Mystery of Mount Rainier survey marker melts away

Is global warming shrinking Mount Rainier? A survey marker atop the Northwest's tallest peak sure makes it look that way.

Protruding from the summit with nearly 2 feet of pipe high and dry, the marker appears to have melted out of the ice cap that covers the mountain's highest point.

But records from the U.S. Geological Survey tell a different story.

The marker was never buried beneath the ice - and wasn't installed on the summit in the first place, said surveyor Larry Signani, who led teams that remeasured the mountain's height in 1988 and 1999.

"It looks like the original," he said after examining photos of the marker. "But it didn't melt out of the ice."

The marker was installed by the USGS in 1956 on bare ground on Rainier's crater rim, more than 200 feet from the actual summit. The rocky rim is almost always snow-free, swept bare by wind and warmed by steam that rises from the volcano's depths.

"We're not going to put a survey marker in snow or ice," said cartographer Dale Benson, of the USGS Denver office.

Maybe it was moved

The marker almost certainly weathered out of the rocky ground naturally, Signani said. Someone probably found it and carried it to the summit.

"Maybe it was just laying up there in that strewn rock and eroded material for a long time," said Signani, who searched for the marker in 1988, armed with precise coordinates and a metal detector.

When he didn't find it, he assumed someone had carried it off as a souvenir.

Climbers and guides noticed the marker near the summit about a month ago.

When climbing guide John Race first saw the aluminum pole, it was lying on the ground. "It seemed striking," he said. "The impression you had was that the thing had melted out."

When Race and his wife summitted Sunday, someone had pounded the marker into the ice. He sent a picture of it to the blog, where the photo was posted along with a warning from the blog's author, activist and author Bill McKibben, that was shaving Rainier's 14,411-foot elevation.

Though it's now clear the marker didn't melt out of the ice, Race and other climbers say Rainier is undoubtedly showing the effects of warmer weather. All its glaciers are receding, and vast swaths of bare rock have appeared in places where no one had seen them before.

Cremated human remains scattered over the decades are melting out on the broad summit snowfield, along with old beer cans and prayer flags.

"I think crazy stuff is going to start popping out," said Race, who has climbed the mountain 149 times. "There's a lot of missing people on Mount Rainier."

Below Camp Muir, where climbers often spend the night on their way to the top, an immense rock island has emerged from the snow.

"Last summer, there was a big crack opening on the summit itself," said Mike Gauthier, former lead climbing ranger for Mount Rainier National Park. "I've never seen that before."

This summer was exceptionally warm, but Gauthier said the melt has been accelerating for several years.

Which leaves open the possibility that warm temperatures really are shrinking the mountain.

When Signani and his team remeasured Rainier in 1999 using global positioning satellite technology, they concluded the true elevation was 14,411.05 feet -- 12.6 inches higher than the number used on most official maps. That includes the thickness of ice that blankets the summit, a coating that until now seemed to be relatively unchanging.

But Gauthier and others are convinced even that ice is thinning.

"In my opinion, the summit ice cap is definitely lower," Gauthier said.

It's possible, Signani conceded. But he's not ready to give up that extra foot easily.

"The only way to tell," he said, "is to remeasure it."

(c) 2009, The Seattle Times.
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