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Signs of Climate Change in Glacier National Park

Photo by Evelyn Parks

Glacier National Park is known as the Gem of the Continent. This stunning national park is located along the Canadian border in Northwestern Montana. It sits on the Continental Divide, meaning water that falls here can flow west to the Pacific, east to the Atlantic, or in some cases, north to the Arctic. The park is also one of the few destinations in the National Park System where visitors can observe a glacier in person. Check out this article for details on how to explore places like this safely during the pandemic.

Photo by Evelyn Parks

Above is Iceberg Lake…but where are the icebergs? In looking at it now, it may not seem like the name applies as it once did. This lake is an indicator of how acutely climate change is impacting Glacier National Park. In 1940, Iceberg Lake was covered in glacial ice, but in current years, the glacier has receded and the icebergs often do not last through the summer. This photo was taken in late July 2019.

A glacier is a large body of ice typically about 25 acres in size, which equates to 0.1 km² in area.  The defining characteristic of an “active” glacier is regular movement caused by its own weight.  The size noted above is typically the threshold for this to occur, but it is possible for glaciers larger than this size to stop moving and become inactive or for smaller glaciers to maintain flow and active status.

In 1850, there were 80 glaciers in the area that now lies within Glacier National Park’s boundaries. This was at the end of the “Little Ice Age.” Some growth and recession of glacial ice is natural, however the rate of change of glaciers and ice shelves around the world is more rapid to be attributed to normal causes alone. There are currently only 26 active glaciers remaining in Glacier National Park.

Photo by Evelyn Parks

In its simplest form, global warming is the warming of our planet due to less heat escaping our atmosphere. Heat that would normally be radiated to space is trapped as our natural greenhouse gas layer becomes thickened by higher CO² concentrations. Burning of fossil fuels, industrial processes, and many other human-controlled factors are the leading causes of these higher CO² concentrations. The more heat is trapped, the more dramatic changes we see in our climate. It is possible you’ve been seeing these changes on the news and in your local area for a while now, including rapid intensification of hurricane strength due to warmer ocean surface temperatures, more frequent and severe forest fires, and general increase in annual temperatures globally. 2020 was the warmest year on record, tied with 2016, since the era of record-keeping started in 1880!

The intensified loss of glaciers is directly related to climate change and the warming of our planet. The area around Glacier National Park has experienced a rise in temperature almost twice the normal average. This has severe impacts including more insects carrying diseases that impact both people and wildlife, less water availability, habitat adjustment for species that require cold (such as the wolverine, pika, and mountain goat), and the potential for more severe wildfires. Glacier National Park’s Climate Change page is a great resource for more details.

Photo by Evelyn Parks

The five hottest years on record (globally) have all been within the last five years. These warmer years lead to shorter winters, typically with less snow accumulation. Then the snowpack melts sooner, which decreases water availability in the summer. This leads to drought-like conditions with dried-out vegetation that is highly flammable. In these conditions, when wildfires occur (whether started by natural or human causes), they are likely to be more severe and longer in duration. Their impact is multifaceted—fires can lead to low visibility for park visitors and/or cause disruptions to tourism with road or park closures, therefore impacting local businesses. Smoke can lead to bad air quality, which may lead to difficulty breathing for some, especially if doing physical activities such as hiking.

The photos below demonstrate the difference the impact fires can make on a visit. The 2017 Sprague Fire on Lake MacDonald shut down the entrance to West Glacier, forcing all visitors to utilize the other park entrances. These photos were taken at St. Mary’s Lake on the eastern side.  Visibility and air quality were very low. For my family members that took these photos, this was the trip of a lifetime they had been waiting years for. They didn’t make a big deal of it but I know they were crushed to not be able to see this special place they’ve waited so long to enjoy.  It is my hope that we will make global progress in the fight against Climate Change and protect extraordinary places like this. We’ll be discussing how we can help in future blog posts. I look forward to taking my family back here under better conditions so they can finally see the Gem of the Continent in all its glory!

Photos by Evelyn Parks

For Evelyn, true joy is hiking to a mountain top or waterfall, while surrounded by sounds of nature and catching glimpses of passing animals. Her trifecta of passions are wildlife, travel, and conservation. Follow her on her blog, Expeditions With Evelyn, and her Instagram!

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