Roundup: Glacier Park, Lahars, and Glacial Ecosystems

Roundup: Glacier Park, Lahars and Ecosystems

Glacier National Park Embraces Sustainability

From Xanterra: “Just 150 years ago, 150 glaciers graced these spectacular alpine summits. Only 25 remain large enough today to be considered ‘functional,’ say scientists who expect the park’s glaciers to vanish by 2030, with many disappearing before that. People heeding the advice to visit soon will find a variety of national park lodging and dining spots that are making environmental stewardship part of the park experience.”

Read more about it here.


Glacier National Park (Source: Gracie Chance/Creative Commons).


Washington State’s Lahar Preparedness

From Journal of Applied Volcanology: “As populations around the world encroach upon the flanks of nearby volcanoes, an increasing number of people find themselves living at risk from volcanic hazards. How these individuals respond to the threats posed by volcanic hazards influences the effectiveness of official hazard mitigation, response, and recovery efforts. Ideally, those who are aware of the hazards and concerned should feel motivated to become better prepared; however, research repeatedly shows that an accurate risk perception often fails to generate adequate preparedness… This study explores the barriers that people in the Skagit Valley of Washington face when deciding whether or not to prepare for lahars as well as the impact of participation in hazard management on household preparedness behaviors.”

Read more about Washington’s lahar preparedness here.

Mount Baker poses a threat from lahars (Source: sworldguy/Creative Commons).


How Changing Climate Affects Ecosystems

From Environmental Research Letters: “Climate change is undeniably occurring across the globe, with warmer temperatures and climate and weather disruptions in diverse ecosystems (IPCC 2013, 2014). In the Arctic and Subarctic, climate change has proceeded at a particularly breakneck pace (ACIA 2005)… However, climate warming is forecast to be even more extreme in the future. In order to predict the impacts of further global change, experiments have simulated these future conditions by warming the air and/or soil, increasing CO2 levels, altering nutrient fertilization, modifying precipitation, or manipulating snow cover and snowmelt timing (Elmendorf et al 2015, Wu et al 2011, Bobbink et al 2010, Cooper 2014). Changes in biodiversity at high latitudes are expected to have profound impacts on ecosystem functioning, processes, and services (Post et al 2009).”

Read more about how changing climate affects ecosystems here.

Small herbs and plants can provide food for animals (Source: Will Stuart/Creative Commons).

Photo Friday: Mt. Baker Glaciers

Washington is the second most-glaciated state in the United States, after Alaska. Mount Baker, located in the North Cascade Range, is an active stratovolcano that contains about 49 square kilometers of glaciers. The region is a popular skiing destination and the surrounding Skagit Valley provides a beautiful location from which to photograph glaciers.

Chris Pribbernow is an outdoor and sports photographer based in Washington. He recently captured the Skagit Valley and Mount Baker glaciers. Take a look at some of the photographs from his visits or see his other images from Washington State @PribbernowPhotography.


A view of the glaciers on Mount Baker from the Skagit Valley in Washington State (Source: Chris Pribbernow)


View of Mount Baker as a flock of birds takes flight (Source: Chris Pribbernow).


The Skagit Valley (Source: Chris Pribbernow).


Wildflowers in the valley (Source: Chris Pribbernow).


Mt. Baker, with farmland in the foreground (Source: Chris Pribbernow).

Editorial: Viewing the Election from the Summits of Glaciers

The weather was sunny on Election Day in western Washington, with widely scattered clouds or entirely clear skies.  As residents made their way to polling places, many had views of the state’s mountain peaks.

The  results that came in late that night showed that the state as a whole gave strong support to Hillary Clinton. She received 56% of the votes in the state, a percentage exceeded by only 6 other states and the District of Columbia.

County-level results in the 2016 presidential election in Washington state source: New York Times)
County-level results in the 2016 presidential election in Washington state (Source: New York Times).

However, this result was far from uniform across Washington.  Its highest peaks, Baker, Rainier and Adams, indicated by their initials on the attached map, mark not only the crest of the Cascades, but also a line that divides the state into red and blue counties, in one of the sharpest political gradients in the nation.

