Taking a break from recording numbers, scientist Mauri Pelto balances on the walls of an ice chute to take footage of a water current on Columbia Glacier. (Zachariah Bryan / The Herald)

Taking a break from recording numbers, scientist Mauri Pelto balances on the walls of an ice chute to take footage of a water current on Columbia Glacier. (Zachariah Bryan / The Herald)

Chronicling the last years of a dying North Cascades glacier

For almost four decades, scientist Mauri Pelto has journeyed to measure the melting Columbia Glacier.

SKYKOMISH — Nestled in a cirque of mountain peaks in the Monte Cristo range, above the jade green waters of Blanca Lake, lives the Columbia Glacier, several millennia old and now in its waning years.

It has the distinction of being the lowest-elevation glacier of its size in the North Cascades, ascending from 4,700 to 5,600 feet high — fed by low clouds sweeping over the mountains, as well as favorable avalanche conditions. On a dry summer day, Columbia Glacier and other glaciers in the region act as a backup generator for the Skykomish River Basin. They can fuel up to 25% of the basin’s stream flow.

For the masses of hikers who travel 65 miles east of Everett and trudge up seemingly endless switchbacks to the southern edge of Blanca Lake, Columbia Glacier often plays a bit part, photobombing Instagram pictures from far in the background.

Within decades, though, scientists predict Columbia Glacier will be gone.

“This glacier won’t survive this climate, period,” said glaciologist Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts.

Glaciologist Mauri Pelto and a team of researchers spent Monday afternoon taking snow depth measurements. Much of the snow likely will be gone by summer’s end. (Zachariah Bryan / The Herald)

Glaciologist Mauri Pelto and a team of researchers spent Monday afternoon taking snow depth measurements. Much of the snow likely will be gone by summer’s end. (Zachariah Bryan / The Herald)

Since 1984, Pelto has made the journey to Washington to take detailed measurements of 10 glaciers for the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. He signed up for the annual tradition, which is supposed to last half a century, when he was a 22-year-old Idaho college student. Since then, he’s already witnessed two glaciers disappear.

Pelto watches climate change happen in real time. Columbia Glacier has lost about a third of its mass — more than 80 feet in thickness — just in the time he’s studied it. Even if Earth stopped warming, the glacier can’t survive, he said.

Yet the warming is accelerating, Pelto said. In the first 25 years, he saw the glacier thin by about 40 feet. It’s shrunk the same amount in the past decade alone, he said. The trend isn’t isolated to Washington. Pelto has studied over 250 glaciers, including many in British Columbia and Alaska.

“None of them are doing well,” he said.

Last weekend, Pelto traveled to Columbia Glacier for the 36th time. The story was much the same.

This year’s North Cascades Climate Project team stands on an avalanche deposit. From left, Abby Hudak, Mauri Pelto, Jill Pelto, Ann Hill and Clara Deck. (Zachariah Bryan / The Herald)

This year’s North Cascades Climate Project team stands on an avalanche deposit. From left, Abby Hudak, Mauri Pelto, Jill Pelto, Ann Hill and Clara Deck. (Zachariah Bryan / The Herald)

He, his daughter, Jill Pelto, who has a master’s of science degree, and three graduate students donned their backpacks on a soggy Saturday and hiked up to the Blanca Lake vista. They then departed from the smartphone-wielding masses to bushwhack their way to the other side of the lake, following narrow, easy-to-lose footpaths. They tiptoed on rocks along the water’s edge, straddled fallen logs, hopped their way through boulder fields and forded two creeks. The second creek, at the base of the glacier, was so numbing that they took a break to rub their reddened feet back to life.

When they reached Columbia Glacier that Monday, over 80% was bare of snow. Shadows cast by the sun highlighted crevasses and cracks in the ice.

It’s not supposed to look like this, Pelto said. Ideally, at this time of year, snow would cover at least three-quarters of the glacial field, acting as a protective blanket that prevents the ice from melting. When Pelto first visited the area, there was enough snow that he could ski down the glacier without fear of tripping into nooks and crannies. He wouldn’t dare try that now, he said.

Even a February that brought historic snowfall in the lowlands couldn’t make up for an otherwise dry winter, Pelto said.

About 80% of Columbia Glacier had no snowpack in the beginning of August, exposing it to the sun and to melting. (Zachariah Bryan / The Herald)

About 80% of Columbia Glacier had no snowpack in the beginning of August, exposing it to the sun and to melting. (Zachariah Bryan / The Herald)

Strapped into crampons, the team made its way up the glacier, stopping every 100 meters to measure its elevation using a laser rangefinder, cataloging how it has shifted year to year, and decade to decade.

Then they tromped up the sides of the basin, where avalanches have piled snow. Pelto and his team took turns jamming a long metal pole into the snow to measure the depth.

