Glacier National Park’s Glaciers Have Lost 39% Of Their Ice Since 1966 (Some Have Lost 85%)

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Glaciers in Montana — 37 in Glacier National Park and 2 on US Forest Service land — have lost an average of 39% of their ice since 1966, according to a new study from the US Geological Survey and Portland State University.

Notably, some of the glaciers studied by the researchers have actually lost as much as 85% of their ice since 1966 — so, rapid decline is now definitely occurring at some sites.

As it stands, according to the new work, there are now only 26 glaciers in the state larger than 25 acres — this compares to an estimate that there were around 150 glaciers in the state larger than 25 acres in the early 1900s. It should probably be stated here that if a body of ice isn’t larger than 25 acres, it isn’t technically a “glacier,” apparently. (Obviously, this guideline is being disregarded in this article when discussing “glaciers” in Montana.)

The average rate of glacier decline in Montana is thus roughly in line with the decline seen in many other parts of the world in recent decades.

Beyond being simply a marker of the rapid rate at which change is occurring, and impacts to freshwater availability during the dry seasons, the findings are relevant because of the effects on wildlife.

“The park-wide loss of ice can have ecological effects on aquatic species by changing stream water volume, water temperature, and run-off timing in the higher elevations of the park,” commented lead USGS scientist Dr Daniel Fagre.

Portland State geologist Andrew G Fountain commented as well: “While the shrinkage in Montana is more severe than some other places in the US, it is in line with trends that have been happening on a global scale.”

The press release provides more: “Scientists used digital maps from aerial photography and satellites to measure the perimeters of the glaciers in late summer when seasonal snow has melted to reveal the extent of the glacial ice. The areas measured are from 1966, 1998, 2005, and 2015/2016, marking approximately 50 years of change in glacier area.

“Site visits to glaciers were also made over several years to investigate portions that were covered by rock debris that are difficult to see with digital imagery. The mapped measurements of glaciers complement ground surveys of glaciers using GPS along with repeat photography that involves re-photographing historic photos of glaciers taken early last century when there were an estimated 150 glaciers larger than 25 acres in Glacier National Park.”

The reality that’s now fast approaching us is that over the longer term most of the Mountain States and Great Plains are going to essentially turn to desert as temperatures continue rising, groundwater depletion continues at pace, and glaciers continue disappearing. That’s exactly what has happened a number of different times in the past as temperatures rose — the compounding effects of groundwater pumping/depletion will only make it that much more extreme.

A tip of the hat to Remco van der Horst for this story.

Image via USGS and NPS/Jacob W. Frank


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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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