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Disappearing Glaciers

This undated photo provided by the National Park Service shows Iceberg Lake in Glacier National ParK. Scientists said in 2010 that Glacier National Park lost two more of its namesake moving icefields to climate change.

WEST GLACIER - A warming climate is changing the face of Glacier National Park, and some now worry the transformation threatens not only downstream ecosystems but also the region's important tourism economy.

"Tourism brings about

$3 billion into Montana every year," said Rhonda Fitzgerald, an innkeeper and member of the state tourism advisory council. "In the Glacier region, it's about $1 billion per year. Those are the economic facts."

And then there are the climate change facts.

Between 1900 and 1979, the Glacier Park area experienced an average of 181 days every year when the temperature dipped below freezing. Between 1980 and 2005, warming had reduced the number of below-freezing days to 152.

The region now experiences, on average, eight more days each year when temperatures top 90 degrees, and eight fewer days when the mercury falls below zero. And over the past decade, the park warmed at twice the rate of the overall planet.

Many of the park's small glaciers are gone entirely, and others are shrinking fast. Of the 150 or so glaciers that draped park peaks in 1850, perhaps 25 remain - and most, if not all, will melt out over the next 10 years.

"And the reality," Fitzgerald said, "is that even if visitors don't come specifically to see a glacier, they come to see the things glaciers create."

Things like snow-capped mountainsides, and waterfalls and lakes and wildflowers and alpine meadows and wildlife and the stunning turquoise blue of Cracker Lake.


Already, that blue has faded from many park waters. Dan Fagre, of the U.S. Geological Survey, says the color is created by "glacial flour" - finely ground rock powder pulverized by glacial movement. As go the glaciers, so goes the turquoise hue.

On Wednesday, Fitzgerald and Fagre joined for the release of a new report, a collaborative effort between the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council, titled "Glacier National Park in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption."

Some of those threats - such as retreating glaciers and changing waters - already are visible on the ground. Others are expected to happen as the ice and snow melts further.

The authors anticipate that some animal species will move out, while others might move in. Likewise with plants, as forests reach into higher elevations, and grasslands encroach.

River flows will lessen and warm - which will affect trout - and the area will experience more frequent and more furious wildfires.


And all of that has Denny Gignoux worried about his bottom line. Owner of Montana Raft and Glacier Wilderness Guides, Gignoux caters to tourists "looking for a unique experience."

That is to say, they want to see a glacier, or at least a landscape watered by glaciers. In a warming world, he said, "that's an experience that is lost."

"What happens when all these threats increase?" Gignoux wondered. "What does our future look like?"

The report's authors admit that "there is, as yet, no survey data on how visitors to Glacier might react to the effects there of climate change."

But there is some preliminary data from the north. Surveyors questioned visitors at Waterton Lakes National Park, which adjoins Glacier in Alberta, providing them a description of what that park is predicted to look like by the end of this century. About 20 percent said they wouldn't visit that future park, and nearly 40 percent said they'd visit less often.

Of course, today's tourists will be long gone by the end of the century, and the visitor of the future will be working from a whole different baseline. The parks, in other words, might still be just as popular. Or not.

"Why risk it?" Fitzgerald said. She knows environmental conditions drive the visitation that drives her economy. In 2003, when wildfires burned across 10 percent of Glacier, visitation fell by half. In August alone, some 258,000 fewer people visited than in previous years.

"The fires made it, in many ways, less of an experience," she said, "and climate change will do that, too. What is Glacier Park without all its waterfalls and wildflowers?"


Fitzgerald said she doesn't know how much, or even if, a changing climate might translate into changing economics, but she's certain it would mean a changing visitor experience.

Report author Stephen Saunders, of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, was more categorical, saying "if we let climate change and its impacts get to an unacceptable point, the economy of Montana will suffer."

The notion that we can stop - or at least slow - the change implies that we have had a hand in creating it, and Fagre agreed that, after reviewing the bulk of the best science, "the inference is that ice is melting primarily due to humans," and is particularly tied to greenhouse gas emissions.

Saunders said the report stands as a wake-up call for energy conservation and a reduction of greenhouse gases worldwide, for the sake of not just of places such as Glacier but also for entire economies.

Do nothing, he said, and current trends predict that "West Glacier will be hotter than Santa Fe by the end of the century."

But, he added, "the good news is we can do better than that."

He imagines the national parks as part laboratory, part iconic rallying point, part example of how to do better.

"The parks inspire us," Fitzgerald said. "They're a place we can all look to, when we're discussing our shared values."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at (406) 862-0324 or at


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