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This view of Lake McDonald, one of many glacier-fed bodies of water in Glacier National Park, was one of the reasons adventurer Mikah Meyer decided to embark on an epic journey to visit all 417 national parks. VOA

There was a time — in this northwest corner of Montana — when glaciers ruled the land.

Crown of the Continent

The abundance of the massive rivers of ice — and their runoff — created “a land of striking scenery.” That’s how American anthropologist, historian, naturalist and writer George Bird Grinnell described Glacier National Park, nine years before the land was set aside as a national park on May 11, 1910.

Today, there are far fewer icy behemoths. And they’re all shrinking.

These photos of Jackson Glacier – taken in 1911 and 2009 — show how the once-massive river of ice has shrunk in less than a century.

“There are currently 26 glaciers in Glacier National Park,” says national parks traveler Mikah Meyer. “I can’t remember the exact number that there were when it was founded but it was vastly higher,” he added. “The glaciers are melting and the snowfall is not restoring their size in the way that they have in past years.”

Melting glaciers

But the glaciers – both those long gone and those that still remain — have left their mark. As they started melting 10,000 years ago, they carved out majestic mountains, lush valleys, and pristine lakes.

Glacial waters are the headwaters for streams that flow west to the Pacific Ocean, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and east across the continent to Hudson’s Bay, according to the National Park Service. It emphasizes that that runoff “affects waters in a huge section of North America.”

With more than 760 lakes and nearly half a million hectares of parkland, it’s easy to see why Mikah has returned.

“Five years ago I stood on this exact same spot; at the end of the dock on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park,” he said as he stood in front of a landscape so serene, it could have passed as a painting.

“It was one of my first experiences with the National Park Service site and I was hooked,” he admitted.

Waters from those melting glaciers also feed Iceberg Lake — another popular attraction in the park. “It is very cold and very windy and lots of little icebergs floating back there by the snow,” Mikah said as he braved the winds to capture the scene with his camera.

Iceberg Lake is a popular day hike destination in the park.

But despite the cold, nearby wildflowers were in full bloom, creating a pastoral setting. As Mikah walked through a field of bear grass, he said he felt like he was “in some fairytale land.”

The elegant white blossoms are a common wildflower in Glacier National Park, which this year grew in prolific numbers. They provided a perfect environment to view the local wildlife, including deer, moose, marmots and mountain goats.

Generous tour companies

Mikah got lucky when several tour companies offered him a chance to explore the park from a variety of perspectives. With Red Bus Tours, Mikah got a nice overview of the park from their vintage 1930s buses.

The 33 Red Buses of Glacier National Park, nicknamed “The Rubies of the Rockies,” on average, transport 60,000 tourist each summer.

“It’s a massive park — it takes an hour and a half just to cross it,” he noted. “So it’s a guided tour that allows you to focus on looking at the beauty of the park instead of having to stay on these tiny mountain roads.”

Swan Mountain Outfitters donated a horseback tour for an eight-hour trek to Cracker Lake, an eye-popping turquoise body of water which is also fed by melting glacial waters.

Mikah described the scene: “You crest over this hill on the horses and you’re in the middle, surrounded by bear grass and trees and flowers and these large gray mountains in the background, and it just pops like nothing else.”

With its stunning turquoise waters, Cracker Lake stands out like a jewel against a backdrop of greens and grays.

And thanks to Montana Whitewater Rafting, Mikah got to experience those glacial waters up close during a rafting tour on the Middle Fork River — a 150-kilometer river in western Montana that forms the southwestern boundary of the park.

“It was a very clear river,” Mikah said, since the water was a combination of glacier melt and snow runoff. “So you could see down through the water to the bottom, see the rocks, and the fish, so very pure, very clear water.”

National parks traveler Mikah Meyer got to experience the clear glacial waters of Montana’s Middle Fork River during an exhilarating rafting ride. (Photo: Montana Raft)

Mikah was pleased to have experienced the park from the depths of the water as well as from the top of a ski lift where he could see “where it all started.”

Mikah, who’s on a mission to visit all 417 national parks in the U.S., says he hopes to come back again one day, even if the glaciers are gone.

“Even if the physical glaciers don’t still exist because they melted away, it can still be Glacier National Park because that’s what created this amazing landscape.” (VOA)



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Milky Way galaxy as seen from Chitkul Valley

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has for the first time spotted signs of a planet transiting a star outside of the Milky Way galaxy, opening up a new avenue to search for exoplanets at greater distances than ever before.

The possible exoplanet -- or planets outside of our Solar System -- candidate is located in the spiral galaxy Messier 51 (M51), also called the Whirlpool Galaxy because of its distinctive profile, NASA said in a statement.

Astronomers have, so far, found all other known exoplanets and exoplanet candidates in the Milky Way galaxy, almost all of them less than about 3,000 light-years from Earth.

An exoplanet in M51 would be about 28 million light-years away, meaning it would be thousands of times farther away than those in the Milky Way, NASA said.

"We are trying to open up a whole new arena for finding other worlds by searching for planet candidates at X-ray wavelengths, a strategy that makes it possible to discover them in other galaxies," said Rosanne Di Stefano of the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and Smithsonian (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the study.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The exoplanet candidate was spotted in a binary system called M51-ULS-1, located in M51. This binary system contains a black hole or neutron star orbiting a companion star with a mass about 20 times that of the Sun. The X-ray transit they found using Chandra data lasted about three hours, during which the X-ray emission decreased to zero.

Based on this and other information, the team estimates the exoplanet candidate in M51-ULS-1 would be roughly the size of Saturn and orbit the neutron star or black hole at about twice the distance of Saturn from the Sun.

The team looked for X-ray transits in three galaxies beyond the Milky Way galaxy, using both Chandra and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton. Their search covered 55 systems in M51, 64 systems in Messier 101 (the "Pinwheel" galaxy), and 119 systems in Messier 104 (the "Sombrero" galaxy).

However, more data would be needed to verify the interpretation as an extragalactic exoplanet. One challenge is that the planet candidate's large orbit means it would not cross in front of its binary partner again for about 70 years, thwarting any attempts for a confirming observation for decades, NASA said.

Named in honor of the late Indian-American Nobel laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Chandra X-ray Observatory is the world's most powerful X-ray telescope. It has eight times greater resolution and is able to detect sources more than 20-times fainter than any previous X-ray telescope.

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