With a climate change/global warming scoffer currently residing in the White House, the research data published last month by the U.S. Geological Survey and Portland State University couldn’t be more timely…and frightening. The data show that, since 1966, 39 glaciers in Montana have significantly shrunk in size due to the warming climate. Some of the glaciers have shrunk as much as 85%!
To be considered a glacier, a body of ice must cover at least 25 acres. In the latter part of the 19th century, Glacier National Park in Montana was home to 150 glaciers. Only 26 glaciers remain today. The shrinking of the glaciers will not only have an impact on tourism in Montana, it can change the entire ecosystem of a mountain.
“The park-wide loss of ice can have ecological effects on aquatic species by changing stream water volume, water temperature and run-off timing in the higher elevations of the park,” said Dr. Daniel Fagre, lead USGS scientist.
While glaciers all over the world are shrinking, the Montana glaciers are shrinking at a faster rate. This is due, in part because the glaciers in Glacier National Park are smaller and don’t sit at as high an elevation as others do. Said Fagre, “we’re sort of on the leading edge of glacier retreat that’s occurring all over the world.”
To conduct the research, the USGS and Portland State University scientists charted the shrinking of the glaciers’ perimeters using digital maps and satellite photos. They compared the perimeters of the glaciers using images from 1966, 1998, 2005, 2015 and 2016. The amount of shrinkage varied from glacier to glacier depending on elevation and whether the glaciers are shaded by the mountain for part of the day. They discovered that, on average, the perimeters of the glaciers in the park have been reduced by 39%.
How quickly the remaining glaciers in the park shrink in the future depends entirely on the weather. Cooler years can offer some respite but a series of warmer years may shrink them enough for them to fall below the 25 acre threshold. As Fagre notes, “The most important aspect of this is that the process is only going in one direction. They’re all inexorably going to that ultimate fate.”
The data is part of an ongoing USGS study of glaciers in Alaska, Washington and Montana. The larger study is documenting mass balance measurements in order to determine whether the total amount of glacial ice is increasing or decreasing for a particular glacier. As the glaciers being studied are in different mountain climates and elevations, the information being gathered will help scientists better understand the impact of climate change on a larger scale.
Recently, the Trump administration ordered the Department of the Interior to recommend ways to shrink National Monuments or do away with them entirely. The Trump Administration is hopeful that the recommendations will enable fossil fuel development on federal land. While new Department of the Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, admitted during his confirmation hearing that the glaciers in Glacier National Park are shrinking due to climate change, he would not agree that humans were the cause. Zinke is also an advocate of fossil fuel development on federal lands.