I can report back from the nation’s searing summer that the great ice fields of Glacier National Park are still hanging in there. With the emphasis on hanging.
You can’t reach them easily anymore, as I did when I was a Midwestern kid awed to find thick fields of snow and ice lying about in Montana in the middle of summer.
Today the glaciers left are high, distant patches. Their blue ice clings desperately to loose rock mostly up near the mountain peaks.
“I thought you said we’d get to play in the snow in August,” one of my kids remarked, after it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen.
The ice had been the lure to get the family to drive 600 miles east last week. Let’s go see the great glaciers before they’re gone.
But I misjudged how far gone they already are. As did the scientists.
“They recently revised the end date, because the glaciers are retreating much faster than expected,” a park ranger said, when I told her my memories of sliding on ice fields in the 1970s. “Now they’re saying they may be gone completely by 2020.”
Eight years until “Glacier National Park” is just “National Park.” If you haven’t made plans to visit in the next month or two, that means you have only seven summers left to see a force that’s been sculpting one of the nation’s most dramatic landscapes for the past 7,000 years.
I didn’t realize it, but with this impulse, I had stumbled into a trend known as “Last Chance Tourism.” Or “Doom Travel.”
There used to be races to be first. First to the North Pole, first up Everest. Now there’s a drive to be the last. At least not too late.
“Just like being the first, the possibility of being the last to do something or see something is a powerful motivation to visit vanishing destinations,” wrote researchers from the University of Ottawa in a 2011 study on the rise of last-chance tourism.
Frommer’s even has a guidebook devoted to it, called “500 Places to See Before They Disappear.”
One of the 500 is Glacier.
“Global warming is melting the glaciers that give Glacier National Park its name,” it says. “By 2030, they all could be gone.”
Again, that end date has now been moved up a decade. So even the alarmists weren’t alarmed enough.
Glaciers are retreating most everywhere. The science says that’s due partly to natural climate variations, but also to human-caused warming.In northern Montana, average temperatures are rising twice as fast as they are globally. So it is ground zero around here for seeing, in person, what global warming looks like.
For Glacier, it’s probably too late to do anything but go see it. Rangers at the park said any change in the trend — even if society was pushing for one, which it isn’t — likely would come too late for these glaciers. Their end is baked in.
Of course, to see them one last time, I burned 60 gallons of gas driving nearly 1,500 miles.
According to the EPA, that means I released a half-ton of carbon into the atmosphere to show my kids a natural splendor that is vanishing in part due to people like me going to see it.
“Tourists often travel long distances and thus are disproportionately responsible for increased emissions and various other stressors that have the potential to alter further the very attractions being visited,” noted the University of Ottawa study, casting a further pall on the tourism of doom.
On the drive back to Seattle, we got mired in a three-hour traffic jam near Cle Elum, cars idling in heat that topped out at 101. Even my memories of the glaciers started to melt.
Yes, there are other glaciers, closer to home. And Glacier the park will survive after the ice is soon gone. It’ll be a far drier place, but still glorious. It was scoured by ice, so you’ll be able to look at the chasms and moraines and paint in what the great ice fields must have been like. In your imagination.
Hmm. Imagination Travel. Might be the next big thing. Whether we want it or not.
Danny Westneat is a columnist for The Seattle Times. Email: email@example.com.