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: 21-40 of 49

MoapaPk - Sep 17, 2009 3:16 am - Voted 10/10


Stepping back, we have to realize the enormous effect of post-"Big Ice Age" climate on the pre-1850 size of glaciers in the lower 48. In the CA Sierra, for example, there were no glaciers when the LIA started about 700 years ago.

I have a wonderful book on the Geology of the Sierra, which warns about man's interference with the climate, and the likely effect... increased glaciation. The book was written after that brief period in the late 60s when the glaciers at Rainier began to advance. The calculation then was that increased CO2 would lead to increased humidity, which would trigger a small percent cloud increase, which would plunge us into the next ice age due to decreased insolation. Humbling.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 17, 2009 9:48 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Thought-provoking

Are the Sierra glaciers true glaciers? I know some have crevasses, but do they have the size, thickness, and downhill movement? Or are they more like the Timpanogos Glacier, which has actually melted out totally on occasion?

On a less serious note, will the next big thing then be static climate?


MoapaPk - Sep 18, 2009 12:15 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Thought-provoking

Conventionally, the thickness was not a direct part of the definition; they just have to be thick enough to flow. The Sierra glaciers do flow, and the Palisades Glacier can be seen to calve into the lake at the bottom; but they no longer top the moraines, as they likely did 200 years ago -- they melt as fast at the lower edge as they are replenished above.

Some people call them permanent snowfields, but it's hard for a static snowfield to produce moraines.

The IHD defined types of glaciers, but to be honest, the definitions have faded from my mind. But this should keep you busy for a while.


AdamIsaac - Sep 18, 2009 1:25 pm - Voted 10/10

Great Article

Great piece. Beautiful park, I have been going there since I was a little kid, and will always go even just to see the beautiful mountains, although without glaciers, something will be missing.
Very well written. Thanks.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 20, 2009 5:59 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great Article

Thank you. I hope I will always go there as well. The place will always be exceptionally beautiful, but it will indeed be sad as I one day look out over what was once I glacier I saw.

T Sharp

T Sharp - Sep 20, 2009 11:54 pm - Voted 10/10


Nice article Bob, and the discussion of glaciers in the comments section has been interesting. One of the classic definitions differentiating glaciers from snow fields is if the outlet water leaving the mass is silted, if yes then it denotes glacial activities [ie movement and scouring], if not then its main mass is not ice, but rather snow. Although the color of the lakes will change with the loss of the silting, they will remain breathtakingly beautiful!
Well Done;

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 21, 2009 10:33 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Great!

Thanks for reading, Tim. Yes, it has been an interesting discussion, and I agree that the lakes will remain beautiful. And at least it will still be a long time until the glacial colors are totally gone.


BobSmith - Sep 25, 2009 7:13 pm - Voted 10/10

I thought...

there was a bit more time to see the remaining glaciers. None for the kids of just a few years from now. Alas...

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 27, 2009 11:46 am - Hasn't voted

Re: I thought...

Better get out there in the next 10 years. Even though most say 2030 is the end, the melting rate seems to be increasing, so those other predictions may unfortunately become true.


MarkDidier - Sep 28, 2009 9:20 pm - Voted 10/10

Global Warming or Global Climate Change

Another great I know I need to get out to GNP sooner than later.

I recently got away from saying "global warming" and have started to say "global climate change". I was given this good piece of advice a few months ago. "Global Warming" is bad "branding", as it was put to me. Here in Indiana we had the coldest July and August on record for a long time, so it's easy for people to joke about global warming. But when stated as "global climate change", it comes across much different, and I find that most people have a harder time with their arguments. It's just semantics, but it does make a difference.

Again, great article.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Sep 29, 2009 11:44 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Global Warming or Global Climate Change

Mark, thanks.

I agree that semantics can make a difference. Another one: the messenger. I think a lot of people close themselves to this issue because they associate it with folks like Al Gore and Greenpeace and don't like them. And it works both ways, for I've seen liberals ignore good points from conservatives seemingly because they don't like who's making them.


BLong - Oct 3, 2009 12:43 am - Hasn't voted

Great article

Thanks for sharing. Certainly an amazing place. I have been fortunate to visit there twice, although I was only able to really get out once -- we did a 3-day backpack loop up Kintla Lake over Boulder pass and then back down through a couple of valleys.

I would love to get back out there!

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Oct 3, 2009 8:29 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Great article

I would love to see the Boulder Pass/Hole in the Wall (Rock?) area. Thanks for reading.


BLong - Oct 3, 2009 11:58 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Hole in the wall

Yeah, you come back through the Hole in the wall. Really an amazing backpacking trip. One thing I really enjoyed is that we didn't see any other backpackers during the entire trip. There were 3 groups of scientists, but nobody just hiking for pleasure. A truly wild experience!

Here are a couple photos on SP from the hike:


suddendescent - Oct 9, 2009 3:50 pm - Voted 9/10

A global trend ?

As everyone knows global warming is to account for such changes to observe in altitude and at the poles. Although it is interesting to note that pollution (such as from soot- diesel exhaust is one of the contributors) in depositing dark particules which readily absorb sunlight (as opposed to reflecting it away which snow does) is a factor to take into consideration...

I vividly remember reading an old account describing the wilderness of northern Quebec which described glaciers in one of their mountain ranges (most probably the Torngats but possibly the Groulx Jaffrat hills or those in the immediate vicinity further south west of the Manicougan crater). Such glaciers are obviously but a memory .

I wonder how long the trend will continue with further consideration for the fact that with deforestation less and less oxygen is available ...


dan2see - Oct 9, 2009 5:15 pm - Hasn't voted

What will the park be called?

You ask, "What will the park be called when the glaciers are all gone?"

Glacier National Monument

mauri pelto

mauri pelto - Oct 10, 2009 7:51 am - Voted 7/10

Forecasting glacier survival

An examination of each Glacier National Park glacier has been completed and one third have shrunk relatively little from 1966 to the present and two thirds are either gone or on lost considerable area. The 2015 is overdone as is an estimate for 2030. The same ratio applies to the Wind River Range. Survival Forecasts

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Oct 15, 2009 10:16 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Forecasting glacier survival

I hope you turn out to be right. The year I hear the most is 2030, but if the glaciers last longer, I won't complain.


basagix - Oct 14, 2009 7:14 pm - Hasn't voted


Nice article.
A simple definition for a glacier is a perennial mass of ice which moves, and originates on land. Thickness and area criteria are not required. The GLIMS link that MoapaPk provided is a great source for classification of glaciers.

'Perennial' snow field is preferred over 'permanent'.

Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Oct 15, 2009 10:18 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: definitions

That's actually good news in a way. By that definition, it means that the glaciers will last longer and that there are more of them. The definition I used is from the Glacier NP naturalists; I don't know if it's applied more widely than that.

Viewing: 21-40 of 49



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