Park Officials Remove Signs Warning That Some Glaciers Will Disappear by 2020

Glaciers have gotten a lot of buzz in recent years as global warming has accelerated, threatening the existence of the world’s land ice. Scientists expect several of the world’s glaciers to disappear in the coming years, with some having already perished from climate change

The fate of Montana’s Glacier National Park, however, is somewhat less certain. The park recently removed signs stating that the park’s glaciers will disappear by 2020, replacing them with ones making more general statements about glacier melt and climate change. 

Hidden Lake at Glacier National Park (Source: Scott & Eric Brendel/Flickr)

The new signs

The older signs, posted earlier this decade at the St. Mary Visitor Center, were based on earlier scientific assessments of glacier recession. A display at the center which read “Goodbye to the Glaciers” explained that computer models indicated the loss of all of the park’s glaciers by 2020.

Yet, with 2019 coming to a close, some of the glaciers remain.

While they’ve continued to shrink and are on course to disappear, recent years of plentiful snowfall has slowed down their rate of depletion. This prompted park officials to replace the signs.

These new signs say that glaciers are still melting bit by bit due to climate change, although researchers are unable to make an accurate prediction of when exactly glaciers at the park will disappear. “When they completely disappear, however, will depend on how and when we act,” the new sign reads.

New signage at Glacier National Park (Source: Lauren Alley/Glacier National Park)
New signage at Glacier National Park (Source: Lauren Alley/Glacier National Park)

Climate denialists pounce

The news was not formally announced on the park’s website, but has drawn the attention of climate denial sites in the past few weeks. The Daily Caller quoted the US Geological Survey, which stated that glacier retreat can fluctuate due to changes in local microclimates. “Subsequently, larger than average snowfall over several winters slowed down that retreat rate and the 2020 date used in the [National Park Service] display does not apply anymore,” the agency said. 

Watts Up With That, a hub for climate denialist commentary, also covered the signage change. It sited Roger I. Roots, founder of Lysander Spooner University, who said the park’s Grinnell and Jackson Glaciers have actually grown since 2010. They believe the Jackson Glacier may have expanded by as much as 25 percent in the last decade.

Both stories, among others, suggest that recent increases in glacier mass demonstrate that previous accounts of glacier retreat were alarmist.

Scientists have recognized, however, that glacier retreat is not a linear process. Climate variability sometimes causes more snow to accumulate on glaciers, causing them to grow. Yet the mass trend in the northern Rockies, where Glacier National Park is located, and in nearly all mountain ranges in the world is on a steady decline.

Local factors

Caitlyn Florentine, a post-doctoral research fellow at the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, spoke to GlacierHub about the glacier retreat at Glacier National Park and the influence of local microclimate on melt rates. She is currently working on projects focused on the relationship between mountain glaciers and regional climate, using Sperry Glacier as a benchmark for regional climate change at Glacier National Park.

Sperry Glacier (Source: Emilia Kociecka/Flickr)

Florentine said it’s important to look at the ways local factors, such as avalanching, shading, and wind drifting of snow, affect mass balance on glaciers.

Florentine referenced a recent study published in the journal Earth System Science Data, which monitored seasonal mass balance on the park’s Sperry Glacier since 2005. “There are some years where there’s a positive mass balance, and that was true in 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2016,” said Florentine, “But, overall, the net loss from each year offset the mass added, leading to a cumulative decline.”

The study team examined one model that suggests Sperry Glacier will not disappear until 2080 under current climate and glaciological conditions at the park. Scientists have tracked a steady, progressive retreat of Sperry since the mid 20th century. 

“If you look at glacier change and Glacier National Park based on the footprint of the glaciers, with data going all the way back to 1966, you’ll see that the footprint of the glaciers has definitely shrunk over time,” Florentine said.

Although Glacier National Park has received a significant amount of snow in recent years, the glaciers are continuing to retreat, with a third of the park’s ice having already disappeared in just the last 50 years.

Spatial extent of the Sperry Glacier from 1998 to 2015 (Source: Clark et al.)

Informing the public

Lauren Alley, a management assistant at Glacier National Park, said it’s difficult to capture how the longevity of the park’s glaciers will affect tourism.

She stressed the importance of incorporating accurate information about climate science and melt rates at the park. Climate change is one of the things that the public really wants to learn more about, she said.

“There’s no doubt that for some, a component of their trip may be to see a glacier,” she commented. “That said, typically things like wildfire, exchange rates, gas prices, and the economy overall can all have a pretty big overall effect on national park visitation.” 

