During the week of Earth Day 2023, the United Nations Meteorological Organization chose to report a blunt, deeply disturbing prediction: The world’s glaciers are melting “off the chart” and most will be gone by 2050.
“We have already lost the melting of the glaciers game, because we already have such a high concentration of carbon dioxide,” UNMO chief Petteri Taales told a news conference. Indeed, the last eight years have proven the warmest ever recorded as concentrations of greenhouse gases hit new peaks.
The earth is living on thin ice: Glaciers store nearly 75 percent of the earth’s fresh water. The loss poses particular danger to ice-dependent regions such as the Pacific Northwest. The summer melt of our glaciers, from the Cascades to the Canadian Rockies, supplies our electric power, sustains agriculture, supports recreation, and provides fisheries habitat.
We’re not just a lucky, livable region insulated from global warming and its consequences. When I was growing up in Bellingham, the Coleman and Roosevelt glaciers on Mt. Baker were bucking the global trend and advancing. A University of Washington engineering professor, Dr. Arthur Harrison, was monitoring the advance. The Roosevelt Glacier had twin tongues as it circled around a cliff face. No more. It has retreated substantially. A group calling itself Women on Ice has monitored retreat of the Easton Glacier on the south side of the mountain.
The Anderson Glacier, in the Olympics, was long a place where novice climbers learned ice climbing in preparation for the ascent of Mt. Rainier. No more. The glacier, along with the Lillian Glacier, has completely melted. The U.S. Geological Survey has monitored the South Cascade Glacier for more than 60 years, its pictures recording its retreat. It will soon be gone.
The inaugural Earth Day, in 1970, launched a movement with legs. Already, in these parts, citizen pressure had led to creation of a North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. Comparable pro-park drives were underway from the Redwoods of California to the Canyonlands of Utah. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was thwarted from plans to build two dams in the Grand Canyon, largely through a Sierra Club ad which asked, “Would you flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists could get closer to the ceiling?”
The environmental movement has since won great battles, not only here but across the globe. With climate change, however, we may be losing the war. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has risen to 415.7 parts per million, or 149 percent of the preindustrial level. The world’s 40 or so reference glaciers (meaning those studied in the long term) saw the average thickness loss of more than 1.3 meters between October, 2021, and October 2022. It’s the consequence of putting put 1 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, as we have since the dawn of the industrial age.
While at SeattlePI.com, I had occasion to clash with an Oregon-based group of climate deniers. They demonstrated an ability to lie with statistics, but a near-total blindness to the world around them. Consider the following cases of political victories coupled with climate losses:
- British Columbia has protected substantial new parkland in and around the Coast Range over the past half-century. On a flight from Vancouver to Terrace, however, you look out over miles and miles of orange or gray forests. They’ve been killed by a pine bark beetle infestation, the climate warming just enough to permit additional reproduction of beetles. Substantial areas of afflicted forests have burned, even taking a portion of Telegraph Creek in the Stikine River country.
- The 1980 Alaska Lands Act tripled the size of Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, home to North America’s highest peak. Yet, a few miles from the mighty Muldrow Glacier, melting permafrost has caused the park road to slump. The road was closed in August of 2021, and will require millions of dollars to reroute. The Arctic is registering the fastest melt of any region on the continent.
- Montana’s Glacier National Park, where thousands of visitors, including this writer, once hiked up to and onto Grinnell Glacier. It has almost completely vanished. Scientists predict that all the namesake glaciers of Glacier will be gone within 30 years or less. The Many Glacier entrances to the park will merit renaming as the Glacier Gone entrance.
- In the Swiss Alps, the Rhone Glacier, recently featured on NBC’s Today Show, has retreated a mile in the past century. A tourist hotel sits forlornly at what was once the nose of the glacier. Alarmed Swiss citizens are spreading UV-resistant white blankets to slow the melt rate. Glaciers in the Alps have retreated due to low winter snowpacks, summer heat waves, and intrusion of dust from the Sahara Desert.
- The Columbia Icefield is a prime tourist destination in Canada. Yet the Athabasca Glacier along the Icefields Parkway has retreated dramatically in my lifetime. The takeoff for snowcats, which take visitors onto the ice, has had to be relocated. More to the point, snowmelt from glaciers in the Rockies feeds rivers that supply water to our Columbia River and Canada’s Prairie provinces. River flows have fallen with retreats in the ice.
Other examples span the globe. Melt from Himalayan glaciers sustains China’s great rivers. These glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. Ditto icefields in the Andes of Peru. A quarter of the ice on Africa’s 19,341-foot-high Mt. Kilimanjaro has melted since two buddies and I climbed the mountain in 1983.
Of course, the greatest danger of rising waters comes from melt of the polar icepacks. The danger is of Manhattan-sized breakoffs from the South Pole’s icecap. The shrinkage of the Arctic icepack has reached a point where cruise ships traverse Arctic waters. The U.S. is hurrying to build two new polar icebreakers. The Russians already have a fleet, and even the Chinese are building ships to traverse northern waters.
In the face of this alarming news, the Republican-run U.S. House of Representatives has just narrowly passed an energy plan that pushes the country away from low-emission “clean” energy and toward increased support for the fossil fuel industry. It mandates oil, gas, and coal leasing on federal lands in the West, and reduces barriers to new pipeline construction. An author of the bill is Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Spokane), who chairs the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.
There is a glimmer of hope. Green energy is becoming more affordable than fossil fuels, generating more jobs and catching hold, particularly in Europe. Mother Earth is no longer headed for 3.5 degree Celsius warming, forecast nine years ago, but on track for 2.5 to 3 degrees.
“In the best case, we would still be able to reach 1.5 Celsius warming (the goal of the Paris Accords) which would be better for mankind, the biosphere and the global economy,” said Taalas. Thirty two countries have lowered their emissions and their economies are still growing.
In Taalas’s words, “There is no more automatic link between economic growth and emissions growth.” He adds: “Practically all (world leaders) are talking about climate change as a serious problem, and countries have started acting.”
The message of this year’s Earth Day: No time to waste.