“If we don’t have anything over 8 feet deep, it’s not going to last,” Pelto said.

Only a few spots in the deepest parts of the avalanche deposits measured more than 8 feet. By the end of summer, Pelto said, only 5% of the snow will remain.

After hours of testing depth, the team made its way back to the bottom of the glacier. Pelto took off his crampons and slid down on his boots, using his ice ax as a ski pole. They stopped by water currents carving their way through the ice. To test the stream flow, they poured in a florescent yellow dye and timed how fast it traveled downhill.

Looking at the numbers from the laser rangefinder, Pelto estimates that more than 6 feet of ice may disappear by summer’s end, making for the second- or third-worst year for melt, along with 2005 and 2015. He said other glaciers in the North Cascades are withering at a similar rate.

Years like this may become more common, Pelto said. And just as worrying, there haven’t been “good years” to make up for the bad ones, he said. Six years in a row now, Columbia Glacier has failed to accumulate enough snow to make it through the summer without receding.

The landscape provides a map of the glacier’s former stature. Like two outstretched arms, lifeless boulder fields reach to the edges of Blanca Lake, showing how the glacier forked to either side of a knob in the hillside. Just beyond the bare patch, trees hundreds of years old crowd the eastern flank of the lake.

When Pelto arrived in the 1980s, Columbia Glacier was thicker and more convex. It sidled up to either side of the basin.

“The valley looked relatively full of glacier,” he said. “Now it’s looking relatively empty.”

In recent years, a new lake has formed at the base of Columbia Glacier, complete with icebergs — a sign of melting. (Zachariah Bryan / The Herald)

In recent years, a new lake has formed at the base of Columbia Glacier, complete with icebergs — a sign of melting. (Zachariah Bryan / The Herald)

The geography will continue to change as the glacier melts, Pelto said. When it’s gone, only hints of its previous existence will be left.

In place of ice, there will be two new alpine lakes. One has formed in the past few years at the base of the glacier, where icebergs float silently in gray water.

Then, with no more glacial sediment pouring in, Blanca Lake’s bright green waters will transition into shades of blue.

Without the cooling effects of the glacier, the water will only get warmer, stressing aquatic life, Pelto said. Those effects will continue downstream, particularly on dry summer days, when glaciers are no longer around to help keep creeks flowing.

Pelto said it’s strange, sometimes, to be the chronicler of dying glaciers.

Soon, there will be no glacier to study.

“It’s a loss,” he said. “It’s just a loss to the environment. It’s an aspect of our world, our environment, that wouldn’t exist anymore.”

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Deena Jones gets a physical by Briana Brewer during one of her twice weekly checkups Thursday morning at UW Medicine in Seattle on September 30, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Her brother offered a kidney, and she got one, with a twist

Deena Jones’ nephew died in a random knife attack. His death could keep the Arlington pastor alive for decades.

Community Transit is preparing to shift commuter buses that go to the University of Washington in Seattle to connect with Link light rail in Northgate next year. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Union: Community Transit vaccine mandate puts jobs in ‘jeopardy’

Meanwhile, at King County Metro, a similar mandate has significantly boosted vaccination rates.

Man injured in Marysville gas station shooting

People in two vehicles reportedly opened fire Monday morning. Detectives were seeking suspect information.

Mukilteo asks for input on housing density, and it’s complicated

Here’s a guide to what voters should know about the advisory ballot measure. What does it actually do?

The concrete wall of the tennis courts at Clark Park in Everett was painted into a bright mural by people over two weekends. (Jay Austria)
Neighbors brighten Clark Park wall in Everett

People grabbed brushes and painted the concrete tennis court wall over two… Continue reading

An emergency responder uses a line to navigate the steep slope along a Forest Service road where seven people were injured Saturday when a vehicle went off the road near the Boulder River trailhead west of Darrington. (Darrington Fire District)
7 hurt in crash off cliff west of Darrington; 1 airlfited

A vehicle crashed on a forest service road near Boulder River, leading to a major rescue operation.

The aftermath of a fire that damaged a unit at the Villas at Lakewood apartment complex in Marysville on Saturday. (Marysville Fire District)
2 families displaced by Marysville apartment fire

Nobody was injured when the fire broke out Saturday morning on 27th Avenue NE.

Kevin Gallagher (from the Snohomish County Official Local Voters’ Pamphlet November 2, 2021 General Election)
Kevin Gallagher, a Marysville City Council candidate, dies

Kevin Gallagher, 52, died at home of natural causes. He was challenging incumbent Councilmember Tom King.

Clouds hover over the waters off Everett's western edge Monday morning. (Sue Misao / The Herald)
Get ready for La Niña and a soggy winter in Snohomish County

After a hot, dry summer, Washington feels like Washington again. Damp. Gray. Normal.

Most Read