The Melting Signs of Climate Change on Northwest Glaciers

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Anderson Glacier

A friend was scoping out a grueling, rewarding Olympic National Park backpack trip over Anderson Pass, traversing to O’Neill Pass and into the remote basin of Lake LaCrosse.  After talking of elevation gain, and warning that blueberry-eating bears won’t move off the trail, I was on the verge of talking up a side trip up to the Anderson Glacier, except . . .

There is no more Anderson Glacier.  The large icefield, where generations of Mount-Rainier-bound climbers learned self-arrest, has melted in the last quarter century. So has the Lillian Glacier elsewhere in the park.

We are used to life in a region surrounded by envy. As such, we have underestimated the speed at which impacts of climate change would arrive. Who would have ever imagined that the Methow Valley would have the nation’s worst summer air quality? Or a triple-figure heat death toll from triple-digit June temperatures?

The phrase “livability” has been attached to our region since the 1970s. In 1988, as America sweltered – bringing climate change briefly to the fore in a presidential campaign – I was at Cape Lookout on the Oregon Coast.  I took our black poodle, Jennifer, for an early romp on the beach. We returned and switched on the Today Show.  Willard Scott stood before a map showing two tiny slivers of America below 90 degrees, the far coast of Maine and the far Northwest’s ocean beaches.

Cut to 2018 when, on a summer flight from Atlanta, I looked forward to the first views of Cascade peaks and the Columbia River.  Not this day. The Northwest was shrouded in fire smoke, with only the summit of Rainier barely visible.  A few weeks later, bound for Mt. Assiniboine in the Canadian Rockies, I would drive through 630 miles of smoke.

At that time, Gov. Jay Inslee called a presser at a Queen Anne grammar school and reported that Seattle had the worst air quality of any American city.  He appealed for passage of I-1631, the carbon-fee initiative on the upcoming general election ballot.  But the air had cleared by early November, and Big Oil companies spent $25 million and shot down the initiative.

Curiously, in times before climate impacts got in our eyes, protecting the earth was a bipartisan cause in these parts. A Republican, Gov. Dan Evans, introduced the state’s first package of environmental legislation in 1970. Evans fought for the North Cascades National Park, persuaded President Ford to sign Alpine Lakes Wilderness legislation, and was a principal author of the million-acre Washington Wilderness Act.  Oregon’s Republican Gov. Tom McCall campaigned to clean up rivers and protect his state’s beaches as a domain of the people.

Nowadays, in more urgent times, the nation’s partisan divisions have often stymied action on climate.  Nor has the severity of climate change been entirely accepted.  We hear variations of an argument put forward by UW atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass, namely that climate change is real but its consequences will be more benign here than elsewhere.

South Cascade Glacier

Awkwardly, the impacts of climate change are most visible in rarely seen places.  The U.S. Geological Survey has monitored the South Cascade Glacier, deep in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, since 1959. Its decade-to-decade pictures show initial slow retreat, followed by a rapid melting back.  That once-robust glacier may soon be gone.

Or consider the evidence from an airplane flight from Vancouver, B.C., up to Terrace.  An awesome vista out to the left of 13,260-foot Mt. Waddington, but an unsettling view from the right side of the plane of British Columbia’s Chilcotin Plateau, one of Canada’s coldest places. There, temperatures have modified just enough to allow additional breeding by pine bark beetles.  The beetles have ravaged forests over an area the size of Sweden.  The view from the planet is of orange (dying) forests and gray (dead) trees.

Beetle-killed forests in northwest British Columbia burned in 2018. The big burn consumed homes in Telegraph Creek – usually a very wet place – but delivered much of the smoke that had us choking hundreds of miles to the south.  Surveying fire damage, British Columbia Premier John Horgan observed: “This is the new normal.”

The Pacific Northwest has warmed by two degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degree Celsius) over the past century. The consequences can be seen in shrinking snowpacks, longer fire seasons, dead trees, and occasional extreme weather. Used to a temperate climate, we have not made preparations for these terrible developments.

Another example of our unpreparedness is The village of Lytton, British Columbia, where blue waters of the Thompson River get absorbed into the muddy, mighty Fraser River. I came to know it as a kid, when my mother was writing articles on the nearby Hells Gate fish passageways, and a tragic history in the village of Ashcroft.  English immigrants came west with completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, carved out the farming community of Ashcroft, and went off to fight in the Great War when many perished. Nearby Lytton, a largely Aboriginal village, recorded Canada’s highest-ever temperature of 121 degrees Fahrenheit during the June heat wave, topping the 116 degrees recorded in Portland and 108 degrees in Seattle.  Several days later, a fast-moving wildfire burned much of the town and killed two of its residents.

