A Visit with the Glacier Squad
July 17, 2019 7:21 AM   Subscribe

For 35 years, a scientist and his team have been taking the pulse of 10 coastal glaciers. The diagnosis is in.

Walking the icy flanks of Mount Baker—an active volcano in Washington State and one of the highest peaks in the Cascade Range—is probably one of the most untainted wilderness experiences. And yet, it feels profoundly unnatural to me as I trudge up an oblique sheet of ice with crampons lashed to my boots and an ice axe hefty enough to clobber a mountain goat or a yeti gripped tightly in one hand. When I stop to fumble with my backpack and readjust my borrowed, baggy rain pants, which are failing to keep moisture from penetrating the innermost layers of my clothing, Mauri Pelto, the glaciologist who has brought me here, offers me a reprieve. “As we head into this icefall, you have to let me know,” he says quietly. “Maybe it’s just not the place for you.”

posted by poffin boffin (10 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I haz a sad.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 7:57 AM on July 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

Hiking across a glacier was one of the highlights of my trip to New Zealand. The beauty and otherworldliness of it were just magnificent. And the sense of adventure when strapping on the crampons and crossing the tiny rivers of water was delightful. Even back then (10 years ago) you could see how far the glaciers had retreated. It's one of those things that I'm glad I got to do before it's inaccessible. Like, they're SO CLOSE to the road. For now.

When doing a glacier hike in South America, I remember how they just talked about global warming without couching it in "maybe"s or "scientist say"s. They were just like "yup, global warming is shrinking them. We don't deny it here". One of the only non-shrinking glaciers in the world is the Perito Moreno in Argentina. They mentioned that since it's so cloudy, and even sometimes snows in the middle of summer, that the glacier melts less than you might otherwise expect. Sure enough, we got a tiny bit of flurries the next day.

I hope glaciers are still around for my kids to enjoy some day.
posted by Phredward at 8:05 AM on July 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

I got the chance to help some glaciologists one summer, and as cool as the experience was, I can confirm that a glacier is not the place for me.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 10:17 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I see Mt Baker most clear days, and have been on the Easton glacier many times in the past 20 yrs. No one who can say those things denies climate change and the effect it's having.

A few years ago i climbed Glacier Peak with some friends. it was July, a month that in the past may have been too early to approach the high country. It was 2015, come to think of it, and yes it was shocking how much snow and ice was fleeing that mountain (also one of the cascades' strato-volcanoes). It was tangible just how much newly uncovered rock we were seeing, how much new geology we were witnessing.

It is, at once, exciting to be able to witness geological change, and incredibly sad to know what is being lost.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:04 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

The cirque glacier near where I grew up and visited on occasion has retreated into a rocky mud covered thing, just ugly and sad. It provided stability by holding moisture and slowly releasing it but now the downstream river floods more heavily in the spring when everything melts out.
posted by zenon at 11:25 AM on July 17, 2019

I got to see glaciers in Alaska and New Zealand the same year and it was quite a contrast.

In Alaska there was a fence about 100 yards from the glacier. In New Zealand you walked around on the glacier, squeezed through a narrow tunnel, and walked over a 2x8" board over a crevasse.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:40 AM on July 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

i want to plunge into a glacial crevasse, i demand to be encased in ice
posted by poffin boffin at 12:35 PM on July 17, 2019

I agree, though. Losing these glaciers will be very sad. I got to do field work in Svalbard one summer, and on the way home, I flew through London, and on the plane someone asked if I "believed" in global warming. I was a bit taken aback, because for a week among scientists I had forgotten that it might be a belief. As patiently as I could, I explained that yes, I believed what my own eyes told me- that glaciers have retreated tens of kilometers in recent history in some places.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 12:54 PM on July 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

When mrs. allkindsoftime was a kid, her family lived in Bozeman and so on summer vacations they would go to Glacier National Park, where they would drive right next to glaciers and could walk up and touch them, even walk on them. The park rangers leading tours would explain:

"See all these beautiful glaciers? Because of global warming they'll be mostly if not all gone in the next 30 years."

Her right-wing parents would scoff and explain to her how climate change was a lie that crazy lefties were making up to derail capitalism.

Fast forward 30 years, we got married just south of Glacier, and folks from both of our families would take tours in the park where the only remaining glacier they could see was through binoculars at the top of a remote mountain. The glaciers have all literally melted away in her 40-year lifetime, just like the park rangers warned they would.

I'll leave it to you gentle reader to assume whether either of our parents' sets of minds have been changed on matters environmental.

What a fucking shame.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:17 PM on July 17, 2019 [10 favorites]

sic transit molibus mundi
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:42 PM on July 17, 2019

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