Read More on GlacierHub:

What Moody’s Recent Acquisition Means for Assessing the Costs of the Climate Crisis

Rob Wallace Installed to Post in Department of the Interior

Dispatches from the Cryosphere: Intimate Encounters with the Intricate and Disappearing Ice of Everest Base Camp

Photo Friday: Sperry Glacier

Sperry Glacier is located 25 miles south of the border between the United States and Canada, in Montana’s Glacier National Park. It is a winter-accumulation glacier, as more snow falls during the winter than is lost during the summer. The moderate-sized glacier can be reached by foot or on horseback, rising to an elevation of around 7,800 feet. The glacier was named for doctor Lyman Beecher Sperry, who in 1894 reasoned that the glacier was the cause of the cloudiness of the water in Avalanche Lake. When Sperry and his party first reached the glacier in 1897, his nephew Albert Sperry had this reaction after viewing the glacier:

While standing upon that peak overlooking the terrain above the rim wall, we got the thrill of thrills, for there lay the glacier, shriveled and shrunken from its former size, almost senile, with its back against the mountain walls to the east of it, putting up its last fight for life. It was still what seemed to be a lusty giant, but it was dying, dying, dying, every score of years and as it receded, it was spewing at its mouth the accumulations buried within its bosom for centuries.

Today, you can visit Sperry Glacier and walk along the same route that Sperry and his party traveled 120 years ago, although the glacier looks very different today. Join us on this visual tour of the glacier’s past and present. We hope that concerted action on greenhouse gas emissions will assure that this beautiful glacier has a future.

 

Sperry Glacier viewed from Avalanche Lake in 1894 or 1895 (Source: U.S. National Park Service).
Sperry Glacier viewed from Avalanche Lake in 1894 or 1895 (Source: U.S. National Park Service).

 

 

Close up of Sperry Glacier (Distress.bark/Creative Commons).
Close up of Sperry Glacier (Distress.bark/Creative Commons).

 

 

Glacier National Park (Source: U.S. Geological Survey).
Glacier National Park (Source: U.S. Geological Survey).

 

 

Avalanche Lake, Montana (Source: Bachspics/Flickr).
Avalanche Lake, Montana, fed by Sperry Glacier (Source: Bachspics/Flickr).

 

 

Sperry Glacier, 2009 (Source: Lee Coursey/Flickr).
Sperry Glacier, 2009 (Source: Lee Coursey/Flickr).

 

 

View of a hiker on Sperry Glacier trail (Source: Lee Coursey/Creative Commons)
View of a hiker on Sperry Glacier trail (Source: Lee Coursey/Creative Commons)

Photo Friday: Benchmark Glaciers in the USA

Glaciers contain about three quarters of the world’s fresh water and cover about 75,000 square kilometers of the U.S. The United States Geological Service (USGS) has been running the Benchmark Glacier program since the late 1950s to track glacier mass balance. Repeat measurements at four selected sites are used in conjunction with local meteorological and runoff data to measure the glaciers’ response to climate change.

Results from South Cascade Glacier in Washington and Gulkana and Wolverine glaciers in Alaska provide the longest continuous record of North American glacier mass balance. In 2005, Sperry Glacier in Montana was added to the program, allowing changes in glacier mass in the principal North American climate zones to be tracked.

South Cascade Glacier in Washington experiences some of the highest precipitation levels in the lower 48 states of the USA, exceeding 4500mm per annum in some places. Data was first collected from this glacier in 1959.

 

South Cascade Glacier as seen in 1928 (left) and 2006 (right) (Source: USGS)
South Cascade Glacier as seen in 1928 (left) and 2006 (right) (Source: USGS).

 

A researcher collecting a snow core sample from South Cascade Glacier (Source: USGS)
A researcher collecting a snow core sample from South Cascade Glacier (Source: USGS).

 

Gulkana Glacier can be found along the southern flank of the eastern Alaska range. It experiences a continental climate, with large temperature ranges and precipitation that is more irregular and lighter than that experienced in coastal areas.

 

Gulkana Glacier and surrounding peaks (Source: USGS)
Gulkana Glacier and surrounding peaks (Source: USGS).

 

Northern lights over the researchers’ cabin in 2014 (Source: USGS)
Northern lights over the researchers’ cabin in 2014 (Source: USGS).

 

A researcher measuring the thickness of the snow at Gulkana glacier (Source: USGS)
A researcher measuring the thickness of the snow at Gulkana Glacier (Source: USGS).

 

Wolverine Glacier is also located in Alaska, but is found in the Kenai Mountains on the coast. The maritime climate has low temperature variability and regular, heavy precipitation. Data collection at both Gulkana and Wolverine glaciers began in 1966.

 

Wolverine Glacier in 2014 (Source: USGS)
Wolverine Glacier in 2014 (Source: USGS).

 

The weather station at the top of Wolverine Glacier (Source: USGS)
The weather station at the top of Wolverine Glacier in Alaska (Source: USGS).

 

The crevassed surface of Wolverine Glacier (Source: USGS)
The crevassed surface of Wolverine Glacier in the Kenai Mountains (Source: USGS).

 

Sperry Glacier is located in the Lewis Range of Glacier National Park in Montana. The climate of the region is influenced by both maritime and continental air masses, but Pacific storm systems dominate. These systems result in moderate temperatures and heavy precipitation, which vary strongly with altitude.

 

Sperry Glacier in 1913 (top) and 2008 (bottom) (Source: USGS)
Sperry Glacier in 1913 (top) and 2008 (bottom) (Source: USGS).

 

Researchers inserting ablation stakes using a steam drill (Source: USGS)
Researchers inserting ablation stakes using a steam drill (Source: USGS).