases in catastrophic flooding and debris flows throughout the park in recent years. So their loss is manifesting in several ways in terms of changes to the hydrology of hundreds of river systems fed and regulated by these glaciers.

Clearly, our glaciers are critically important for flood control, water supply, hydroelectric power, and for adventure-loving (maybe slightly crazy) people who are brave enough to climb them, or even those of us like yours truly who are content to gaze upon them from below. Thinking about the myriad of ways in which these glacial systems contribute to the beauty and vitality of our region, it makes me incredibly grateful for the presence of these silent masses of ice, and gratefulness is a very positive place to come from in order to do the work we need to do to change the forces that are threatening these beautiful, important landforms.

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