The Disappearing Glaciers of Glacier National Park

The Disappearing Glaciers of Glacier National Park

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A Common Question

It's now becoming a common question among both first-time and long-time Glacier National Park visitors: "What will the park be called when the glaciers are all gone?"

Some possible answers I've heard, not all of which should be taken completely seriously:

• The Park Formerly Known As Glacier National Park.
• Global Warming National Park.
• Thanks George W. Bush National Park.
• If Only We'd Listened to Al Gore, This Never Would Have Happened National Park.
• Glacier National Park.

If I had to bet, I would go with the fifth choice. The reason-- although a name change might seem appropriate, the park is actually not named for the shrinking glaciers still seen there today; it is named as it is because the dramatic landscape is the handiwork of glaciers that predated today's by thousands of years and which were far more massive than today's ever were.

The glorious vandalism by ice that carved the mountains and valleys on display in Glacier today occurred approximately 20,000 years ago when ice sheets filled the valleys to the very mountaintops we see now. Those ice sheets shaped the many horns, knife edges, arêtes, and other glacial features that amaze climbers, hikers, and casual sightseers alike.

So although today's glaciers are still at work on the mountains, they are not what gives the park its name.

Mount Merritt and Old Sun Glacier
Old Sun Glacier
Blackfoot glacier
Blackfoot Glacier, currently one of the park's largest-- by Jim Egan


Another Common Question

"Why are the glaciers melting, and when will they all be gone?"

Okay, that's really two questions.

The answer to the first is simple but probably not what the asker really wants to know: glaciers recede (melt) when more ice melts than accumulates.

What the asker probably really wants to know is whether human-caused climate change is responsible.

If you're now salivating over the prospect of yet another go-nowhere global warming thread here, you are going to be disappointed. This article is not a political piece. I do have an opinion on the subject based on my readings of the arguments from what I think are the three main camps-- global warming is occurring and is caused by man, global warming is occurring and is not caused by man, global warming is not occurring-- but I simply want to present some facts about the disappearing glaciers of Glacier National Park.

Summit View
Sexton Glacier...
Sexton Glacier

So let's go to those facts:

• Today's glaciers formed a few thousand years ago during a colder period in our planet's history.
• The glaciers were at their apex in number and size at the end of the Little Ice Age, which scientists generally agree ended about 1850.
• At the end of the Little Ice Age, what is now Glacier National Park had about 150 glaciers. Today, there are about 25 left.
• The glaciers have been in a melting trend ever since 1850, though there have been periods up until 1980 during which they did expand. Since 1980, they have been receding more rapidly than they had in the past.
• Grinnell Glacier is one of the park's largest glaciers. It was once joined with its higher, nearby neighbor the Salamander, and it was then almost three square kilometers in area. In 1993, Grinnell Glacier was 0.88 square kilometers and the Salamander was 0.23 (source).
• For several years now, scientists have predicted that the park will cease to have glaciers by 2030, but trends in recent years have some revising that estimate to 2015-2020.
• Even if the 2030 guess turns out to be the best one, it is unlikely that every single Glacier in Glacier will be gone by then; some of the largest ones are not melting as rapidly as many of the others are (Blackfoot Glacier, for example). However, there can be little doubt that if not all of the glaciers are gone by then, the remaining ones will be substantially smaller than they are today.
• Whatever the causes, it is irrefutable that the glaciers here and in many other parts of the world are receding. In fact, I could easily be writing this article about any of several glaciated areas of the world. But since Glacier's glaciers are much smaller than those found in the Alps, the Andes, the Wind River Range, the North Cascades, the Canadian Rockies, and Greenland-- other places where significant melting is occurring (though not a complete list)-- they are going to disappear sooner.

Swiftcurrent Glacier
Swiftcurrent Glacier

Not all the world's glaciers are melting at the same rate, and not all glaciers are melting, but the trend of receding glaciers is well-established. An example in Glacier-- Grinnell Glacier is melting much more rapidly than the Salamander and Gem Glacier (the latter being the park's smallest named one but actually not meeting the size criterion for an official glacier) are. And all three glaciers are close to each other (see photos below), though the two smaller ones cling to cliffs and perhaps receive less direct sunlight as a result.

