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Road Trips: Glaciers: Going, Going, Gone

 

Crown of the Continent

 


Mt. Grinnell taken from Swiftcurrent Lake. The water's emerald color results from suspended
glacial silt.


 

Glacier National Park is also one of the places where the world’s diminishing glaciers still linger. I came for the chance to see them before they’re gone.

 

“You can argue about the big picture, but the reality is right here,” said Ranger Doug Follett, an interpretive ranger who led a talk on climate change at the Logan Pass Visitor Center. As he pointed out the distant Grinnell Glacier, he added, “Those little pieces of ice left hanging there have lost a battle with the sun.” 

 

Snow persisted at the 6,646-feet-high crest, in spite of the balmy July weather. While a small crowd gathered for Follett’s talk, a father and son trekked past us onto snow-covered slopes carrying a cardboard box and a plastic storage tub lid. Snowboarders and hikers crunched melting snow as they took off to explore the mountaintops and find Hidden Lake just beyond the visitor center.

 

“When I first started working here as a naturalist in 1961, there were 50 or 60 glaciers,” said Follett. “Now there are only 25, and they’re predicted to be gone in 10 years or so.”

 

When Glacier National Park was founded in 1910, there were 150 glaciers still spread across its 1,583 square miles of peaks and valleys. They are dwindling more rapidly than projected, estimated to be gone by 2020. The pace of global warming has accelerated their demise, and the implications go far beyond a mass of lost ice.

 

Chirping squirrels scurried nearby as Follett continued: “There are many spin-off changes that go along with climate change. The Columbia ground squirrel is the base of the food chain here. They emerge from the snow for just 30 to 40 days, then live underground for nine to 10 months of the year. Wolverine pups are born below the surface in burrows of snow. When the snow goes, the wolverines will go with it. The little pika’s problem is his fur coat. He’s so little he can’t travel far enough to get away from the increasing heat. When the habitat is gone, the critters go with it, and the habitat is disappearing. The pika and the polar bear face the same future: extinction.”

 

Part of a 16,000-square-mile ecosystem known as the Crown of the Continent, the pristine protected area continues to provide habitat for 369 documented species of animals, birds, and fish and 1,132 plants, most of which have been here for centuries. As Follett pointed out, they rely on one another for survival, and the changing weather threatens their habitat.

 

The region is home to the nation’s tiniest mammal, the pygmy shrew, a two-inch rodent that can’t survive in weather above 77 degrees. Dead and dying trees are prominent across the landscape. Follett says they’re affected by six different problems with one thing in common – climate change – which causes dehydration, making them vulnerable to fire and insect infestation, both of which have accelerated along with the temperature.

 

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