Lyman Glacier is slowly disappearing

North Cascade’s Lyman Glacier, sitting just below 8,459-foot Chiwawa Peak, is dying — and it’s not alone.

Nearby, Spider Glacier has already passed away. The scientist who pronounced it dead three years ago believes that one-third of the glaciers in the North Cascades — including Lyman — are doomed.

Mauri Pelto says the other two-thirds may have a chance, if the world does something to stop continued global warming. Pelto is an environmental science professor at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., and has studied glaciers and climate change for more than two decades.

In August, he completed his 25th hiking trip to several North Cascade glaciers. He’s been watching and measuring the great slabs of moving ice every year since 1984.

It is the largest study of glaciers in the North Cascades, home to one-third of all glaciers in the lower 48 states.

He visits 10 glaciers every year for in-depth measurements, and monitors 37 others with less regular trips. Five of them have already died, and all of the glaciers he’s studying are now retreating. They’ve lost 20 percent to 40 percent of their volume.

Climate change question

Pelto says when he first learned about climate change as a graduate student at the University of Maine — before he started this study — he was skeptical. “I’d been to a couple conferences related to global warming, and as a skier, I hated the idea. I was looking to find a hole in the argument,” he said. Instead, he found the science convincing.

Ronald Reagan was president, and the National Academy of Sciences was calling for someone to monitor glaciers across an entire mountain range. Pelto says government science budgets across the nation were being cut, and he knew no one would likely take on the Academy’s recommendation. So he decided to take the challenge himself by making it his graduate thesis. He started the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project, which he intends to be a 50-year study of nearly 50 glaciers in the North Cascades.

He chose specific glaciers to represent different geographical features across the North Cascades — some are high elevation, some are lower, some are north facing, some face south, some are in Western Washington, and some — like Lyman — are on the east side of the range.

Now age 46, a husband, father, professor, and half-way through his commitment, Pelto finds it hard to believe that anyone still questions that global warming is real.

He wonders what has to happen before people are convinced that the climate is changing. “What’s the straw that’s going to break the camel’s back?”

Pelto says he also wonders how people — especially those who depend on water from the glacier-fed rivers, lakes and streams on the east and west slopes of the Cascades — will react once they realize what it means to lose those frozen reservoirs of water.

A visit to Lyman Glacier

At the headwaters of the Chiwawa River Valley, a few miles into the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness, the trail opens out to alpine Spider Meadow, filled with late-summer flowers. It’s a popular spot for both foot and horse campers. Pelto and his team arrive at dusk on Aug. 10, set up the tent, have a quick dinner, get to bed and then wake early the next day for the steep climb to Lyman Glacier.

Leaving the meadow as the sun creeps over the peaks, they climb 2,300 vertical feet in a few long miles to Spider Gap before dropping down another 1,000 feet over a snowfield and across an unstable rock scree to the glacier. It’s one of nine glaciers they’ll visit on this two-week trip. Altogether, they’ll hike more than 100 miles and climb about 35,000 feet.

Lyman Glacier and its lakes are at the headwaters of Railroad Creek, which flows past Holden Village into Lake Chelan and then the Columbia River.

Pelto’s team this year includes his 18-year-old son, Ben; Brad Markle, 22, a recent Pomona College graduate from Corvallis, Ore.; and Tom Hammond, an avid hiker and network engineer at the University of Washington and Pelto’s field scientist.

The hike in was tough, eyes kept to the feet to keep from stumbling. When they stop to look around, the scene is of rugged gray peaks patched with snowfields cutting sharply into a deep-blue and cloudless sky. In the valley below, green trees and grasses skirt three jade green lakes. The color of these lakes is telltale sign that they’re standing on a glacier. Though the ice is moving toward the lakes far too slowly to perceive, the heavy weight of this massive ice slab pushing against the mountain actually scrapes off small particles of rock, creating a glacial flour that makes its way into the lakes, giving them a unique blue-green color.

Scenery noted, they all put on crampons and check to ensure the straps on their ice axes are secured around their wrists before venturing out onto the glacier’s soft snow.

