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Glacier National Park May Need a Name Change Soon

Glacial retreat in the the U.S: One of Montana's most majestic places will be gone in a little over two decades, and 99% of Alaska's glaciers are shrinking.

Glacier National Park may soon need a name change. One of Montana's most majestic places is fast disappearing; at least its glaciers are—at a clip of 90 feet every year. The park's remaining glaciers will be gone in a little over two short decades.

Perhaps there is no better confirmation that the earth is heating up than the glacial retreat taking place in this northwestern corner of Big Sky country. As a teenager I used to venture through the park in search of wilderness and solitude. A chance to catch a glimpse of a Canada lynx, my favorite bobtailed wildcat, was worth the risky journey through these treacherous Rocky Mountain ranges.

Montana was home and snow-capped Glacier Park my refuge.

Times have surely changed. Those glaciers I took for granted 15 years ago have now mostly vanished, leaving barren rock behind as their earthly tombstones. In the late 19th century, when conservationist George Grinnell dubbed this place the "Crown of the Continent," there were approximately 150 glaciers. Today, less than 30 remain. And sadly their deaths are imminent.

Glaciers in the park have been slowly melting since the 1850s, with a cooling period during the 1940s-1970s, but since then the pace has been a rapid, perpetual decline. It's a tale Westerners are becoming accustomed to these days. Our wilderness is dying and the species it cradles are evacuating, or going extinct as a result.

In 2006 a dozen environmental organizations petitioned to designate Glacier National Park and the adjacent Waterton National Park in Canada endangered. Together both parks are known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which was deemed a World Heritage Site in 1995 by the United Nations.

"The effects of climate change are well documented and clearly visible in Glacier National Park, and yet the United States refuses to fulfill its obligations under the World Heritage Convention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Erica Thorson, an Oregon law professor who authored the petition submitted to the UN's World Heritage Committee.

The park was never designated endangered, and the glaciers keep melting.

The glacial disappearance in the park follows a pattern that has accelerated around the world since the early 1980s. Mt. Hood, a Cascade statovolcano that can be seen from nearby Portland, Oregon on a clear day, has also fallen victim to our warming climate—all 11 of Mt. Hood's glaciers are vanishing.

In 2006 a team of researchers at Portland State University reported that the mountain's glaciers lost approximately 34 percent of their volume since 1982. When glaciers disappear rivers begin to dry up; any increase in melting can have extreme impacts on local water supplies.

Glaciers in the Pacific Northwest reside in lower elevations and in different climates than those situated in the high-altitude Montana Rockies. Heavy snowfall keeps these glaciers thriving, but when snow turns to rain and temperatures increase so does the melting of glacial ice. "Everything is now retreating, and the smaller glaciers are disappearing," said Philip Mote, a research scientist at Oregon State University. "The decline in snowfall in the Northwest has been the largest in the West, and it is clearly related to temperature."

In the western continental United States there are slightly over 1,700 glaciers, 1,225 of which are located in the state of Washington. Glaciers in the Evergreen State provide over 470 billion gallons of water in runoff each summer.

"In some watersheds, melt water from glaciers makes a large contribution to stream flow," said Christina Hulbe, a professor of geology at Portland State University. "As we lose glacier ice we lose that water supply, or at least its seasonal distribution. You can think of a glacier as a reservoir for water. Snow falls on the top and if it is not melted the next summer, will over time densify to become glacier ice."

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