Mount Gould, Dawn
Gem, Grinnell, and Salamander...
Garden Wall, Dawn

Another possible cause of glacial melting that does not get nearly as much notice as global warming does: "While global warming gets most of the blame for glacier recession, soot pollution from automobiles and industrial chimneys might also play a role. Clean, shiny ice reflects sunlight and remains cool. But dirty, soot-covered ice absorbs more warmth from the sun, causing a glacier to melt more quickly." Source

Crevasses of Jackson Glacier
Jackson Glacier


And One More

"So what will happen when the glaciers are gone?"

In many instances, for a long time you will look at the erstwhile glaciers and see...glaciers. Well, sort of.

I am not certain if this is standard all over, but in Glacier National Park, there are three criteria for calling a mass of snow and ice a glacier:

• It must be moving downhill.
• It must be at least 100 feet thick.
• It must be at least 25 acres in area.

If the mass fails to meet any of those three, it is considered a "permanent snowfield" instead of a glacier. By those standards, most "glaciers" marked on topographic maps of the western United States are really permanent snowfields. And "permanent" is misleading, too, for in exceptionally hot, dry years, some of those snowfields melt out completely.

Ahern Glacier #1
Ahern Glacier

In some cases, there truly will be nothing left behind but bare rock; that is already the case in many places in Glacier and elsewhere. In others, though, there will be a permanent snowfield, often bearing one or two of the characteristics of a glacier, for decades, centuries, or longer. The photo below shows one such permanent snowfield that once was a glacier, as does this page's Primary Image.

A Former Glacier
Once upon a time, there was a glacier...

The answer to the larger question about what will happen is unknown. Some speculate that signature species such as mountain goats and grizzly bears will be under stress and dwindle in numbers as their ranges diminish. Some speculate that they can adapt, especially the omnivorous bears. Changing conditions always harm the specialists more than they do the generalists, and that will almost certainly be the case in Glacier. Also, the lighter snowpack may contribute to lower water levels and longer, more intense wildfire seasons. But no one really knows yet.

One change for sure-- slowly, and sadly, Glacier will lose its stunningly colored lakes. To be more accurate-- it will lose the coloring of those lakes. The incredible blues and greens of the lakes are the result of glacial flour, and when the glaciers truly die, the glacial flour will stop "flowing," and the lakes, still lovely, will look like most other alpine lakes not fed by active glaciers. To those who have seen these lakes, the loss of them will seem tragic.

Helen Lake
Helen Lake-- one of the many achingly beautiful glacier-fed lakes here.


So What To Do?

What can we do?

This is not to offer despair or indifference. But let's assume humans are driving global warming and that we somehow agree to do what many are urging us to do; with 20 years to go, we are not going to save the glaciers of Glacier National Park. It takes far longer to create or rebuild than it does to destroy. The glaciers are doomed and have been ever since the end of the Little Ice Age. They were never going to last forever; it's just a shame for those who have to see them go.

But we can love what is there while it is still there.

We can mourn it when it's gone.

We can learn to love what comes after without forgetting what went before.

Still, something will have been lost, and it will never again be the same during our lifetimes. The park may not have been named for its glaciers, but those glaciers are nevertheless somehow integral to its character.

I could go a little further, but that would make this article stray from its purpose. The purpose was twofold: to provide some information, and to deliver an homage, some might say an early eulogy, to the glaciers of Glacier National Park, which I feel is the most beautiful place I've ever been, before they are gone.

Cheers and happy climbing to you all.



Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 49

mvs - Sep 8, 2009 7:36 am - Voted 10/10

really nice

Great article. I was really impressed by the dramatic steepness and narrow profile of those long high combs (also from your recent trip report). It's a wild and wonderful place, and will remain so. I'll also feel a real sadness when the lakes lose their beautiful turquoise color from the flour.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 8, 2009 1:59 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: really nice

Indeed, Michael, and thank you. At least your glaciers have a longer life expectancy.


