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PACIFIC NORTHWEST: The Incredible Shrinking Glaciers.

IT FEELS AS IF A GIANT MEAT LOCKER HAS SWUNG OPEN, sending a cold, yet thin, wind blowing down South Cascade Glacier just outside North Cascades National Park in northern Washington. The sun glares. Everything is white. The expanse of snow acts like a big reflecting basin. Bob Krimmel, a scientist in a broad-brimmed hat and gloves, is initially winded by the altitude change, but spends much of the day trudging through brush to get to this spot--the longest-studied glacier in the northern Cascade mountains, the nation's most heavily glaciated area outside of Alaska.

So much snow. And yet ... The glacier is shrinking.

"It's very easy to see the glacier is much, much smaller," Krimmel says later, back at his office at U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Seated at a computer, he looks at the side-by-side images--a photo taken in 1928 and another 60 years later.

"In the last century, it's retreated about 1.2 miles," says Krimmel, a research hydrologist and the glacier's leading researcher. "Right now, it's about 1.5 miles long. It's lost about half of its length and half its volume."

South Cascade Glacier has become the poster child for global climate change in the Pacific Northwest, contends Jon Riedel, glacier researcher for North Cascades National Park. It is thinning so much, Riedel points out, that since 1953 it has lost the equivalent of 72 feet of water in thickness off its surface.

It isn't the only case of the incredible shrinking glacier. In this icy high country, 46 of the 47 Cascade glaciers observed by Nichols College researcher Mauri Pelto were found to be retreating. Riedel, meanwhile, personally backpacks several miles to monitor four glaciers; he notices the lower-elevation, smaller glaciers on the west side of the Cascades are shrinking, a pattern also found farther south.

This melting promises to change the very image of the Northwest. Montana's Glacier National Park in 30 years may need to be renamed "the park formerly known as Glacier," as Seattle-based Northwest Environment Watch research director John C. Ryan puts it. A hundred of its 150 glaciers have vanished, and the pace is hastening. At white-capped Mount Rainier--that looming symbol of the Northwest (and a local beer label)--the vast majority of its glaciers are receding, says Andrew Fountain, researcher and Portland State University geology professor.

"They don't recede because they're getting colder, you know what I'm saying?" Fountain says. Whatever the ultimate cause, he says: "That's global climate change--right there."

Suffice it to say that scientists in the Pacific Northwest are seeing signs that the climate is changing, from melting glaciers to rising temperatures.

While none can definitively tie this to a human-caused, long-term shift in the climate, many believe that the changes are consistent with that. Even cautious, middle-of-the-road climate scientist Philip Mote of the University of Washington wants to "underscore" that waiting for proof before taking concrete steps to combat climate change "would not be a prudent course."

"We are seeing things that never happened before to our knowledge," says Elliott North, of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Washington. "These things are consistent in what we would expect in a world that is warming. It would be, in many cases, surprising if this weren't human-caused.

"When you think of the state of Washington, do you think of marlin or yellowfin tuna? No. Well, starting several years ago, people started catching marlin, which we think of as tropical and subtropical, and yellowfin tuna off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. That is extremely peculiar," says North, adding that while El Nino was the oft-cited culprit, a warming climate is making El Nino more severe, more common, and longer lasting. Melting glaciers are concrete signs that things are changing, but aren't the only harbingers. Hikers long have enjoyed picnicking in meadows of heather at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park, yet that, too, is in flux. As temperatures rise (the 1990s were warmer than the 1980s, and the 1980s warmer than the 1970s, says Mote), trees are filling in the park's subalpine meadows.

The trees are taking advantage of a longer growing season--eight to 10 weeks, compared to six to eight, says David Peterson, a USGS researcher and forest ecology professor at the University of Washington. "Why do people go to Paradise? To see the flowers," Peterson says. "And the flowers are starting to disappear."

Expect more change as temperatures rise faster than they have in 10,000 years--a predicted two degrees F by 2020 or 4.5 degrees by 2050, according to climate models at the University of Washington. "For the last 100 years, the Pacific Northwest has been warming and having increased rainfall. These trends are accelerating now," says Richard Gammon, a University of Washington scientist.

This spells trouble for the region's "white gold," as the mountain snowpack has been called, and for anyone dependent on the cool, clear water that rushes down glacier-fed streams in hot July and August. Global climate change threatens to eliminate half the Northwest's snowpack, according to one estimate. Glaciers are "frozen freshwater reservoirs which release water during the drier summer months," Richard S. Williams Jr. of USGS wrote in a report. "They are of considerable economic importance in the irrigation of crops and to the generation of hydroelectric power."

More trouble is expected. Here are some scientific-based future scenarios for the Pacific Northwest, according to Patrick Mazza of Olympia-based Climate Solutions, a project of the nonprofit Earth Island Institute: Droughts coming twice as frequently by 2020. Forests retreating from the eastern Cascades in Oregon and Washington, replaced by grasslands. Ski seasons shortened since snow will be at higher elevations. More frequent, destructive floods and mudslides. Rainier winters. More hot days in summer.

And fewer salmon. After all, "climate change," according to a report by Canada's David Suzuki Foundation, "is seen as one of the causes of a dramatic drop in Pacific salmon populations along the west coast of North America."

Richard Gammon is considered Dr. Doom by some. He remembers sockeye salmon swimming in a Seattle stream now too warm for the vanished fish. He recalls putting studded tires on his car in winter, but, thanks to newfound warmer winters in Seattle, he hasn't had to for several years. "When I see a dying madrona tree in Seattle, I think `global climate change,'" says Gammon, a University of Washington scientist who believes the local tree is sensitive to the changing climate.

It may be tempting to write off Gammon as an alarmist, except for his credentials. He helped author the original United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 1990 and has reviewed the two successors. To him, nothing short of the Pacific Northwest's culture is at risk. "If we like cedars, if we like orcas, and bald eagles and salmon--all those things are at risk. When the salmon go, the eagles will go, and the orcas will, too," Gammon cautions. "The Yakima nation said: `When the salmon are gone, we're gone.'" CONTACT: Climate Solutions, (360)352-1763,; Northwest Environment Watch, (206)447-1880,

SALLY DENEEN is a Seattle-based freelance writer.
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Author:Deneen, Sally
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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