Did the region’s residents notice these white peaks as they went to vote? The mountains, which contain the largest masses of glacier ice in the lower 48 states, are widely popular in Washington; their forested slopes have given the state its nickname, the Evergreen State. To many in the largely Democratic cities and suburbs near Puget Sound, along the I-5 corridor, the mountains could bring up important issues, particularly environmentalism. This section of the state also supports the maintenance of public lands, especially at higher elevations, for hiking and recreation.

The mountains could also evoke topics that matter to many in the heavily Republican small towns and rural areas near the spine of the Cascades and further to the east.  Many local residents there still bitterly resent the Endangered Species Act which led to the virtual ending of timber cutting nearly thirty years ago, and to the decline of lumber towns up and down the highways of the region. Access to firearms is also a deeply felt issue in this area, where deer and elk are widely hunted, their meat forming an important part of the diet, especially for the rural poor. As these examples show, mountains and their glaciers can both unite and divide people, connecting them to a common landscape in different and contentious ways.

On the same day, halfway around the world, representatives of 196 countries were gathered in Marrakech, Morocco for COP22, the annual meeting of the UNFCCC, with the hope of building on the progress of COP21, held last year in Paris. At this meeting, glaciers are a presence as well. They serve as an indicator of the rapid pace of climate change worldwide and of the need for prompt and effective action to continue the momentum developed in Paris.

The state of Washington, the United States and the nations of the world cannot advance without coordinated efforts on the critical issues which they face. The white summits of the Cascades and of mountain ranges around the world show the great value of nature for all humanity. They show other things as well: the fragility of the world, the urgency of action, and, above all, the necessity of cooperation to carry out actions to protect the world.

Glaciers Help Explain Suffering Salmon Populations

The Nooksack Indians, who live in northwest Washington near the border of Canada, are fighting to save local salmon populations through a variety of innovative measures. Several species of salmon reside in the Nooksack River, which is comprised of three main forks that drain a large portion of the Cascade Range into Bellingham Bay. The salmon of the Nooksack are struggling as waters in the river warm. In response, the Nooksack Indians have turned to local glaciers to help understand and resolve the otherwise unrestricted impacts of climate change.

Map of Nooksack River. Photo Credit:
Map of Nooksack River. (Source:

The waters of the Nooksack River have long housed several salmon species that have provided tribes like the Nooksack with sustenance and financial support. In recognition of the importance of fishing for Native American communities, fishing rights were granted to the local tribes through the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. However, these fishing rights are threatened by the dwindling salmon populations struggling to keep up with the changing climate.

The endangerment of the local salmon populations aren’t just an economic loss for the Nooksack Indians, but a culturally significant loss as well. Oliver Grah, Water Resources Program Manager for the tribe, points out, “The Nooksack Indian Tribe is place-based. That is, tribal members are supposed to stay and live on or near their reservation.” Once the river ecosystems reach a specific tipping point, the salmon populations will begin to die off and the impacts on local tribes will be deeply felt.

In an effort to avert worrisome climate projections, the Nooksack Indian Tribe has been proactively implementing adaptive infrastructure and closely monitoring nearby glaciers crucial to healthy salmon numbers. It’s through thoughtful and long-term adaptation and monitoring plans that the Nooksack Tribe seeks to ease the environmental stressors that may critically alter salmon habitats.

Mountain Glacier, Photo Credit: Oliver Grah
Mountain glacier. (Source: Oliver Grah)

Pacific Northwest salmon populations fare best in periods having “high precipitation, deep mountain snowpack, cool air and water temperatures, cool coastal ocean temperatures, and abundant north-to-south ‘upwelling’ winds in spring and summer,” according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The Nooksack River relies heavily on the glacial runoff from both Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan located near the U.S.-Canada border. Summer glacial melt has historically helped keep rivers cool and ideal for salmon, according to Northern Arizona University. However, as places like Washington continue to see above average temperatures, the glacial snowpack has started to suffer. When the glaciers suffer, the salmon suffer.

Scientists working on mountain glacier, photo credit: Oliver Grah
Scientists working on mountain glacier. (Source: Oliver Grah)

With the current temperature trends, salmon populations will slowly wane to extinction in the Nooksack river, according to Grah. Grah states, “Ultimately, loss of glacier melt due to glacier recession will result in reduced stream flows and increased temperatures late in the summer when salmon are most vulnerable.”