Deltaoperator17 - Sep 8, 2009 10:52 am - Voted 10/10

Very Nice

Very good text and subject. Well written as always.


Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 8, 2009 2:00 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Very Nice

Thanks, Steve. (I tried keeping this one a little shorter than usual so people's wives wouldn't catch them on the site!)

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 11, 2009 7:47 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Indeed Sweet Article.

Thank you for reading it!

Snidely Whiplash

Snidely Whiplash - Sep 10, 2009 6:01 pm - Voted 10/10


Whatever the reason, it's depressing to see the ice melting. We had a brutally hot summer in the PNW, and I'm sure it was a hard year on the glaciers in spite of above-average snowfall this past winter. What we need is a new ice age now!


jimegan - Sep 16, 2009 12:27 pm - Hasn't voted

largest glacier in park

I thought Blackfoot glacier was the largest? In '93 it was almost twice as large as Grinnell glacier, I think (1.74 square km vs .88 square km).

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 16, 2009 2:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: largest glacier in park

I've always read it was Grinnell, but I just did some harder looking and found a source confirming that Blackfoot and Harrison are now the largest. I'll make some small changes.


lcarreau - Sep 16, 2009 12:27 pm - Voted 10/10

Let's throw some TIME

back into the equation. 'Time' is what's needed to fix these
world-wide anomalies.

Over the course of our natural history, volcanoes have spewed
fine particles of ash and gases into the Earth's atmosphere.

I don't have numbers, but extensive cooling can be a by-product
of "volcanic" emissions created by erupting volcanoes.

In time, the "Yellowstone Super-Volcano" is bound to erupt.

Scientists are predicting this will throw the entire planet back
into another ICE AGE.

Even though it won't happen in our generation, it WILL happen
when time gets its way and history comes back into our face.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 17, 2009 9:51 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Let's throw some TIME

But imagine the opportunities for lava surfing when Yellowstone blows!


lcarreau - Sep 17, 2009 10:03 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Let's throw some TIME

Lava surfing sounds great! When will the surf be up, Bob ???


dwhike - Sep 16, 2009 6:16 pm - Voted 10/10


I have known for some time that Glacier's glaciers have been in trouble (along with others) but never really looked at it in depth. Thanks for the great lesson! Guess I'm gonna have to bump up that visit to Montana by a couple years...the 2015 meltdown date REALLY blew me away!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 17, 2009 9:40 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Fascinating...

The 2015 estimate is probably a little overdone, though one never knows, but those glaciers are definitely shrinking, many of them very rapidly. Definitely go soon, as they will continue to diminish each year.


Saintgrizzly - Sep 16, 2009 7:47 pm - Voted 10/10

A few things of interest....

1) To follow up on Jim's observation, I believe Sperry and Agassiz glaciers are also larger than Grinnell—Grinnell may not even be in the top five. If you've found a link to current glacial area measurements, I'd love to check it out!

2) An interesting thing about the GNP glaciers is that they are at a relatively low elevation, more so than the Wind River or Canadian Rockies glaciers. This makes the GNP group more susceptible to variations in climate, which is one reason glaciologists from around the world come to the park.

3) Within the past couple months I've read where the Grinnell Glacier Basin gets on average around a thousand inches of snow per year (I'd post the link as a reference, but have looked, and—sigh...—can't find it), as does much of the area around the GNP Continental Divide. This puts snowfall amount in the same approximate range as that of the Cascades, but there is a difference: the Continental interior winter temperatures are colder, so the snow has less water content, and those same interior summers are normally a few degrees warmer...meaning snow/ice melts a bit quicker.

I'm not an expert on this sort of thing, so if anyone can add some info, please do so....

