Annual Assessment of North Cascades Glaciers Finds ‘Shocking Loss’ of Volume

The summer of 2019 found the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project in the field for the 36th consecutive summer monitoring the response of North Cascade glaciers to climate change. This long term monitoring program was initiated partly in response to a challenge in 1983 from Stephen Schneider to begin monitoring glacier systems before and as climate change became a dominant variable in their behavior.

The field team was comprised of Clara Deck, Ann Hill, Abby Hudak, Jill Pelto, and myself. All of us have worked on other glaciers. The bottom line for 2019 is the shocking loss of glacier volume.

Ann Hill, University of Maine graduate student observed, “Despite having experience studying glaciers in southeast Alaska and in Svalbard, I was shocked by the amount of thinning each glacier has endured through the last two and a half decades.” 

Glaciers are typically noted as powerful moving inexorably. Clara Deck, University of Maine MS graduate, was struck by “the beauty and fragility of the alpine environment and glaciers.” Fragile indeed in the face of climate change.

Abby Hudak, a Washington State graduate student, looked at both the glacier and biologic communities as under stress, but glaciers cannot migrate, adapt, or alter their DNA.

Easton Glacier, Mount Baker. Terminus has become thin and uncrevassed as a rapid retreat of 15 meters per year continued, with 405 m of retreat since 1990.

Over the span of 16 days in the field, every night spent in the backcountry adjacent to a glacier, we examined 10 glaciers in detail. All glaciers are accessed by backpacking. The measurements completed add to the now 36-year-long database that indicate a ~30 percent volume loss of these glaciers during that period (Pelto, 2018).

Here we review preliminary results from each glacier. Each glacier will have a mass balance loss of  1.5 -2.25 m, which drives continued retreat.  Columbia and Rainbow Glacier are reference glaciers for the World Glacier Monitoring Service, with Easton Glacier joining the ranks later this year.

Below and above is the visual summary. Specific mass balance and retreat data will be published here and with WGMS after October 1.

Easton Glacier icefall at 2,200 meters typically has 1.8 m w.e. at the end of the summer, this year it will be 0 m. The overall mass balance will be ~2 m of loss.
Deming Glacier, Mount Baker has now receded over 700 m since our first visit 35 years ago.

On Lower Curtis Glacier, a key accumulation source, the NE couloir now shows bedrock. Overall by summers end ~25 percent of the glacier will retain snow cover, far short of what is needed to maintain its volume.
The Lower Curtis Glacier terminus continues to retreat at 8 meters/year, but thinning and slope reduction has been more notable.
In early August, the majority of Sholes Glacier has lost its snowpack. The thin nature of the terminus indicates the glacier is poised for continued rapid retreat that has exceeded 15 meters per year during the last 7 years.
Runoff assessment confirmed ablation stake measurement of 11 centimeters of ablation/day from 8/6-8/8 on Sholes Glacier.
High on Rainbow Glacier, there are still plenty of regions lacking snow cover instead of a thick mantle of snowpack.
Rainbow Glacier was awash in meltwater streams (see video). This area should have 1 meter of snowpack left. Rainbow Glacier has retreated 650 meters since 1984.
Just getting to each glacier does involve overcoming various miseries.

To see more photos of the 36th annual North Cascades monitoring project, check out the Mauri Pelto’s original post on From a Glacier’s Perspective, a blog published by the American Geophysical Union.

Video of the Week: Mount Baker Releasing Geothermal Steam

On the southern slope of Mount Baker in the North Cascades of Washington state lies Sherman Crater, an active vent where most of the mountain’s geothermal activity occurs. Sulfur-rich vapor often emerges from many locations within the crater, but when the weather is just right, onlookers are in for a treat! These cold, windless days allow the steam to condense and rise gracefully against the backdrop of the blue sky above.

Glaciers had commanding role in shaping Mt. Baker into what it is today, and it still remains heavily glaciated. The glaciers are relatively healthy thanks to heavy snowfalls that keep them from depleting, unlike the fate of many other United States glaciers.

Watch the slow swirl of steam rising and dissipating into the atmosphere around Mt. Baker in this time-lapse video of the week!

 

Read more glacier news from this week:

Climate Change Behind More Frequent & Powerful Avalanches in Alaska

Still Unresolved, Saga of Jumbo Glacier Resort Heads Back to Canadian Court

Roundup: Plant Life in Extreme Conditions, Freshwater in Tibet, and Alaskan Salmon

 

The Skagit Eagle Festival

The Bald Eagles of the Skagit River (source: Joshua Johnson/YouTube).

Floating down the Skagit River in Washington state in a small boat in the winter, you will likely spot many bald eagles along your trip. With wings spreading wide, the eagles soar freely in the sky, having recently returned from northern Canada and Alaska to the Skagit River to hunt migrating salmon.