Different salmon species breed during the late summer and early fall, according to the National Park Service. This process begins in freshwater when a salmon egg nest becomes fertilized and remains embedded in the river bottom during the winter months. In the spring, eggs hatch and remain close to the nest for several months. Once the salmon have matured and grown in size, they begin to migrate towards the ocean. Depending on salmon breed, the migration can take anywhere from 0-2 years. Once the salmon reach the mouth of the river, they feed to increase their size and chance of survival in the ocean. Salmon can remain in the ocean for up to 8 years before migrating back to their native streams for reproduction. But this entire process relies on a consistent habitat in the salmon’s native river. The Nooksack Tribe recognizes the importance of trying to maintain this original ecosystem despite challenges posed by climate change and reduced glacial runoff.

Scientist Oliver Grah collecting field data (Source: Oliver Grah)
Scientist Oliver Grah collecting project data (Source: Oliver Grah)

In an attempt to reduce vulnerability, the Nooksack’s adaptation measures have sought to create a landscape that will help cool the river. These efforts include lining the rivers with trees to shade exposed waters from abundant sunlight. Additionally, the tribe has been creating log jams, which will help provide sites of colder water for the fish. This habitat restoration program, with its emphasis on the effects of climate change, offers “a good chance that the tribe can improve the chance of salmon survival in the face of climate change,” according to Grah.

Photo Credit: Oliver Grah
River data collection. (Source: Oliver Grah)

While these adaptation efforts won’t specifically address the issue of glacial recession, they will help to maintain the local river ecosystem. The Nooksack have also worked to set up a local glacier monitoring program, recognizing the importance of glaciers on the health of the salmon.

Grah, a leading glacier expert, is part of the team monitoring the local glaciers in northwest Washington for the tribe. Most of the glacier runoff that empties into the Nooksack river comes from the glaciers located on Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. According to the University of Oregon’s Tribal Climate Project, “On Mt. Baker alone, at least eight glaciers feed the watershed. There are approximately 148 glaciers, glacierets, and perennial snowfields with a combined area of 40,828,294 m2 (15.76 mi2 ) that drain into the Nooksack River.”

Changes in Washington climate patterns have the ability to drastically impact the glacial landscape of the Northern Cascades. Given the magnitude of the runoff into the Nooksack River, slight deviations from the norm could mean massive changes for the river.

In an attempt to try and quantify these potential changes, the Nooksack tribe has been consistently recording snow depth, melt rates, stream temperatures and runoff. This field data is used to create scientific models that help show the speed and severity of glacial melt. These models take the field data and visually demonstrate the interconnections of different variables, identifying current and future climate trends. Monitoring and striving for healthy glaciers will ensure the Nooksack Tribe can continue to embrace its deep-rooted history in the Pacific Northwest.

With the combined adaptation and research efforts, the Nooksack Tribe understands the importance of being prepared and well-informed. Through collaborations with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nooksack Tribe remains focused on preserving historical aspects of their culture for future generations. It’s this awareness and environmental dedication expressed by the Nooksack Tribe that exemplifies how to mindfully manage the impacts of climate change in order to preserve aspects of all culture, not just one’s own.

Roundup: Glacier Tourism, Monitoring, and Melt

Each weekly Roundup, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.


Tourists’ take “last chance” to see New Zealand Glaciers

From The International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment:

“For more than 100 years, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers in Westland Tai Poutini National Park have attracted thousands of tourists annually and have emerged as iconic destinations in New Zealand. However, in recent years, the recession of both glaciers has been increasingly rapid and the impacts on, and implications for, visitor experiences in these settings remain relatively unexplored…Results revealed the fundamental importance of viewing the glaciers as a significant travel motive of visitors, suggesting that there is a ‘last chance’ dimension to their experience. Furthermore, the results demonstrate a high adaptive capacity of local tourism operators under rapidly changing environmental conditions.”

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand (Wiki)
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand (Wiki)

To read the full study, click here.


Glacier monitoring in the pre-internet era

From AGU Blogosphere:

“We have been monitoring the annual mass balance of Easton Glacier on Mount Baker, a stratovolcano in the North Cascade Range, Washington since 1990.  This is one of nine glaciers we are continuing to monitor, seven of which have a 32 year long record. The initial exploration done in the pre-internet days required visiting libraries to look at topographic maps and buying a guide book to trails for the area.  This was followed by actual letters, not much email then, to climbers who had explored the glacier in the past, for old photographs.  Armed with photographs and maps we then determined where to locate base camp and how to access the glacier.”

