“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes; everybody knows.” –Leonard Cohen
As you know, last week I took my first week off of the year, and went on a trip to Glacier National Park, which was my very first time there. Although I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains, including some pretty icy and snowy places, I’d never walked on an actual glacier before. All of that was about to change for me.
On Tuesday, we drove over to the Many Glacier area, and took the boat over towards the trailhead to Grinnell Glacier. There were four of us, total, including my old friend Rich (this guy), who’s responsible for all of the photos taken during our hike. We started hiking early in the morning, before any of the early haze had burned off.
After about an hour of hiking, this was the view we were treated to.
The reason it’s called Glacier National Park is not because the park is covered in glaciers, but because the valleys and lakes that dominate the landscape of the park owe their very existence to the presence and activity of glaciers. The lake on the left is the direct result of a glacier sliding down into the valley until it reached a place where it melted, something I hadn’t seen since I was here 11 years ago. On the right, you can see a waterfall cascading down some 450 feet from Salamander Glacier into the lake below.
(That’s me in the red backpack in the distance.)
Once the clouds burned off in the late morning, we were treated to a warm, sunny day complete with gorgeous vistas and some truly magnificent floral, faunal, and geologic treats, plus we were able to see Salamander Glacier clearly (below, on the upper right) from the trail.
On our hike up (and eventually back down) the trail, we passed the uneven tree-line, got to see some fossils uncovered from the eroded sedimentary rock, but — perhaps most unforgettably — got to enjoy the wildlife of the park.
Brazen, unafraid chipmunks went about their business mere feet from the trail.
I had seen marmots before, and generally expect them to be around the size of a house cat. But when I saw this giant, below, I was dumbfounded, as it was maybe half the size of a capybara; so large that I didn’t believe it was a marmot until a park ranger confirmed that, in fact, they’re just that big up here.
And the most terrifying encounter came with a huge Bighorn Ram, far larger than a human, that we encountered on our return trip. (I named him “Ramses.”) He was by far the largest creature we encountered on the hike, much larger than all the other Bighorn Sheep (who made way for him), and decided the best place to hang out was — you guessed it — right in front of us on the trail.
But enough about the fauna. From our high-altitude destination, near the top of the mountains, a view down into the valley told the story of those aeons of glaciation that carved the terrain.
Eventually, we reached our destination — Grinnell Glacier — and I got to stand on a glacier for the very first time there.
But it was a much, much longer hike to the glacier itself than we were anticipating. You see, over the past few generations, the glaciers of Glacier National Park have been retreating rapidly, particularly since the 1960s.
Grinnell Glacier and Salamander Glacier used to be part of the same glacier, but have not only separated, they have shrunk dramatically. In particular, Grinnell Glacier has lost 40% of its area from 1966 to 2005, and continues to shrink today.
As you can clearly see, there’s a beautiful lake that’s being left behind by the melting glacier, and that the hike to Grinnell Glacier itself is nearly a mile longer than it was when the trail was first constructed.
But what these images don’t show you is that in just the past six years — from 2006 until today — the glacier has not only shrunk even further, but that a very large fraction of the area that was underwater in 2006 is now completely dry. (We ran into a couple who was there both in 2006 and 2012, and they confirmed this for us.) A large fraction of the rocky area at left in the image below was only recently (in 2006) covered in snowy glacial ice; last week it was dry as a bone.
Now, this is one example — admittedly, a very dramatic one — of a glacier that’s lost an awful lot of its ice mass. Does this mean that global warming is real?
No. Not by itself, anyway.
Measuring the change in the ice mass of one glacier is no way to do science. If you truly want to know what’s happening to the Earth’s glacial ice, studying one glacier can only — at best — give you a hint. If you want to do science, you need to study all the glaciers — or at least a fair sample of them — worldwide. Looking at any one particular glacier, heat wave, wildfire, drought, or extreme event is no way to fairly assess climate science, but there is lots of quality, well-established science being done. Courtesy of this paper by the World Glacier Monitoring Service, let’s take a look at it.
When you look at all the monitored glaciers on Earth, you don’t find that the glaciers are melting and growing in equal numbers and equal amounts. You can work hard to find a few glaciers that are counterexamples to the overall trend, but when you look at what’s happening globally?
Nearly 90% of glaciers are shrinking, while only about 10% are growing. In addition, the ones that are melting are doing so at a rate that far outstrips the ones that are growing, so much so that glacial melt is contributing noticeably to the overall sea level of our planet. Since 1970, here’s how mountain glacial ice has fared, with blue indicating glacial thickening and red indicating thinning.
Where that melted glacial ice goes, of course, is into lakes, rivers, and — you guessed it — the ocean. The video below shows the contribution of glacial ice losses in blue (and ice gains in red) to global sea level rise (or fall). This was measured by the joint NASA / German Aerospace Center mission GRACE: the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment, from 2003 to 2010.
You may wonder, of course, whether this trend holds if we look at not just glacial ice, but also Arctic and Antarctic sea ice as well. Of course, it isn’t just the ice from glaciers that show this trend, either. If we sum the ice from the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the globe, we see the same melting trend. (And, again, you have to look at them both, combined, not cherry pick just one or the other to get the result we want!)
The same overall, warming trend holds true for global air temperatures, too, over both land and water. It’s no wonder that permafrost, which we used to learn was, you know, permanent, is thawing at unprecedented rates. You don’t have to take my word for the rising global air temperatures: you can see for yourself!
What this means for Glacier National Park is that, by all accounts, the last remaining glaciers will disappear for good during the 2020s. The park itself, of course, will be largely indifferent to that. The lakes will remain, the plants and animals will continue to flourish for a long time, and it will still remain one of the most beautiful natural places in the world.
But what the worldwide data shows us is that the dice are loaded: if you look across the globe, you’re more likely to have unusually warm weather than unusually cool weather, and the warms outnumber the cools in both frequency and severity. For ice across the world, that means more is melting than freezing, more are thinning than thickening, and more is getting added to the sea than is getting taken away.
That’s how it goes; everybody knows.