Salmon at Skagit River (source: Chuck Hilliard/Flickr).
Salmon at Skagit River (source: Chuck Hilliard/Flickr).

The Skagit salmon depend on the glaciers of the Cascade Range to keep the waters of the river healthy and optimal for breeding. With an abundant salmon population, the eagle’s numbers have become so plentiful during the winter season that the region runs a month-long eagle-watching festival and a year-round interpretive center dedicated to the migrating birds.

During eagle-watching season in eastern Skagit County, which begins in January, tourists and birdwatchers arrive from all over the world to track the bald eagles. First started in 1987, the Skagit Eagle Festival is now a popular annual event. Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce in the small town of Concrete, it features many activities, including local music, floating tours, outdoor walks and educational programs, including a Salmon Run along the river.

Bald Eagle feeding on salmon (source Kenneth Kearney Flickr).
Bald Eagle feeding on salmon (source: Kenneth Kearney / Flickr).

During this year’s Skagit Eagle Festival, Native American celebrations also took place along the glacier-fed river, which remains very important to the local tribes. The Samish Indian Nation’s cultural outreach coordinator Rosie Cayou-James and native musician Peter Ali teamed up to organize a special “Native Weekend” at Marblemount Community Hall, featuring Native American history, storytelling and more. Local tribal elders and experts made educational presentations and performed native music at the event. Cayou-James, the main organizer of the weekend, told GlacierHub, “The eagle festival is a way to honor the ancestors. I cannot speak for the other tribes, but the Samish feel very connected to eagles and orcas.”

The Skagit River runs from high in the Cascades to Puget Sound, benefiting both the people and animals that live along the river. It provides a habitat for the five major species of Pacific salmon. Consequently, the river has the country’s largest wintering populations of eagles outside of Alaska. But the health of the eagle and fish populations in the Skagit River depends on the health of the glaciers of the region, which are suffering as a result of climate change.

Rosie Cayou-James (source: Rosie Cayou-James)
Rosie Cayou-James (source: Rosie Cayou-James).

“Climate change has damaged the natural flow of salmon, which is the main source of survival for resident eagles and orcas,” Cayou-James explained to GlacierHub. Samish history instructs members to protect the proper relationship to the land and its resources, including the Skagit River and surrounding glaciers, by teaching how the natural and spiritual worlds “cannot be separated,” according to the Samish Indian Nation website.

In total, there are around 375 glaciers in the Skagit River watershed, as reported by the Skagit Climate Science Consortium. The glaciers keep the flow of the Skagit River high throughout the summer. In addition, glacier water keeps nearby rivers at low temperatures throughout the year, making them optimal for salmon. The salmon rely on the cool glacier-fed water to survive. Without glaciers, stream temperatures become higher and keep climbing, becoming lethal to adult salmon.

Because glaciers are extremely sensitive to climate change, higher temperatures have increased rates of melting, reducing snow accumulation in the winter and changing the timing and duration of runoff. Worse even, the glaciers of the Cascades have not been able to fully rebuild themselves in the winter through accumulated snowfall. The glaciers of the Cascades have shrunk to half of what they were a century ago, according to the United States Geological Survey. In addition, the average winter freezing elevation in the Skagit has risen consistently since 1948, reducing the area which receives the snow that could replenish the glaciers.

An eagle scans the water near Sammish Island (source: Dex Horton Photography/ Flickr).
An eagle scans the water near Samish Island (source: Dex Horton Photography/ Flickr).

As climate change has put Pacific salmon in a difficult situation, the annual eagle festival and educational programs run by leaders like Cayou-James have become more important. Because of the glacier loss caused by increasing temperature, salmon habitat is dramatically changing. With a decrease of the salmon population, the eagles are also in danger. As more and more people get to know the eagles of the Skagit River through the Skagit Eagle Festival, there is hope that opportunities will arise for the people of the region to come together to combat climate change before it is too late.

 

 

Photo Friday: Washington State Glaciers

Over winter break from my PhD program in Arizona, I traveled to Washington State to visit my partner’s family and see old friends. While there, the strong El Nino event affecting global weather this year contributed to persistent high pressure in the region– causing unusual clear blue skies for days on end. The rare winter clarity provided unprecedented views of the region’s beautiful glaciers.

Washington State is home to some of the country’s youngest and tallest mountains– the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. The Olympic Range was created by the movement of the Cascadia subduction zone millions of years ago, while the Cascade range, made up of active volcanic peaks, is driven by the same tectonic subduction. Puget Sound and islands in it, which separate the two mountain ranges, are the remnants of glacial valleys and moraines that were created during the last ice age.

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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 glacierhub@gmail.com

Photo Friday: Exploring Mount Shuksan

Mount Shuksan, a glaciated peak in the North Cascades National Park of Washington state, is perhaps one of the most heavily photographed mountains in the world. The mountain’s name, Shuksan, is derived from the Lummi word meaning “high peak–” these photos below show why.

