GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – Don Gisselbeck’s tradition left him feeling especially dirty this August.
The Missoula bike mechanic skis at least once every month of the year. In summer, he often heads for the Salamander Glacier, a deceptively large curl of ice and snow lurking in the folds of Mount Grinnell. Last week, he found his black-diamond chute coated in black dust.
“The dark stuff was covered with more sharp-edged rock than I ever remember,” Gisselbeck said. “Many years, there’s a (snow) line you can follow down from the Salamander to the Grinnell Glacier pond. This year, it was all rubble.”
Equally dark skies full of wildfire smoke made it hard to see Salamander or Grinnell glaciers from the Gem Glacier Overlook on the Garden Wall. But while some people wondered if the off-colored snow was due to ash and soot, the reality is a more permanent ailment. Glacier Park’s glaciers are dying.
“It’s the local circumstance of where our glaciers are – they didn’t get enough snow in previous winters, and it’s starving them,” said Dan Fagre, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in West Glacier. “As a glacier shrinks, the rock doesn’t go away and the percentage of rock to snow goes up. So it looks a lot dirtier than it did a few years ago.”
Fagre has noticed some other color changes too. Where Gisselbeck used to ski to Grinnell Glacier’s melt pond, Salamander Glacier has formed its own pool of water.
Glacial ice fields grind the rock beneath them, producing a fine powder known as glacial flour. Active glaciers produce so much glacial flour, the waters around them are typically an opaque, milky blue.
“A few years ago, Salamander still showed some coloration,” Fagre said. “Now its melt-water pond is clear. We think the glacier has stopped moving.”
Salamander Glacier becoming a stagnant ice mass wouldn’t invalidate Glacier National Park’s ecological significance. The name really refers to the prehistoric ice fields like the one that once flowed from the Grinnell basin all the way past Many Glacier Hotel and onto the Great Plains.
President Barack Obama visited that kind of glacier last week, when he attended the GLACIER climate change conference in Alaska.
While there, he noted that Alaskan ice fields were losing 75 gigatons of ice each year. One gigaton of ice, Obama said, would be a block the size of the National Mall between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial – four times as tall as the Washington Monument.
“We know that human activity is changing the climate,” Obama said on Tuesday. “That’s beyond dispute – everything else is politics. We can have a legitimate debate about how to solve this problem, but we cannot deny the science. We can embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it. This is a solvable problem, if we start now.”
Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow previously oversaw Kenai Fjords National Park, where Obama made his remarks and hiked to its Exit Glacier. Mow said the climatic forces at work in Glacier Park could affect much more than the 30 icy landmarks around its peaks.
“The thing that keeps me awake more often is the impact of the lack of glaciers, and what that means to the ecosystem,” Mow said. “We have cold-water-adapted species like invertebrate insects, bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. What that means to them and their habitat is more than just the visual loss of the glacier.”
People will notice changes too. This year’s snowplowing crew was flabbergasted when their typical week’s worth of work to reach Two Medicine Lake took just one day.
“When we think about how we manage the park, is this year a one-off, or is this the new normal?” Mow wondered. “There’s a forecast of a very profound El Nino coming up (a weather pattern that typically pulls cold and snow away from Montana). If this is the new normal, we have to adapt to it in a better way than we have.
"It could mean not being able to provide water in some locations in August. A hotter, meaner fire season. Earlier openings in the season. Our regular goal is to have the Going-to-the-Sun Road open by the third weekend in June. This year, the road was easily passable before Memorial Day Weekend, and our (seasonal) staffing wasn’t there yet.”
Across the Garden Wall from the Grinnell Basin, motorists on the Sun Road now have a much better view of Jackson Glacier, thanks to the ravages of the Reynolds Creek fire earlier this August.
Tall stands of lodgepole pine used to block most of the view at the Jackson Glacier Overlook. But there isn’t as much to see as when those trees were last short enough to see over.
Once an ice field that spread across three miles of cliff between mounts Jackson and Logan, two much smaller glaciers sit surrounded by numerous satellite snow patches.
A brutally steep spur trail leads from Gunsight Lake to a spot where mountaineers used to start climbs up the toe of Jackson Glacier to reach Mount Jackson’s 10,052-foot summit. Now those climbers have to slog up another 1,000 vertical feet of scree to get within shouting distance of the ice.
The view is still awe-inspiring, but also sad. The satellite snowfields that once contributed to the ice mass crumble like toppled snowmen. As they break apart, each crack and fissure exposes more surface area for the sun to heat and rock to coat.
“It’s not just huge chunks, but getting rid of a lot of loose rock that used to be frozen to the cliffs,” Fagre said. “This is occurring in other places around the world. Where glaciers are retreating quickly, things that were glued in by cold temperatures have expanded and dropped their load. They’ve had to close parts of the Eiger (Switzerland’s famous climbing mountain) because of increased rock fall.”
Ironically, the rock coating that can absorb heat and speed up melting can also put a glacier into a kind of suspended animation.
“They become rock glaciers, insulated from the sun and warm air,” Fagre said. “At the very end, they get semi-preserved. On Grinnell right now, the edge of the glacier has so much rock, you hardly know where the ice is.”
In the next few weeks, Fagre and his team of researchers hope to survey as many of Glacier Park’s ice fields as they can in the brief window between the complete melting of last year’s snowfall and the arrival of this year’s new supply.
"We wanted a whole-park inventory done this year,” Fagre said. “We got aerial photos of all the park glaciers, but they’re oblique, and we can’t accurately size them. So we will have quite a bit of field work to do in the next six weeks. With this warm weather, it’s very bad for glaciers, but it’s good for glacier researchers. We can get new and accurate estimates of where the ice edges are.
“Next Tuesday, we’re going up to Grinnell to measure its margins. Our most recent estimate is from 2013 at 128 acres. This time, I think it’s going to be a lot less. Just last Thursday I was up there and we saw a chunk fall off into the lake.”