Think of a glacier as a water reservoir in solid form. We count on glaciers — in particular Washington’s states perpetual ice sheets in the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges — to feed rivers and reservoirs during summer months of melt with the understanding that winter snows will replenish them and provide an insulating blanket of snow to slow their melt.
Climate change — caused by an increase in the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — however, has interrupted that cycle, increasing temperatures and changing weather patterns that deposited enough snow in the fall and winter to make up for what melted in the spring and summer.
Glaciers are fighting an increasingly warming planet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this July as the hottest month ever recorded, with record warmth shrinking Arctic and Antarctic sea ice to historic lows. In 140 years of record-keeping, it was the hottest July on record, with the previous hottest July in 2016. July also marked the 415th consecutive month of above-average global temperatures.
Alaska had its warmest July since it began keeping records in 1925, and South America and Africa reported their warmest July on record; recall that July falls in winter in the Southern Hemisphere.
Climate change, then, is making withdrawals on an unbalanced checkbook; glaciers worldwide are losing more than they’re taking in. And the melt is accelerating.
Montana’s Glacier National Park, for instance, had 35 named and active glaciers when it was created in 1966. A year short of the park’s 50th anniversary, only 26 named glaciers remained, having lost a combined area of 39 percent, though individual glaciers have lost as much as 85 percent of their area as of 2015.
Iceland, last week, held a memorial service for a glacier, Okjokull, which once stretched six square miles but officially lost its status as a glacier in 2014. A plaque was placed to memorialize the first loss of a glacier in Iceland, the North Atlantic island nation that shares an approximate latitude with Nome, Alaska. The monument is meant as a message to the future: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
Here in Snohomish County, a researcher continued his work, first started in 1984, to track the slow-motion disappearance of the Columbia Glacier, located northeast of Index and above Blanca Lake in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest’s Henry M. Jackson Wilderness.
The Herald’s Zachariah Bryan recently hiked with glaciologist Mauri Pelto for his annual check on the glacier that has the distinction of being the lowest-elevation glacier of its size in the North Cascades. Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts, has chronicled Columbia and nine other area glaciers as part of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project.
The glacier’s diagnosis isn’t good: “This glacier won’t survive this climate period,” Pelto told Bryan.
In the 36 years that he has studied this and other glaciers in the Cascades, Columbia has lost a third of its mass and its depth has thinned by 80 feet. And the loss is accelerating; 40 feet of that loss in depth has happened in the past 10 years. Pelto expects the glacier to retreat by six feet this summer, making it the second- or third-highest year for melt loss since he began tracking the glacier’s health.
Columbia has a matter of decades left before it joins Okjokull. And all 10 of the glaciers Pelto has studied here are showing a steady recession that tracks with the global retreat of glaciers.
Why worry about melting ice?
During summer months, as with other glaciers, Columbia contributes up to 25 percent of the flow for the Skykomish River Basin, helping to cool streams and the river and keeping their levels high enough for salmon.
And while Columbia doesn’t feed Spada Lake, the water reservoir for Everett and Snohomish County, it’s just miles from the glacier and shares a similar climate.
Spada Lake provides about 53 million gallons of water a day to some 627,000 people, about 75 percent of Snohomish County.
The most recent “water situation fact sheet” from the Everett Public Works Department reported that even with a normal year for the snowpack that feeds Spada and Chaplain reservoirs, reservoir inflows are below normal for this year.
Average annual precipitation at Spada’s Culmback Dam is 162 inches. While 182 inches fell in 2018, providing 113 percent of normal precipitation, only 56.2 inches — 63 percent of normal — has been recorded in 2019, Jan. 1 through July 31.
The fact sheet says the water supply outlook is “adequate” for the rest of the year. In the absence of any precipitation, there are about four-and-a-half months of supply within Spada Lake and another four months at Chaplain.
It will rain again, of course, but for how many more decades can we count on glaciers to provide the water that was banked centuries ago to augment rivers and reservoirs in future springs and summers?
As a low-elevation glacier, Columbia can’t be saved. But if it is the first Cascades glacier to get its own funeral, it should also be the last.