Easton Glacier retreat, taken in 2003 (wiki)
Easton Glacier retreat, taken in 2003 (wiki)

For more, go to the AGU Blog post here, and check out “Easton Glacier Monitoring” by Mauri Pelto on Vimeo


Water scarcity in central Asia

From The World Bank:

“Communities in Central Asia talk about how water is vital but scarce resource across the region. The Central Asia Energy-Water Development Program (CAEWDP) works to ensure effective energy and water management, including at the regional level. This work should accelerate investment, promote economic growth and stable livelihoods.”

For more, click here. 

Girls Breaking Ground on Ice

As a student, I had no idea that I ever wanted to study anything related to science- much less the “hard” sciences. Often, I was pointed in the direction of social science because of my writing ability and creativity. Although my high school days weren’t long ago, this experience is common among young women due to archaic stereotypes that have yet to be dismantled. Luckily, there are some female professionals in the hard sciences, such as Dr. Erin Pettit, glaciologist and founder of the Girls on Ice Program, who are trying new approaches to open corridors in science for young ladies.

(Photo: Facebook)
Young women who participate in the program represent a variety of backgrounds and geographic locations. (Photo: Facebook)


Sponsored by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Girls on Ice is a free science, mountaineering, and art wilderness program for young women ages 16-18. Each year, two teams of nine young women and three instructors spend twelve days on unforgettable expeditions: one trip explores Mount Baker, an ice-covered volcano in Washington, and the other trip allows the young women to experience the majesty of Alaska’s Gulkana Glacier. The young women selected for the teams explore these unique landscapes with professional mountaineers, ecologists, artists, and glaciologists, and all of the instructors are women.

GOI Poster


The program stretches the young women mentally and physically by prompting them to observe, to question, and to experiment while trekking through rough terrain. Although the focus is scientific research, the physical elements cannot be overlooked. “We don’t baby them. They have to set up tents, cook, do everything,” declared Dr. Pettit to the National Science Teachers Association. Over the course of the expedition, the girls are challenged to design and conduct a pinnacle experiment about the environment; during the 2009 expedition, one participant used time-lapse imagery to correlate local weather and glacial melt. She found that air temperature and sunshine have a direct effect on the melt rates of ice and snow cover, thus affecting the pace of water-flow in glacial streams. After the expedition, the young women are invited to synthesize their field research and present it to a public audience, which sometimes includes members from the local geoscience community.


The young women partner with professionals in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of their new environment. (Photo: Facebook)
The young women partner with professionals in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of their new environment. (Photo: Facebook)


The young women on the Girls on Ice team gain both physical and intellectual confidence, leadership skills, and inspiration for future achievement. Yet, along with stimulating the minds of the young women, the program has benefits for society as it helps to close the gap between the numbers of women and men involved in science occupations. According to National Geographic, women make up a meager 26% of the individuals devoted to science, technology, engineering, and math occupations; although that number has been increasing slightly over the years, “gender bias has affected research outcomes.” Programs like Girls on Ice help to ameliorate these injustices by providing unique opportunities for girls to experience the grandeur and marvel inherent in scientific discovery. As stated by one of the participants, “I am inspired to do anything! In the van ride back I was looking out the window at the amazing scenery and the bright blue sky and I felt so great and excited for life.”

The program allows the young women to grow as scholars, but also allows personal reflection time. (Photo: Facebook)
The program allows the young women to grow as scholars, but also allows personal reflection time. (Photo: Facebook)


Dr. Pettit stated in her feature in Smithsonian, “My goal is not to turn these girls into scientists. My goal is to provide the kind of critical-thinking skills that are necessary for science-and for everything else we do in life.” The aim is to inspire these young women to become not just scientists, but also “future teachers, journalists, lawyers, and businesswomen who are advocates for the scientific process.” Therefore, this program and other field science experiences for high school students offer a promising outlook on the importance of preserving glaciers and their magnificent environments. Not only are these areas important for their immediate ecosystems, but they have the potential to inspire the curiosity and achievement of many generations to come.

Photo Friday: Mt. Baker and the North Cascades

Emily Gibson runs a blog called Barnstorming, about rural life on a farm in northwest Washington. Her pictures feature Mt. Baker, North Cascades and the Canadian Rockies in many different lights.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at

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