Glaciers rapidly shrinking and disappearing: 50 years of glacier change in Montana

May 10, 2017
The perimeter of Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park in 1966,1998, 2005, and 2015. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

The warming climate has dramatically reduced the size of 39 glaciers in Montana since 1966, some by as much as 85 percent, according to data released by the U.S. Geological Survey and Portland State University. On average, the glaciers have reduced by 39 percent and only 26 glaciers are now larger than 25 acres, which is used as a guideline for deciding if bodies of ice are large enough to be considered glaciers.

The data include scientific information for the 37 named in Glacier National Park and two glaciers on U.S. Forest Service land. The retreat of glaciers is significant in Montana because of the impact shrinking glaciers can have on tourism, as well as being a visual indicator of mountain ecosystem change in the northern Rocky Mountains.

"The park-wide loss of ice can have ecological effects on aquatic species by changing stream water volume, water temperature and run-off timing in the higher elevations of the park," said lead USGS scientist Dr. Daniel Fagre.

Portland State geologist Andrew G. Fountain partnered with USGS on the project. He said glaciers in mountain ranges throughout the United States and the world have been shrinking for decades.

"While the shrinkage in Montana is more severe than some other places in the U.S., it is in line with trends that have been happening on a global scale," Fountain said.

Scientists used digital maps from aerial photography and satellites to measure the perimeters of the glaciers in late summer when seasonal snow has melted to reveal the extent of the glacial ice. The areas measured are from 1966, 1998, 2005 and 2015/2016, marking approximately 50 years of change in glacier area.

The perimeter of Chaney Glacier in Glacier National Park in 1966, 1998, 2005, and 2015. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Site visits to glaciers were also made over several years to investigate portions that were covered by rock debris that are difficult to see with digital imagery. The mapped measurements of glaciers complement ground surveys of glaciers using GPS along with repeat photography that involves re-photographing historic photos of glaciers taken early last century when there were an estimated 150 glaciers larger than 25 acres in Glacier National Park.

"Tracking these small alpine glaciers has been instrumental in describing climate change effects on Glacier National Park to park management and the public," said Lisa McKeon, USGS scientist who has been documenting glacier change since 1997.

This information is part of a larger, ongoing USGS glacier study of glaciers in Montana, Alaska and Washington to document mass balance measurements that estimate whether the total amount of ice is increasing or decreasing at a particular glacier. This information helps scientists understand the impact of large scale climate patterns on glaciers in distinctly different mountain environments.

The data for Glacier National Park's named glaciers are available at the USGS ScienceBase website. Additional information about the glacier research can be found at the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center website and the USGS Benchmark Glacier program website.

Explore further: Image: Sentinel-2A captures Upsala Glacier

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Mark Thomas
4.7 / 5 (13) May 10, 2017
Once a glacier is reduced below 25 acres, it isn't actually a "glacier" any more because it ceases to be able to flow due to its own weight. Some people call these snow fields or snow patches. The bottom line is the 150 glaciers previously found in Montana are now down to 26. Some have estimated no glaciers at all will exist in Glacier National Park by ~2030.

https://en.wikipe...nce_1850

Instead of trying to do something about global warming, watch for the Republican Party to create a bill to change the park's name. Maybe the Koch Brothers National Park would be more fitting.
jeffensley
1.4 / 5 (10) May 10, 2017
Instead of trying to do something about global warming, watch for the Republican Party to create a bill to change the park's name. Maybe the Koch Brothers National Park would be more fitting.


"Do something" implies we're presently doing nothing which isn't remotely true. What exactly does "something" look like to you? Also, why are people so alarmed by ice melting? Cold regions also happen to be the the most lifeless. Once again, it seems the alarm around our changing climate is based off the assumption that any change is inherently "bad".
Benni
1.6 / 5 (7) May 10, 2017
An expanding habitat for mountain goats & sheep. These in turn will draw wolves & grizzlies & it can start looking like Yellowstone or the Tetons with more abundant wildlife. In addition, trees will start growing, native grasses will begin to takeover the mountainside tundra & the valleys, man'o'man, can't wait for my next trip to Montana to watch the melting.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (7) May 10, 2017
Q. What exactly does "something" look like to you?

A. If you could provide an example, any example, of what the Republican Party is doing to address global warming I would be able to tell you whether or not it qualifies as being useful. I am confident others would have opinions as well.
BubbaNicholson
1 / 5 (2) May 11, 2017
Q. What exactly does "something" look like to you?

A. Every satellite we put into orbit or LaGrange point 1 (LP1) between the earth and the sun diminishes the heat input into our earth's heat retention system. Satellites of low mass and high surface area, like balloons, in orbit or at the solar-earth LP1 would diminish the sun's illumination of the earth by the 1.7% necessary to reverse global warming. Useful stuff at L1 would be better than just balloons, obviously.
PTTG
5 / 5 (6) May 11, 2017
Benni, that's like saying that you can toast marshmallows in the flames of your burning house.
jeffensley
1 / 5 (4) May 11, 2017
Benni, that's like saying that you can toast marshmallows in the flames of your burning house.


How is that a good comparison? You're acting as if the only net neutral or positive effect of climate change is increased habitat for mountain goats. I think it's human nature to focus on the negatives (Great Barrier Reef being the biggest one presently) but as a general rule, where a vacancy is left, life better suited to current conditions inevitably comes in to fill the void. And really, how do we define "positive" or "negative" in regards to this issue? If climate change means a greater volume of life overall, is that not a positive? Or are there specific species we are attached to that we think must not be forced to change? The polar bear is already destined to live on, even if the entire arctic ice cap melts as it has cross-bred with Grizzlies, its genes waiting patiently for the next Ice Age. Life has been at this for billions of years... we should know better.
jeffensley
1 / 5 (4) May 11, 2017
Q. What exactly does "something" look like to you?

A. If you could provide an example, any example, of what the Republican Party is doing to address global warming I would be able to tell you whether or not it qualifies as being useful. I am confident others would have opinions as well.


This isn't a political issue IMO and I care nothing for partisanship. It's in humanity's nature to innovate and adapt and universities and companies with foresight are already pouring money into renewable research and have been doing it for decades. We don't need to add another level of bureaucracy just so that a certain group of people can feel more secure in the illusion that something is being done to save them from imminent demise.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (4) May 11, 2017
"We don't need to add another level of bureaucracy . . ."

You assume a level playing field, when it is anything but. For example, the oil industry and the Koch Brothers have access and control over government you and I could only dream of.

"just so that a certain group of people can feel more secure in the illusion that something is being done to save them from imminent demise."

The Republican Party isn't even providing the illusion at this point. You seem to assume this is an intractable problem, when it clearly is not. Mandated change from incandescent to LED lighting (done), tax breaks for solar and wind (often done), government funding for research into renewable energy and better energy storage (sometimes done), a carbon tax (not done in the U.S.), etc., etc. The U.S. govt should be pushing harder to solve this problem, if nothing else, as a matter of national security.

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