Tuesday December 10, 2019
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A ride through Glacier National Park in Montana, USA

Located in Montana, USA, Glacier National Park offers more than glaciers to anyone who visits. It is rightly called Crown of the Continent.

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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)

Next Story

Glaciers in Alaska Melting due to Climate Change

Disappearing Frontier: Alaska's Glaciers Retreating at Record Pace

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Alaska Glaciers
A sign marks where the end of the Exit glacier was in 2010 near tourists taking photos in the Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. VOA

Alaska will soon close a year that is shaping up as its hottest on record, with glaciers in the “Frontier State” melting at record or near-record levels, pouring waters into rising global seas, scientists said after taking fall measurements.

Lemon Creek Glacier in Juneau, where records go back to the 1940s, had its second consecutive year of record mass loss, with 3 meters erased from the surface, U.S. Geological Survey glaciologist Louis Sass told Reuters.

Melt went all the way up to the summit, said Sass, one of the experts who travel to benchmark glaciers to take measurements in the fall.

“That’s a really bad sign for a glacier,” he said, noting that high-altitude melt means there is no accumulation of snow to compact into ice and help offset lower-elevation losses.

At Wolverine Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage, loss was the second highest in a record that goes back to the 1960s. Sass said it failed to match the record set in 2004 only because so much of the glacier had already melted.

Chugach National Forest Alaska
Chugach National Forest ranger Megan Parsley holds photos showing this summer’s ice loss at the face of Portage Glacier, Alaska, U.S. VOA

“The lower part’s completely gone now,” he said.

Drastic melting was also reported at Kenai Fjords National Park, which former President Barack Obama once visited to call attention to climate change. There, Bear Glacier, a popular tourist spot, retreated by nearly a kilometer in just 11 months, according to August measurements by the National Park Service.

“It’s almost like you popped it and it started to deflate,” said Nate Lewis, a Seward-based wilderness guide who takes travelers into the new lake that has formed at the foot of the shrinking glacier.

Even one of the few Alaska glaciers that had been advancing, Taku just southeast of the city of Juneau, is now losing ice at a fast clip.

Particularly ominous is the high altitude at which Taku is melting, said Mauri Pelto, who heads the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. This year, the summer melt reached as high as 1,450 meters, 25 meters above the previous high-altitude record set just last year, he said.

Casting off chunks

Barack Obama Alaska
President Barack Obama views Bear Glacier on a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, Alaska. VOA

Now that it is retreating, Taku is expected to start casting off big ice chunks, increasing Alaska’s already significant contribution to rising sea levels, according to a study co-authored by Sass and Shad O’Neel, a glaciologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. The study is scheduled to be presented at the annual conference of the American Geologic Union next week in San Francisco.

Alaska recorded its warmest month ever in July and the trend has continued.

“Alaska is on pace to break their record for warmest year unless December is dramatically cooler than forecasted,” Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center, said in a Dec. 1 tweet.

Alaska’s glaciers account for far less than 1 percent of the world’s land ice. But their melt contributes roughly 7 percent of the water that is raising the world’s sea levels, according a 2018 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and co-authored by O’Neel.

There are also local impacts. Scientists say glacial melt affects salmon-spawning streams and harms marine fish and animal habitats. It is creating new lakes in the voids where ice used to be, and outburst floods from those lakes are happening more frequently, scientists say.

Also Read- Oxygen Loss from Oceans Dangerous for Aquatic Species: IUCN Report

Changes in the glaciers and the ecosystems they feed has been so fast that they are hard to track, said O’Neel at USGS, who measured the melt at Wolverine Glacier in September.

“Everything’s been pretty haywire lately.” (VOA)