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Tracking the Changing Glaciers of the West

Yosemite's Dana Glacier, in 2008 and 1883 (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Yosemite's Dana Glacier in 2008, and a photo of it from 1883. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Years of exhaustive (and exhausting) field work out of Portland State University has produced some stunning visual images online.

Not quite two years ago, reporter Sasha Khokha and I joined geologist Hassan Basagic on a long trek to photograph the Dana Glacier, located just inside the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park.  Since 2003, Basagic has been documenting the changes in the glaciers of the Sierra using historic photographs, and we joined him in September of 2008 to see the shrinking glacier for ourselves. We documented the trip with a radio report, an audio slide show, and web videos.

That field work was part of a project called “Glacier Rephotography of the American West” which tracks the retreat of glaciers across the western United States over the last century.

Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee, who has closely followed the project, tells us that it has produced a new online resource. It includes a series of interactive time lines that showcase historic photos as well as more recent ones (including Basagic’s) that, when viewed side by side, offer some startling views of how glaciers in various regions have changed.

For more remarkable images of moving glaciers, explore the “Extreme Ice” episode of the PBS series Nova.

Santer: “Loss of Innocence” for Climate Scientists

The Dana Glacier, outside Yosemite, CA.  Photo: Gretchen Weber

The Dana Glacier, outside Yosemite, CA, September 2008. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Yet another climate controversy has revived what have become increasingly common attacks on scientists’ credibility.  The latest flap arose when  the IPCC admitted on Wednesday, that its 2007 prediction that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 was unfounded.

Attacks on the integrity of scientists have brought about a “loss of innocence” in the climate science field, said Ben Santer, a Research Scientist for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Santer lamented that “Fourteen or fifteen years ago, it was possible to do science and not be too worried about being the subject of Congressional investigations, Freedom of Information Act requests, and very personal and very public attacks. Those innocent days are over now.”

Santer, who’s been a key author of some IPCC reports, said the science that goes into those reports is the most rigorous that he’s seen in his career.”If your research suggests that humans are having a pronounced effect on climate,” he continued,  “I think the expectation is that you will be subjected to tremendous scrutiny.  And some of that is appropriate, certainly in terms of the science and the integrity and credibility of the science, but unfortunately, that scrutiny is moving to very unwelcome areas, and it’s also focusing on individuals and motives, and all of this stuff is very distasteful,” he said.

Santer was joined on the call by Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center , who raised concern that the intense and personal nature of much of the criticism climate scientists have been facing (most recently in response to the East Anglia hacked email incident, now widely known as “Climategate”) may be keeping promising young scientists out of the field at a time when they are most needed.  In the wake of the East Anglia emails, a blizzard of accusations of data manipulation blew through the blogosphere and in certain corners of the Senate.

“It does make it difficult to bring young scientists into the field,” Santer agreed.  They look at what has gone on and there is genuine concern there. They must be asking themselves, ‘Do I really want to get involved in critical but possibly contentious issues if there is the possibility that I will spend months or even  longer dealing with questions not about the science that I have done, but about my own personal integrity?'” said Santer.

Thompson affirmed that while it’s difficult to put a specific timetable on the disappearance of glaciers, the scientific evidence documenting glacier recession is overwhelming.  Research indicates that more than 90% of the world’s glaciers are receding, he said, including approximately 95% of the glaciers in the Himalayas.

“Glaciers do not have any political agenda,” said Thompson.  “They just sum up what’s happening in the environment and they retreat or react to that en masse.”

The conference call was organized by the activist Union of Concerned Scientists.

UPDATE 1/25/10
The London tabloid, the Daily Mail, reported yesterday that a lead author of the Asia chapter of the IPCC’s 2007 assessment admitted that he knew the 2035 claim was unsubstantiated, but he approved including it in the report anyway.  Murari Lal reportedly said in an interview with the Daily Mail that he knew the 2035 number came from a report that was not peer-reviewed, but that the claim of imminently disappearing glaciers would, “impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.”

Michael Schlesinger, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Research Group at the the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign responded to the Daily Mail report with dismay.

“I am greatly saddened and deeply offended by this person’s behavior,” he wrote in an email. “A scientist does not lie nor change the facts to suit an agenda.  Rather s/he tells it as it is, as best as it is known to her/him.”

Joe Romm at Climate Progress has a spirited response to the Daily Mail story.  According to Romm (who reached Lal by phone):
[Lal] He said these were “the most vilest allegations” and denied that he ever made such assertions.  He said “I didn’t put it [the 2035 claim] in to impress policymakers….  We reported the facts about science as we knew them and as was available in the literature.”

Some Glaciers Buck the Trend

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Crater Glacier on Mount St. Helens

We’re entering the best time of year for fans of glaciers.  The high-country rivers of ice are getting their annual nourishment from winter’s snows–probably not enough, as Yosemite National Park geologist Greg Stock tells us: “Glaciers are getting about the same amount of snowfall each winter but they’re seeing a lot more melt in summertime because of those warmer temperatures.”

