KALISPELL — On Sept. 20, Glacier National Park’s iconic Going-to-the-Sun road closed on both sides for very different reasons.
On the west side, the road was closed due to the proximity of the Sprague Fire that already had been burning for more than a month and had gutted one of the park’s most prized structures — the Sperry Chalet’s dormitory.
Coming from the east, smoke and heat weren't the worry. Instead, officials were forced to close the road because of the snow and ice that had made its annual chilly appearance.
Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said the mountainous national park is already a place of extremes.
Earlier this week, Mow served as the keynote speaker of the Montana Climate Science Day held at Flathead Valley Community College. In his talk, “Fire and Ice: Are Extreme Conditions the New Normal in Glacier National Park?”, Mow outlined the uncertainty of what a changing climate will mean for the national park that broke visitor records this year despite an unusual bout of weather.
Glacier Park received 140 percent of its normal snowpack last winter.
But it came in fits and spurts that set some records along the way.
The moisture started strong. Last October was the rainiest October the park had ever experienced. But then the spigot cranked shut and temperatures edged upwards. November set its own record by the being the warmest and driest ever recorded.
But the snow was soon to follow. Last December set another record for being the snowiest and coldest.
All that moisture stored high in the mountains seemed like a good start to the year for the area’s rivers and streams, but something unexpected happened again. The melt-out date coincided with the same melt-out date of the year with the lowest snowpack in the park.
Higher spring temperatures were, of course, the core reason why that occurred.
But it wasn’t just the nice warm days at fault, Mow said. The main culprit was the warmer-than-normal nights that didn’t fall below the freezing mark and help solidify the snowpack.
That change has caused its own set of challenges for park managers.
One of those concerns is getting the Going-to-the-Sun plowed each spring. Over the past couple of years, Mow said the plowing operation has to take into account the heavy wet snow that’s piled high on many avalanche chutes above the road.
If the road is plowed too early, those heavy, wet slab avalanches that come cascading down the mountain can create a good amount of damage to the roadway.
Those warmer nighttime temperatures also created issues this summer for firefighters hoping to contain the Sprague Fire.
“A huge amount of the growth of that fire came during the night hours,” Mow said.
In years past, firefighters would work through the night because the fires would die down as humidity levels rose and temperatures fell. But Mow said that didn’t really happen this summer and fire managers were forced to change tactics, which included a focus on protection of assets like the Sperry Chalet.
In the case of the chalet, Mow said a sprinkler system was installed to protect the roof from burning embers and any fire that might start relatively close to the building. As it turned out, the area around the chalet’s dormitory didn’t end up burning all that much.
The dormitory was built near the edge of a cliff. The fire that created the ember storm that caused the chalet blaze was below the structure. When it made its run, it shot embers up the cliff face and up under the eaves of the historic structure.
As the park considers its next step for the future of the dormitory building, Mow said park officials will take the long view on what will be best for Glacier and its visitors.
The dormitory is in the path of an avalanche chute. It’s been struck by an avalanche in the recent past.
Work was recently completed to shore up the walls of the burned-out structure to help ensure that it wouldn’t collapse through the winter.
While the walls of the dormitory are stout, there is no reinforcement that’s required under current building standards. Mow said there is a possibility that the walls could be retained with a structure built inside to add stability.
Mow said the park will likely take the same approach as the recently completed project at the Many Glacier Hotel. The $14 million, 14-year-long project worked to retain many of the historical qualities of the building while making the structural changes required for longevity.
“We want to take the approach of what’s the right structure for the next 100 years,” Mow said.
“The Sperry Chalet is iconic,” he said. “It is important to retain. It offers an experience that’s unlike any other offered in the park.”
As park officials go through their deliberations on how the dormitory might be rebuilt, they will also have to address the issue of finding a new source of fresh water for the facility.
Mow said the Sperry Chalet ran out of water in 2015. It was less than five days away from running out of water again when the chalet was evacuated due to the fire.
“The water system that’s been there for more than 100 years is no longer viable,” he said. “As part of rebuilding Sperry, we will have to find something that is more sustainable.”
The more pressing challenge Mow and others face this winter and coming spring is the potential for mudslides or heavy ash flows into the Lake McDonald Lodge area. The area upstream of the lodge was heavily burned in a stand-replacement type of fire.
Mow said crews are reinforcing some of the areas around the lodge to prepare for whatever the spring runoff brings.