Glacier Retreat Poses Threat to Beer Production

From the southeast to the Pacific Northwest, America has been swept up in the craft beer craze. According to the Washington Beer Commission, Washington State alone is home to 420 breweries. A recent report produced by the University of Washington described the impacts of climate change on Washington State’s cryosphere––or frozen landscapes. The study highlighted the glacier retreat experienced by the state’s Cascade Mountain Range, whose glaciers feed the Yakima River. The river flows into the Yakima Valley, irrigating vast agricultural lands, including 77 percent of hops grown in the US.

The Yakima Valley is described by many as a beautiful oasis in Washington. Sunnier than the rest of the state, it receives an average 300 days of sunshine each year. Agriculture is the predominant land use in the valley, yielding hops, mint, vegetables, grapes used for wine production and more. But the valley’s climate is that of a semi-arid desert, making water sources for its flourishing agricultural sector all the more precious.

Aerial photograph of Yakima Valley, Washington (Source: Wiki Commons/Flickr upload bot)

The Yakima River originates at Keechelus, a glacial lake, and flows down to the Columbia River, contributing to other rivers and tributaries along the way. However, the glaciers that contribute to this important freshwater source are disappearing. The report that came from the University of Washington reviewed the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere to summarize its implications for Washington State. Researchers found that between 1900 and 2009, 56 percent of glacier area in the Cascade Range disappeared. In a 60-year period, spring snowpack in the state has been reduced by 30 percent.

Glacier in the Cascade Range circa 1900 (Source: Wiki Commons/BMacZeroBot)
Queest-Alb Glacier in the Cascade Range, 1998 (Source: Wiki Commons/Ron Clausen)

The implications of glacier retreat and loss of mountain snowpack include impacts to recreation, reduction of water resources, irrigated agriculture and hydropower production. These changes, including warmer winters and decreased snowfall, are also shifting the arrival of peak streamflow. Altering the timing of peak streamflow increases the likelihood of flooding during winter, while decreasing streamflow during the spring and summer months. Reduced water during these seasons would hinder farmers’ ability to grow hops in the Yakima Valley. This is particularly true as demand for irrigation is greater during warmer months and when plants are at the peak of their growing season. 

The hops grown in the Yakima Valley are not only used to produce American-made craft beers, but over half of those grown are exported to other countries. As of 2016, the value of hop crops in Washington totaled $380 million.

The issue of climate change affecting hops production in Washington State does not simply threaten the ability for consumers to have an ice-cold beer in their hand during a hot summer––it threatens livelihoods and the economy. Since Washington contributes significantly to the global supply of hops, the economic effects of reduced hops production would be felt globally. Both hops farmers and beer producers would experience a significant loss from reduced irrigation––and they wouldn’t be the only ones. Wineries in the area would suffer, as would livestock producers and other farmers. Glacier retreat in the Cascades especially threatens the agriculture-dominated economy of the Yakima River Valley. 

Redhook Brewery, an Oregon run company with operations in Seattle, Washington (Source: Wiki Commons/DJC1970)

GlacierHub addressed the potential for climate change to interfere in beer production in an article published in 2018. The story highlighted a climate declaration signed by American beer companies including Sierra Nevada, New Belgium Brewing and many more. With this declaration, “these breweries are showing their leadership and commitment to brewing with the climate in mind.” Among the concerns recognized by these climate conscious breweries is their diminishing water resources. In order to become more sustainable, “they are finding economic opportunity through investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste recapture, and sustainable sourcing.”

For the love of beer, connoisseurs of the craft would be wise to grab an oar––not just for mixing malted hops and barley––but in the upstream paddle for action on the climate crisis.

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