A database called Glaciers of the American West posits that, “Perhaps glaciers are the clearest expression of climate change.”  But within that National Science Foundation-funded database can be found a few growing glaciers–curious exceptions that buck the general melting trend.  Cherry-picking those exceptions allows some global warming skeptics to suggest we should be preparing for the next ice age (see here and here for examples of this). However, a closer examination of the anomalous glaciers suggests that unique circumstances are more likely at work.

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USGS hydrologist Joe Walder

Crater Glacier on Mount St. Helens in southwest Washington State is a dramatic example of a growing glacier.  The glacier formed in the shaded recesses of the high elevation crater left by the catastrophic 1980 eruption of the volcano.  USGS research hydrologist Joe Walder told us the mass of ice and rock is advancing some 300 feet per year.  This time lapse video (file will download) provided by the U.S. Geological Survey shows why glaciers are also known as “rivers of ice.”

Another view from above shows how Crater Glacier got squeezed and pushed around when Mount St. Helens reawakened in 2006 and extruded a new lava dome.  That the young glacier survived the renewed eruption is remarkable by itself.  The fact that the horseshoe-shaped glacier is gaining mass indicates just what a perfect setting Mother Nature created at the volcano.  The north-facing crater acts like a catcher’s mitt reaching toward the moist jet stream.

Mount Rainier, also in Washington State, is the most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48 states.  On Rainier’s east flank, Emmons Glacier is advancing. The National Park Service offers this myth-busting explanation:

“The Emmons Glacier experienced a rock avalanche in 1963, which covered part of the glacier with a layer of rock debris. This debris now insulates the ablation (melting) zone of the glacier from sunlight and warm air temperatures and the melting of the glacier is smaller than from an otherwise clean glacier. Because melting is reduced, but the ice flow is the same, the glacier is advancing. This response has nothing to do with climate change.”

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta

Something yet again different appears to be happening at northern California’s Mount Shasta. A research team from UC Santa Cruz documented 50 years of nearly continuous expansion of the two largest glaciers on Mount Shasta.  The researchers theorize in the journal Climate Dynamics that Shasta’s glaciers are benefiting from a warming Pacific Ocean. A warmer ocean means more evaporation, and hence more moisture blows over the high peaks near the coast.  Because of Shasta’s height, the enhanced precipitation mostly falls as snow, adding to the mass of the glaciers.

Portland State University glaciologist Andrew Fountain says no one has yet explained to his satisfaction why glaciers on peaks immediately to the north and south of Mount Shasta are not likewise growing.  It is as if a “snow gun” is aimed directly at Shasta’s 14,162-foot summit.  But he doesn’t lose sleep over that issue because Fountain and the other glaciologists who have studied Shasta do not expect the glacial advance to last.  Their climate models call for the snow level (elevation) to rise.0915tb_glaciers5

“We do expect it to be a temporary phenomenon,” Fountain said.  “The modeling done down on Mount Shasta expects the glaciers to retreat within the next decade or so, if they’re not already.”

Tom Banse’s radio feature on the West’s growing glaciers airs Monday morning on The California Report.

A Long Trek to a Shrinking Glacier

img_5833-300.jpgThe glaciers in the Sierra Nevada are melting fast, and I really wanted to see one before it was too late. Earlier this fall, I got my wish. Reporter Sasha Khokha and I were lucky enough to travel to Yosemite and tag along with geographer Hassan Basagic on his trek to photograph the Dana Glacier as part of his research documenting the retreat of the Sierra glaciers.

The hike to Dana Glacier was stunning. We parked the car just outside Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Gate, which is at close to 10,000 feet in elevation, and began bushwhacking almost immediately. We climbed to the base of the glacier traveling through soft green meadows, up and over mountains of multi-colored boulders, and along the edges of electric blue and green alpine lakes. Not one cloud passed over our heads all day long.

While the climb was memorable for its beauty, what made the day truly outstanding was having a guide explaining the landscape around us each step of the way. Since 2003, Basagic has been tracking the changes in the glaciers of the Sierra using historic photographs. His research contains comparison photographs of several other Sierra glaciers, including the Lyell and Maclure glaciers.

Californians are thinking more than ever about water, snow pack, and our glaciers due in part to a couple of dry years and two pretty severe fire seasons. In October, Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee wrote an interesting piece about his trek to the Lyell Glacier with a team of scientists. Knudson and team found that like Dana, the Lyell Glacier has shrunk dramatically since 1883.

While the hike to Dana was spectacular, the glacier itself appeared less than majestic. It looked vulnerable, clinging to the side of a massive bowl, a remnant of the sea of ice that once filled the entire valley. It looked so small and fragile that I was not surprised when Yosemite geologist Greg Stock told us in an interview the next day that it’s likely the Dana Glacier will be gone in the next 25-50 years.

Check out the videos and audio slidehow of our journey to the Dana Glacier.

Listen to the radio report.