Climate change is melting glaciers on Mount Rainier

At one time, there were 29. Now at least one, and perhaps three, are gone. The ones that remain are about half the size they were before.

Mount Rainier is losing its glaciers. This is all the more surprising because it is the most glacier-covered mountain in the contiguous United States.

These changes reflect a stark global reality: that mountain glaciers are disappearing as the Earth’s atmosphere warms due to the burning of fossil fuels. According to the Global Glacier Monitoring Service, the total area of ​​glaciers has been shrinking steadily in the past half century; Some of the steepest declines were in the western United States and Canada.

Mount Rainier National Park, a popular tourist destination that receives nearly two million visitors each year, is feeling the effects acutely.

Wildflowers, among the main attractions of summer, bloom at odd times. The climbing season for the 14,000-foot peak is shorter. Douglas fir climbs mountain slopes to areas where there is less snow than before. Rocks are falling from retreating glaciers, wiping out ancient forests, changing the course of rivers and, most importantly for the National Park Service, flooding roads that are supposed to be maintained so tourists can drive and enjoy the wildlife.

A small south-facing glacier, Stevens, no longer exists and has been removed from the list of glaciers in the park. Two others, known as Pyramid and Van Trump, are “in serious danger,” according to a comprehensive survey published this summer by the park service, and may be gone by the time the agency conducts the next survey in the next year or two, Scott R. said. Beeson, the park geologist who led the study.

“Killing a glacier is not something I take lightly,” he said. “Their loss is great.”

His study used historical glacier measurements, satellite images, and aerial photography to compile a 3D map of snow and ice in the park. It found that the total area covered by glacial ice has shrunk by 42% between 1896 and 2021. (Another survey, conducted by glaciologist Mauri Pelto in the fall of 2022, concluded that the Pyramid and Van Trump had disappeared.)

Glaciers give Mount Rainier its stunning icy blue glow. On a clear day, they make the mountain visible hundreds of miles away.

In a stable climate, glaciers dance to the rhythm of the seasons. They grow every winter with snow and ice. They melt each summer, providing cooling water to streams and rivers downstream, and to the plants and animals that depend on them, in the dry season.

Climate change has upset this balance. Spring snowpack has declined since the mid-20th century. Temperatures rose. Even when winter snow is good, an unusually warm spring melts the snow quickly, as happened this year.

The face of Mount Rainier is changing, likely forever.

Mr. Beeson noticed this when he entered the park last week and looked up. He said the mountain looked “faint.”

Even in September, there is little winter snow left on Nisqually Glacier, one of the most prominent and largest glaciers on the mountain. Black rocks clung to the surface of the glacier. Over the years, the mouth of the Nisqually River moved farther and farther up the mountain. “Mount Rainier’s glaciers are on a long-term demise,” the park service report warned. “The long-term impacts of this loss will be widespread and impact many aspects of the park’s ecosystem.”

Mountaineers face new challenges, too. Glaciers are the highways they travel on to reach the summit. These passes thaw early and early in the summer. The paths leading to the summit have become longer, as climbers have to skirt around perilous cracks and crevices. The climbing season is getting shorter.

On a foggy Thursday morning in August, Paul Kennard, a geomorphologist who recently retired after 20 years with the Park Service, parked his car in the Paradise parking lot, drove past summer visitors who had come to enjoy the wildflowers and were off — a trail to ascend to Nisqually.

It is among the glaciers that suffer from the greatest problems. Most of them are below 10,000 feet, and are on the south-facing side of the mountain, where the heat is intense. The mountaintop is unlikely to lose its snow and ice. If that happened, Mount Rainier, an active volcano, would look very different. “Like Darth Vader’s head,” Mr. Kennard said.

Mr. Kennard stepped gracefully over a fast-moving stream of polished wet stone and then up and down the side moraine on the east side of the glacier. Here, at more than 6,000 feet, the surface of the Nisqually River was just black rock and boulders, clinging to hundreds of feet of ice beneath. Scattered pebbles were floating here and there, making the way up and down the slopes even more dangerous. Bones and large white teeth were scattered on the ground. Probably a mountain goat, Mr. Kennard guessed, and perhaps an elk.

To the novice visitor, it did not look like a glacier. Mr Kennard confirmed that it was. He said he has hiked the Nisqually River at least 75 times. Today, it seemed worse than he had imagined.

“A glacier that is healthy, or at least maintaining itself, or advancing, has a different appearance,” he said. “It doesn’t feel hollow.”

Under some rocks, shimmering veins of black ice revealed themselves. Occasionally, you can hear a quiet gurgling of the water – a reminder of the frozen river you were standing on. A roar in the distance meant that rocks were falling. Pointing to the ones that were the size of campervans, Kennard said the large objects could dislodge and start collapsing at any time. Depending on their number and speed, they can cause massive destruction.

His worst memory was in 2006, when a glacier burst and sent a massive mass of wet sediment and stones down a tributary of the Nisqually River. It looked to him like a freight train. Huge boulders rolled down. The debris flow, as it’s called, choked out a grove of Douglas fir trees that were at least 100 years old. The river jumped its banks, changed its course, and wiped out portions of the 13-mile West Side Trail.

This road is still closed to vehicle traffic. Skeletons of Douglas fir trees line the far banks. “I see a river gone wild,” Mr. Kennard said.

A few years ago, just before his retirement, Mr. Kennard developed a low-cost solution, using what the mountain throws up: tall trees and large boulders. He created a series of wooden supports, sandwiched between rocks and protruding into the river, in an attempt to protect the riverbank from erosion.

It was a pilot project, designed to protect one of the park’s most important structures: the main road that motorists take from the south entrance. This road lies perilously close to the Nisqually River, flowing wildly with Mount Rainier’s once-powerful glaciers gone forever. “Not forever now,” said Mr. Kennard. “The glaciers are collapsing.”

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