“See that rust-colored boulder on the right?” Pelto asks pointing to the only large boulder on the east side of the lake. “My first year here, the glacier went all the way to there,” he says. His first year here was in 1986, and the rock is now several hundred feet away from the glacier.

But their talk doesn’t focus on the receding ice. They immediately get to work, screwing together a heavy steel probe that they systematically punch through the snow until it hits ice. It measures how much snowpack remains from last winter. They repeat this every 100 meters — or 330 feet — back and forth across the glacier.

“We’re trying to get a mass balance — how much snow it gains versus how much it loses,” Pelto says. “It’s like balancing your checkbook,” he says. If you continuously take out more money than you put in, eventually you run out.

How glaciers form

Glaciers form when more snow falls in the winter than melts in the summer. They die when more snow melts, and melting works its way farther and farther into the ice slab until there’s nothing left. When they die, these spots still gather snow each year, like the former Spider Glacier above Spider Meadow. The snowmelt from it still flows into the Chiwawa River and later joins the Wenatchee River. But now that the Spider Glacier has melted, there will be no ice to continue feeding the Chiwawa River once last year’s snow melts off.

Unless there’s an unseasonably cool fall or early winter this year, Pelto predicts Lyman Glacier will shrink again this year. Only 11 feet of snowpack were left — at the deepest spot on the glacier — by mid-August. In past years, he says, 10 to 12 feet of snow has melted from this glacier between mid-August and first snowfall.

Pelto and his team use a laser to measure the glacier’s size and distances to various points. They use an inclinometer to measure the incline, or slope, at every spot they measure, and take its GPS location. As they work their way back and forth across the glacier, they come to a dozen or more crevasses that jut deep into the glacier to the mountain below. They’re working close to the glacier’s terminus now — the cliff-like edge of the glacier where it suddenly drops off to meet the lake below. Taking measurements around the crevasses, they’re careful not to step on the bright white snow at their sides, which could give way and send them into the abyss.

This year, it’s too dangerous to venture out to the edge of the glacier, which drops 80 feet to the lakes below. Instead, they hike around to its base and count at least 38 layers of ice, each a different year in which more snow fell than melted, eventually turning from snow to ice under the weight of the following years’ snowpack. It sounds like it’s raining here, as the snowpack drips off the edge.

The ice layers represent snowfall dating back about a century, Pelto estimates. A glacier has been here for the last 5,000 years, at least, he says. But the ice at the bottom of this glacier, which scrapes and mixes with the mountain below it as it moves, is only about a century old. “North Cascade glaciers are small and have high accumulation rates and melt rates. The result is faster motion and no pockets of old cold ice frozen to the bed,” he explains.

The glacier’s history

Unlike the rings in a tree, there is not a layer for every year, he says, because there are many years when there’s no extra snow to form that ice layer — especially in recent years.

Pelto has visited this glacier 12 times since he first came to take measurements in 1986 — this is not one of the ten glaciers under intensive study, but he tries to come here often.

His data goes back farther than his first trip here.

As with other glaciers he picked to study, Pelto sought out avid hikers who may have photographs and memories of them.

For the Lyman Glacier, he found William Long, a Cashmere geologist who often came here — indeed spent his honeymoon here in 1944 — and had old photos of how it looked in the ’40s and ’50s. Long’s photographs show that the glacier used to extend down through the area where a new lake has now formed. Long, who died about 10 years ago, also accompanied him to the glacier six times, where he helped provide other scientific data and his memories of how the glacier once looked.

Pelto also used records from the Washington Water Power Company, which monitored the Lyman Glacier from 1920 to 1949, presumably to make sure there would be enough water and power for the Holden Mine near Holden Village. Mine workers extracted copper and gold from Copper Mountain until 1957.

From all this information, his own data, and a study of the surrounding geography — which shows where the glacier retreated after the Little Ice Age of the late 1800s — Pelto has calculated how fast the glacier is retreating.

The glacier is more than a quarter of a mile long and about half as wide. Pelto figures it’s about one-third its former size. And, it’s providing about one-third of the water it once did. Since the Little Ice Age in about 1890, the glacier has receded about 1,365 meters — a couple hundred meters short of a mile. For the last 50 years, it’s retreated about 33 feet per year.

He predicts it will disappear completely in 30 to 50 years.

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