Glacial Change

Originally written and published in August 2019.

A waterfall on Trail of the Cedars in Glacier National Park, Montana

As a child growing up on a farm in southern Montana, I knew water was important long before I could begin to understand why. I remember listening absent-mindedly to the constant buzz about weather: how much rain was forecast, how much rain had fallen, how much snow we had gotten this year, and how it all compared to the next valley over. Although we didn’t have a lot of livestock, I quickly learned that the amount of rain and snow we received affected the amount of pasture we had, the price of hay, and ultimately the happiness of my parents.

As a middle schooler, my parents drove me to the closest movie theater to see An Inconvenient Truth. I had the images of stranded polar bears and boiling frogs burned into my 12-year-old brain for the next two weeks. It’s hard to remember a time now when climate change was just a vague notion in the back of my mind, but it was really only 2006 that I sat in the backseat and listened to my parents question its reality as we drove home from the theater.

A number of years later, as a college sophomore home on Christmas vacation, I drove to northern Montana for the first time. My Dad had splurged on several days of skiing in Missoula and one day in Whitefish. After a very early morning and a few foggy hours of dozing in the passenger seat, I awoke to what felt like a dream: the largest mountain lake I had ever seen sprawled under giant pine trees laden heavily with snow, framed by white-topped peaks that stretched as far as the eye could see. Tendrils of mist drifted up from the surface of the enormous blue expanse that stretched before me. I was convinced that the place was a lovely hallucination and slipped back into sleep again.

A view of Grinnell Lake from the Grinnell Glacier trail

When I visited Glacier National Park for the first time, it was 2018 and it was every bit as magical and mystical as that first glimpse of Flathead lake that I had with my dad on our ski trip. At my university, I had heard a lot of people talk about the melting glaciers and I felt an increasing urgency to experience the world I had lived so near to yet had never visited. As I learned from the National Park Service, northwestern Montana was warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet’s surface and two of the largest glaciers were predicted to be inactive by 2030. 

Established in 1910, Glacier was the 10th National Park formed and at the time, it boasted over 100 glaciers. By 2015, when it had only just graced my radar, only 26 remained. The disappearance of these year-round ice patches is alarming for a whole lot of reasons: 50% of the freshwater that we humans use comes from the mountains and seasonal glacial meltwater irrigates staple crops and feeds hydroelectric dams that generate electricity. Ecologically, glacial melt cools rivers and warmer waters threaten temperature-sensitive insect species that form the base of the aquatic food chain. 

Water is life, no matter the altitude
Fewer Insects = Fewer Fish = Less food for predators & Less tourism to support local people
Bighorn sheep are one of the many species that call Glacier National Park home

With less water flowing from the highlands, surrounding land becomes drier, mountain pine beetles become more common and forest fires increase. Larger and more frequent fires cause poor air quality and threaten human health. 

In 1997, the National Park Service began the Repeat Photography Project to track glacial change, capturing and comparing aerial shots of the park’s glaciers from year to year. As a scientist, I appreciate oft-recited numbers and figures as much as the next person, but this photo study struck me as something much more personal. Images are something you cannot deny – they force you to look, absorb, feel. The pictures quantify change, but they also invoke a visceral reaction. Looking at snapshots of these glaciers receding through the years, I cannot help but think about their connections to my own life: to water, snow, family, beauty; and I am struck by a great sense of loss.

Grinnell Glacier and its summer melt

The splendor of this region is far more valuable than any postcard picture or wall hanging. It is a place for spirituality and appreciation, for art and for science. It is a place for reflection and a place for socialization. It is a place for emotion. 

Last summer I watched my past recede at the rate of the glaciers. My dad still asks me about the weather every time we talk on the phone, but he doesn’t farm anymore. Aging knees make father-daughter ski trips difficult, and climate change is no longer a controversy debated at the cinema, but a harsh reality. Nevertheless, I still find myself overwhelmed by the beauty of Flathead lake and the magic of the park is no less real then when I first drove through.  

The wonders of Glacier are indeed worth preserving and their loss would be a tremendous blow not only to environmentalists, but to farmers, to artists, and to humanity. As the glaciers melt, we are losing a piece of history, losing a piece of emotion, and, ultimately, losing a piece of ourselves.

A summer storm gathers over Lake Josephine