In a little more than a month, Montana’s Glacier National Park will mark the centennial of its designation by President Taft as this country’s 10th national park. That’s certainly cause for celebration. Except that the U.S. Geological Survey just released some sobering news: Two more of the park’s 37 named glaciers shrunk to smaller than 25 acres (numbers 11 and 12 to do so), the size at which scientists believe glaciers likely stop moving—dropping the number of named glaciers there to 25.
It’s this flowing and shifting that make glaciers glaciers, says USGS Research Ecologist Dan Fagre, of the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center (NRMSC). “As they get smaller and smaller, they slow down more and more,” he says. “They could be incrementally moving a little bit. But they’re not grinding the rock, and releasing nutrients from the rocks.”
If nothing changes—in other words, if we can’t stop the warming significantly—Glacier National Park could lose all of its glaciers sooner than scientists originally thought. Fagre explains with Blackfoot-Jackson Glacier Basin. A 2003 paper describing a climate-induced glacier change model showed all glaciers in the basin melting by 2030. But “since that model was created, we looked at the projections and what we actually had in the field,” Fagre says. “Glaciers are melting faster than the model predicted.”
Fagre’s quick to say that he doesn’t believe glaciers will completely disappear within the next decade; although they will continue melting, the rate by which this happens will likely slow down. He does, however, stress the affect that losing glaciers could have on the surrounding environment. First, he notes, they act as reservoirs, releasing cold water that’s a lifeline for aquatic species such as trout. They also keep the area wet and cool once the snow packs have all melted. Without them, temperatures in those basins will likely spike—potentially an indication of changes elsewhere that scientists simply can’t see.
Glacier National Park’s latest losses signify an unfortunate trend to Fagre. “We are going to go toward a virtually glacierless state in the next few decades. They’re not going to be ameliorating stream temperatures in summer. We’ve already lost glaciers entirely from some basins…That’s the inevitability,” he says. “We don’t care whether it is 2033 or 2029 or 2035. It’s just what’s happening.”