Emily from Barnstorming, a wife, mother, farmer and family physician living in rural northwest Washington, shared some of her photos of Mount Shuksan and neighboring Mount Baker, from a recent trip to the North Cascades.

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Check out this past Photo Friday from Glacierhub to view some of Emily’s other photos of the North Cascades region.

PhotoFriday: Is the Mountain Out?

Every city has its slang. In Seattle, Washington, and throughout the Puget Sound region, the phrase “the mountain is out” is part of the everyday weather lexicon. Seattleites refer to “the mountain” and no one doubts which mountain is being discussed. Towering 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S and can be seen from far and wide.

There are 25 major glaciers on Mount Rainier. According to the US National Park Service, “the Emmons Glacier has the largest area (4.3 square miles) and the Carbon Glacier has the lowest terminus altitude (3,600 feet) of all glaciers in the contiguous 48 states.”

“Is the mountain out?” is another way to say, “is Rainier visible?” or simply “is it sunny?” Especially in Seattle, where the weather is notoriously overcast and grey, clear skies reveal a beautiful mountain-scape.

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Using photos from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, Sameer Halai created a time-lapse video that captured the view from Seattle’s Kerry Park at 3 p.m. daily. He found that the mountain was “out” 83 times during 2012, roughly once every 4 to 5 days.

The phrase has inspired artists at the Seattle Times, and even landed its very own Twitter feed, with regular updates on Rainier’s status. For regular updates closer to the mountain, check out the U.S. National Park Service live webcams.

 

Photo Friday: Mt. Baker

We offer these photos from Barnstorming as a gift in this holiday season. The site’s manager speaks of  faithful stewardship–a principle that resonates with us at GlacierHub. These photos feature Mt. Baker in the North Cascades of Washington State in U.S. 

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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 glacierhub@gmail.com.

In state of the climate report, mountain glaciers get special attention

(Ruth Hartnup/Flickr)
(Ruth Hartnup/Flickr)

The year 2013 hasn’t been a good one for climate change (as you might’ve guessed) and mountain glaciers have been singled out, according to a new report released by the National Climatic Data Center.

The largest climate data archive in the world sits in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains and contains 14 petabytes of information, enough to stream 23 million movies. Asheville, N.C. is home to the NCDC, a division within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – that provides climatological services and data worldwide. For the last 24 years, NCDC scientists have been producing an annual report on the state of the world’s climate. These reports provide updates on global and regional climate and notable weather from the preceding year. Published by the American Meteorological Society in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), this report is a large international collaboration. The most recent report, covering the year 2013, involved over 400 scientists from 57 countries.

(Luca Carturan/University of Padua)
(Luca Carturan/University of Padua)

Among the 2013 report’s distinguished highlights, along with carbon dioxide levels topping 400 parts per million, and the record-breaking super-typhoon Haiyan, is the news about mountain glaciers. The supplementary report begins by explain the importance of these glaciers:

“Around the globe, some 370 million people live in basins where rivers derive at least 10 percent of their seasonal discharge from glacier melt. Glacier melt provides drinking water for human populations, and irrigation water for crops. Dams on glacier-fed rivers are key sources of hydroelectric power in some parts of the world. The retreat of the majority of mountain glaciers worldwide is one of the clearest signs that climate is warming over the long term; some glaciers have already disappeared.”

The report indicates that mountain glaciers lost more ice from melt than they gained from seasonal snow-fall for the 23rd year in a row. This pattern is expected to continue. Since 1980, glaciers have lost the equivalent of 50 feet (more than 15 meters) of water.

glacier mass balance, 1980-2012Five regions with long histories of data are used in the report as a barometer for the health of mountain glacier: Austria, Norway, New Zealand, Nepal, and the Northern Cascades of Washington State. The news – a pattern dominated by loss – is grim. Of the 96 glaciers evaluated in the Austrian Alps, 93 are retreating, two are stable, and just one is advancing. Norway is much the same: 26 of the 33 are retreating, another four are stable, and only three are advancing. Things are worse in North America (the 14 glaciers of the Northern Cascades in Washington State and Alaska are all significantly retreating) and in New Zealand, where all 50 are anticipated to have retreated by the end of the 2013 melt season. Only in Nepal, where the 3 glaciers monitored are near equilibrium, this near-balance reflects an unusually good year. In 2013, those glaciers received the largest amount of snow accumulation in the last seven years.

The plight of diminishing mountain glaciers has serious implications for the health, food, energy resources and livelihoods of the 370 million people who live close to them. There are also serious effects in adjacent lowlands. Just as steady upward trend of the Keeling Curve of carbon dioxide concentrations is closely watched, so should be its apparent reflection: the glacier mass balance curve, shown each year in the State of the Climate report for the world to see.

This year’s’ report and all previous reports are available for free download online.

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 glacierhub@gmail.com.

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