Here’s one example of how the mountain is changing. The Nisqually Glacier is retreating on average 3 feet every 10 days, and geologists said this is a concerning and dramatic pace.
“Well, it does seem to be getting farther, further and farther up the mountainside each year that we come,” said Brad Powell, a visitor to the park.
“There are places that I’ve been as an adult, and they just look different, you know, because the glaciers have just gone,” said park visitor Valerie Hoffer. “It’s weird.”
Less melt stresses wildlife
Glaciers on Mount Rainier provide crucial water resources to the region. A certain amount of snow is expected to melt from the glaciers every summer. This benefits fish and salmon species by keeping the water temperatures of rivers and streams cool. Too much melting over the last century has meant that some glaciers are gone, which in turn could harm fish.
“Fish that are adapted, especially to those environments to that cold water can no longer survive because the water is getting much warmer,” said Scott Beason, geologist for the National Park Service.
Less ice could mean more dangerous debris flows
Beason has worked as a geologist for the National Park Service at Mt. Rainier for more than a decade. Recent data, including one of his studies, have found that three of Rainier’s 29 named glaciers have disappeared altogether. Beason’s research focuses on how glacial melt makes the landscape vulnerable to debris flows.
“A glacier is like a block that’s putting weight and pressure on the rock that’s sitting there,” Beason explained. “As the glacier retreats, all of a sudden, that barrier is gone.”
Beason said that glaciers store water and sediments, so when they melt, all that loose material can pile up.
“Silt, sand, rocks from small little fist-sized boulders to huge boulders the size of a car can be picked up and carried downstream,” he said.
These debris flows can be destructive to trees and old-growth forests, yet another key part of Rainier’s ecosystem. This can harm important bird species and destroy the habitats of others. Beason said the National Park Service at Rainier is now trying a new system that can detect these flows more quickly.
“We’re working on improving forecasting models to detect debris flows or to forecast for debris flows,” Beason said.
While the purpose of Beason’s research wasn’t to determine the exact relationship between climate and melting glaciers, he said a lot of the melting has happened while climate change started.
“They’re all what we would expect to see with human industry, anthropogenic climate change,” Beason said.
Beason said that cutting carbon emissions could help.
“I think we can look at the amount of carbon that we emit,” he said. “We can look and see if we’re driving unnecessarily or if there’s things that we can do to reduce the amount of carbon that’s being introduced into the atmosphere.”