Twenty-seven climate researchers of the World Weather Attribution project looked at our region’s “Heat Dome” event.  “We concluded that a one-in-1000-year event would have been at least 150 times rarer in the past,” Sjockji Philip of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute told a news conference. Added Prof. Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford: “Without the additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, in the statistics we have available in our models, and also the statistical models based on observations, such an event just does not occur.  Or, if an event like this occurs, it occurs once in a million times, which is the statistical equivalent of never.”

The Anderson Glacier and Lytton, B.C., are casualties of climate change in the Northwest. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are changing landmarks and forcing changes in lives.  Exact measuring is difficult, but the pace of change is clearly accelerating.

My personal measuring sticks are the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers on Mt. Baker,, which had been advancing in mid-20th Century. UW engineering professor Dr. Art Harrison studied the glaciers and erected markers to measure their forward movement.  A big black bear kept knocking down the marker on hard-to-reach Bastille Ridge adjoining the Roosevelt Glacier.  The Roosevelt’s advancing tongue hit a cliff and then went around both ends. The two glaciers have rapidly receded since, and the Roosevelt is now way back from the cliff.  Glaciers advance. Glaciers contract. But rarely at this speed.

Hopefully, there is nothing like a Heat Dome to focus our minds, and — once and for all -– convince us that there is no safe haven or refuge from the warming of the Earth.  The consequences have come home.

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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

3 COMMENTS

  1. There is no doubt that man in his “infinite” wisdom is hell bent on killing themselves. Sad, yes! Inevitable, maybe not. But we had better wake up quick or it will be past the tipping point before our “American Exceptionalism” can save us. And let us not forget, it isn’t just us. We are the biggest polluter of the industrialized world and we haven’t the sense necessary to take the steps to protect the “little blue marble!” We are on this planet alone and we are so small in the largess of the universe. Mother Nature will snuff us out like the disastrous entity we are!

  2. Joel,
    For some reason your article on climate change, more than any other, riveted my attention. I guess I was not prepared to hear about the disappearnce of the Anderson Glacier. I felt a great deal of pain in my heart: one could call it heartbreak.

    A few days ago I was cruising along the east shore of Lake Washington on a gorgeous day. To the south, I noticed Mt. Rainier. I found myself staring at it in disbelief because it was not white but an angry red. From bottom to top, except for its narrow glaciers, the snow had vanished, leaving the reddish vocanic rock. I have seen the mountain minus most of its snow cover in lae August before, but not to this awful extent.

    I am working on the final chapter in my book on the ancient and modern myths about Mount Raineir. In the beginning I pose the question about which mythological figure the recently arrived Americans most resemble. When he spoke to his people at the Point Elliott Treaty Council in 1855, the word Chief Seattle used to describe the Americans in the plural was do’kwebahl. “The Changers”. In doing so he cast them as beings having such power that they were changing the world. The question I pose is whether we more resemble the Changer or the world-destroying monsters the Changer defeated. Seeing the mounain turn red and reading your essay points to the latter.

    Writing the book has been a far more emotionally disturbing experience for me than I anticipated. I used to enjoy teaching the mechanics of the Government Land Office rectilinear surveys begun in 1885 that mapped 75% of the continental United States, opening the land for settlment. But during the research I quickly came to realize the surveys were engines of genocide, because the land could not be sold until its native inhabitants were removed. And the genocide was intentional, not accidental, in part, because the idea of ‘wilderness’ in American history is a powerful theological concept, foundational to the ‘American dream,’ rather than a word of praise for the natural world used by transcendalists.

    In my last chapter I hope to show how the National Park Service has come to realize the paradox of its original mission: to preserve the wild for the pleasure and benefit of the people. As a corollary, at least at Rainier, the Service is using science to restore the meadows that, at Paradise, were all but destroyed by the 1970s. But the people by their overwhelming presence and impact are destroying nature. I planned to make rational scientific inquiry a source of hope at the end of the book. I had damned well better strive to be convincing.

    Anyway, thank you for your excellent, terrible article.

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