In pondering the Northwest’s changing climate and what to do about those changes, it is essential to rely upon science rather than become burdened by rhetoric and hyperbole. Needless to say, when it comes to climate, the rhetoric and hyperbole is hot enough to melt glaciers.
All of which lends importance to the work being done by glaciologist Mauri Pelto, who has spent each summer for the past three decades or so examining the glaciers in the North Cascades. As reported by The Seattle Times, Pelto recently wrapped up his annual survey, and the results are disturbing. “The best word for it is disastrous,” he said. Pelto and his fellow researchers observed that glaciers normally insulated by snow were down to bare ice and were gushing meltwater. He estimates that some glaciers will lose 5 to 10 percent of their volume this year, noting that, “This is the biggest volume loss in the last 50 years.”
Again, the science is more important than the rhetoric, and the lack of science has hampered the United States’ ability to form a consensus of opinion or develop policies regarding the climate and its environmental impact. As University of Washington glaciologist T.J. Fudge said: “We’re beginning to build up the statistics to say: ‘Yes, this loss of ice is the result of human-caused warming.’ But I don’t think we’re quite there yet that we can say it definitively.”
Glaciers can be an important climate indicator, as well as having a vast ecological impact. Throughout the Northwest, glacier-fed streams provide drinking water (Clark County’s water comes primarily from aquifers), hydropower, and a cooling flow into rivers and streams that is beneficial to salmon and other aquatic species. Each of these also has an economic impact, and scientists from the Nooksack Indian Tribe in northern Washington joined Pelto’s team, with Oliver Grah explaining, “We’re concerned about the salmon.”
This concern is not limited to the Northwest. As the United Nations Environment Programme reports: “There is mounting evidence that climate change is triggering a shrinking and thinning of many glaciers worldwide which may eventually put at risk water supplies for hundreds of millions — if not billions — of people.”
On a large scale, melting glaciers and melting polar ice caps lead to rising sea levels that endanger coastal habitats.
Which brings us back to Pelto’s research. While the earth’s climate has ebbed and flowed over the millennia — and while one year does not a trend make — concrete scientific data should not be ignored. Now there is documentation that glaciers in the North Cascades have shrunk between 25 and 40 percent since the mid-1980s, and that provides evidence of changes that require the attention of policymakers while also placing the Northwest in line with data from other parts of the world. This year’s drought conditions and warmer-than-normal temperatures have exacerbated the dire condition of glaciers throughout the region, leading Jon Riedel of the National Park Service to say, “The scary thing to think about is what happens if the next 18 out of 20 years are like this?”
That is not an ethereal, philosophical question; it is one that has a direct impact upon the Northwest. As Riedel noted, “We’ve largely ignored the glaciers in terms of their importance to water balance in this state.” The science suggests that should change, and it is a suggestion that rings louder than the rhetoric on either side.