In the warmest winter on record the roof of a highly popular ice cave on Mt. Hood, Oregon fell in. The Snow Dragon ice cave at the bottom of the Sandy Glacier on Mt. Hood was first publicly documented in 2011 by Brent McGregor and Eddy Cartaya– we covered their experience documenting the Sandy Glacier last October. Since then, the western US has experienced one of the warmest and driest winters on record, and the Sandy Glacier responded.
As can be seen in the photos above from McGregor and Cartaya’s Facebook page covering ice cave explorations, the Snow Dragon cave has been significantly reduced this winter. The roof to the entrance collapsed in what McGregor on Facebook said he “would consider . . . the biggest change in the cave system since we have been monitoring it.”
This was always a fate for the ice cave that could have been anticipated. For years, many climbers have said Snow Dragon and other cave systems like it would melt before long. Ice thawing from within the glaciers forms the caves. As that thawing continues and expands outwards, it begins to breach the surface. Once tunnels open to the surface, the glaciers continue to melt in an increasing positive feedback: warm surface air travels down the tunnels to the glacier’s core, increasing the rate of melt and creating new surface openings.
Ice cave systems are inherently temporary, so expeditions attempt to explore and document their beauty, chemistry, and biology before they’re gone. As we posted in January, a team from Uncage the Soul Productions shot “Requiem of Ice” in the Sandy Glacier system with help from McGregor and Cartaya for just that reason.
In an interview referencing the current collapse in the Snow Dragon cave with Oregon’s KGW, McGregor said although they knew the caves were temporary, “we thought we had another 5 or 10 years till we reached that point, but it’s accelerating. It doesn’t matter what you believe as far as climate change, the fact is that we are losing ice on our glaciers, just not in Oregon, just not on Mt. Hood, worldwide we’re loosing a lot of ice.”
In fact, at one time there was an even bigger cave system than the Sandy Glacier system. The caves on Mt. Rainier, Washington’s Paradise Glacier– first discovered in the 19th century– were some of the biggest and most popular ice caves in the country by the 1950’s. By 1970 glacial retreat had caused their roofs to cave in and tunnels to collapse, and today, only the highest ice caves in the system are left.
Glacial ice caves don’t always melt away slowly and when no one’s looking. In 2008 a teenage boy became trapped inside an ice cave on Mt. Baker, Washington. The boy’s mother was taking his and friends’ photo inside the cave when the roof suddenly fell in– trapping them inside. It took 6 hours to get them out and the boys were only semi-conscious when they were finally rescued. Events like these outline the dangers associated with these highly volatile cave systems.
More recently, in July 2014, a popular ice cave on Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska collapsed due to increasing glacial melt. No one was trapped inside that time, but scientists and park officials are worried that as temperatures warm and glaciers retreat, more people may be injured exploring popular glacial ice caves unprepared.
As beautiful as the caves are, and as amazing as it is to have the chance to explore their tunnels, they are inevitably disappearing. Nature is always in flux, and we find ourselves currently in an era of increased climate variability and uncertainty. Fortunately, until the ice caves around the world become too dangerous to explore, passionate scientist and adventurers will continue to document their lives, their tunnels, their expansive chambers and hidden lakes, unique flora and fauna, and their immense beauty.
For more photos of McGregor and Cartaya explorations, and the Sandy Glacier cave system, check out their Instagram, or follow them on Facebook. For photos from the Mt. Baker collapse rescue see, here.