No More Glaciers in Glacier National Park by 2020?

Anne Minard
National Geographic News
March 2, 2009
It's an oft-repeated statistic that the glaciers at Montana's Glacier National Park will disappear by the year 2030.

But Daniel Fagre, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist who works at Glacier, says the park's namesakes will be gone about ten years ahead of schedule, endangering the region's plants and animals.

The 2030 date, he said, was based on a 2003 USGS study, along with 1992 temperature predictions by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"Temperature rise in our area was twice as great as what we put into the [1992] model," Fagre said. "What we've been saying now is 2020."

The 2020 estimate is based on aerial surveys and photography Fagre and his team have been conducting at Glacier since the early 1980s. A more standardized measure of what's happening to a glacier comes from arduous documentation of its mass, which requires—among other techniques—multiple core samples.

Fagre said the 2020 estimate could be slightly revised after his team conducts the mass measurements—hopefully this year—and their computer models are retooled with current temperatures.

Nonpolar ice is disappearing all over the globe, Fagre said. Major glaciers have entirely disappeared from the Andes, and the Himalaya have lost a third of their snow. (See video of Alpine glaciers melting.)

Animals at Risk as Glaciers Melt

Fagre is concerned about ecological implications of glacier melt.

"A lot of our sensitive and rare plants are associated with the edges of glaciers," he said.

At first, retreating glaciers will expose more growing area for plants. But eventually plants will crowd the area, and reduced water could cause drying and die-offs.

And as glaciers retreat, the streams they feed can become intermittent, he added.

"For some aquatic species, that's a threshold event," he said. "You only have to dry up once and you're history."

Not Cut-and-Dried

Andrew Fountain, a Portland State University professor of geography and geology, acknowledged that the glaciers of Glacier National Park shrank by 67 percent in the past hundred years.

"As a group, that is the fastest recession of any glaciated region in the lower 48 states" in the U.S., Fountain said.

But he's cautious about predicting the demise of any glacier.

In some situations, local topography can balance out climate change, he said.

"Take the Colorado Front Range, for example," he said.

"There is no reason for glaciers to inhabit Rocky Mountain National Park, climatically speaking. If it were not for … the drifting snow from the high plateau into the cirque basins"—valleys hollowed out by past glacial erosion—"you would not have glaciers there. But they are holding on fine."

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