4) Largest glacier in the U.S. Rockies, at approximately 3.3 square kilometers, is Gannett Glacier, in the Wind Rivers. I've always understood the Winds have the largest remaining glacial accumulation in the U.S. Rockies, but have never been able to find a figure comparing glacial area in the Winds with that in GNP. The difference in total glacial areas for Wyoming and Montana are (approximately) 73.3 and 68.6 square kilometers, respectively, which of course includes more than just the two areas discussed above (i.e., the Tetons, Missions, Beartooths).

5) A good link for U.S. glacier information.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 17, 2009 9:41 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: A few things of interest....

Thanks for those additions, Vernon! That's really interesting about the differences between the snow makeups.


Saintgrizzly - Sep 30, 2009 7:52 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: A few things of interest....

From what you write, Scott, the thousand inches snowfall figure may or may not be an exaggeration. The bugaboo in the possibility of exaggeration is, to me, simply that I have read that figure over the years many times, from several sources—sources I'd not think prone to exaggeration (although error would certainly be a possibility). Perhaps the fact I've been unable to locate any of that past reading is an indicator of unreliable results.

I have been able, easily enough, to come up with differing pages of glacial measurements for Wyoming and Montana, and boy, do those measurements EVER disagree! Sometimes it's as though they're not measuring the same things.... (Check out the links on the Gannett Peak page you recommended above, versus the link I posted—also above—and the differences are immediately and dramatically noticed.)

There are several problems with the quote from the book, Weather Extremes of the West, the first of which is that Cataract Mountain is substantially less, at 8180 feet, than the claimed 10,009 feet. Cataract Mtn is in the Mount Siyeh (which is a 10-er) area, which I suppose does indeed get a prodiguous amount of snow, but I don't see how that area could possibly get more than the large glaciated peaks/basins of Mount Jackson and Walton Mountain, or the well-known Heavens and Longfellow Peaks immediately west of the Divide. Or the northern areas of the park.

"The wettest area in Montana, and in the US Rocky Mountains is the northern portion of GNP where the average annual precipitation at some locations can reach 120 inches." What the book says there is confusing, because in the following sentences it goes on to say the wettest areas are around the Cataract Mountain area (with its incorrect elevation listing), and the relatively low-lying area of Summit, saying that Summit doesn't even receive half the earlier, just quoted, 120 inch figure. I don't dispute any of those figures, but would dispute that Summit is one of the "wetter" areas of the park.

I've often seen 120 inches of annual precipitation quoted for the Continental Divide areas of GNP, so that figure is probably accurate. The question is, how much snow comes from 120 inches precipitation? Northern Rockies snow is less moist than Cascade snow (inland winter temps are colder), so the same inches precipitation would yield more snow in the Rockies—lighter and fluffier, I guess. I've been told approximately 10 inches snow comes from each inch precipitation, but that figure is not hard and fast, and I'm not claiming that as a scientific absolute—but that is one way of estimating a thousand inches snowfall in some of these GNP areas. (The 120" figure, of course, includes rain as well as snow, but it's worth noting that GNP is often—although not always!—relatively static in the summer months of July & August, having less in the way of thunderstorms than the mountains further south, even those in south-central Montana; the 120" figure has a somewhat higher percent snow versus rain than most U.S. mountains.)

Finally, the last sentence in the quote, "Less reliable measurements suggest the snowfall in the surrounding mountains easily exceeds 600 inches," makes me wonder, what is "easily exceeds?" And what is "less reliable?"—which could, of course, mean either more or less.

Enough. Interesting stuff....


merrill - Sep 16, 2009 9:34 pm - Voted 10/10

well written

I was glad to read a non-political tribute to a beautiful park.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 17, 2009 9:45 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: well written

Thanks, Merrill. It would be so easy to turn this into a political thing, but it would tarnish the subject.


jsorber - Sep 16, 2009 9:34 pm - Hasn't voted

stunningly written

Your article is informational and riveting. I am so thankful to have read this. I will be visiting the area next summer and I am thankful that I did not wait until later in life.

Thanks again!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 17, 2009 9:42 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: stunningly written

Thank you for reading it, and enjoy your visit. It is an unforgettable place.

Viewing: 1-20 of 49



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