by Sarah Hardy
When my parents suggested we road trip all the way out to Glacier National Park from Minnesota, it wasn’t what I thought of when they had talked about a “summer vacation.” My Dad had been dreaming to go back to the place he used to camp as a kid. I couldn’t understand why he was so shocked when we got to the park, but looking back, I have so much appreciation for what I was able to see while I was there. I also now know that shrinking glaciers are becoming an even bigger problem today than it was when I had visited the park.
What is a glacier exactly? According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC), “Glaciers are made up of fallen snow that, over many years, compresses into large, thickened ice masses.” So then are they just made up of snow? Well, kind of. When snow falls on a glacier, it adds to the glacier. Then the snow turns to ice and the ice deforms, running the glacier downhill. When the glacier hits a lower, and usually warmer temperature, it melts or evaporates. This is called “equilibrium” (NSIDC). When this equilibrium is changed by more snow or melting, the glacier grows or melts.
The first hike that we went on, we were supposed to be able to see two glaciers, yet, I couldn’t even tell them apart from snow. The conditions of the glaciers have been hurt severely for many reasons. As the Earth’s climate gets warmer, more precipitation around Glacier comes as water instead of snow. According to information on the National Park Service website on Glacier’s climate change, this creates an earlier snowmelt in the spring, allowing the glaciers to be more exposed earlier in the year. Another large issue is that glaciers store a lot of freshwater for the streams that run through the park. When there is not enough rain or drainage from snow, those streams could possibly dry up, and never be restored to their full potential.
When Glacier first opened, the land had at least 150 glaciers. The park chose to name about 35 of those glaciers, and today in 2017, roughly 25 of them are considered “active.” So, how can we see how climate change has impacted these glaciers? We look to photography. The first picture comes from the NPS looking at “Jackson Glacier” in 1911, and in 2009. The sheer amount of ice (no pun intended) that has melted away shows the severe effects that our warming Earth has put on these natural ice formations. The second picture of “Shepard Glacier” shows clear lines of where the glacier was originally, and one can see how little is left today.
In a New York Times article written in May of 2017, they provided visuals mapping out some of the drastic changes to Glacier’s glaciers within the past 50 years. Five of the glaciers mapped had lost over 70% of their original area. Some glaciers, such as “Grinnell Glacier” pictured below, are favorites of regulars. Grinnell is one of the most popular hiking glaciers in the park, and has lost about 45% of its size. The second picture is on display at a visitor center within the park, shows Grinnell’s declining size.
Our trip to Glacier wasn’t just for my dad, but I now know it was for all of us. It was our chance to see things that might not be there by the time our lives are over. It was a lot of walking, driving, and family bonding, but it has been amazing to show pictures and tell stories. Some of nature’s most beautiful sculptures are being broken down foot by foot, and we still don’t know what to do about it. So, the next time your family asks where you want to go on vacation, consider a place where in who knows, 100 years, will just be history.