For fans of Mount Rainier, the Mowich face is instantly recognizable.
From the tip of Liberty Cap down the west flank of the mountain, the slopes of the Mowich are well-travelled by skiers, climbers and researchers. On a clear day from the Plateau, you can see the “Elk’s Head,” a formation of snow cropped by rock cliffs on the Mowich that, well, sort of looks like an elk’s head.
But by summer’s end, the Elk had melted away, leaving behind another sheer rock face on the already-parched Mowich.
For Dan Petchnick, a 75-year-old lifelong Plateau resident, Vietnam veteran and retired Enumclaw High School teacher, seeing the mountain in such a state was “heartfelt.”
“It’s painful to look up there and see the mountain the way it’s not supposed to be,” Petchnick said, “just totally undressed.”
A Dream of Summer
Mount Rainier, also known as Tahoma, always dries up by the summer’s end and rebuilds snowpack in the fall and winter. But the intense heat early this summer hastened the shedding of the snow, ultimately revealing rock faces that some outdoor enthusiasts say they hadn’t seen before.
The long-term shifting of glaciers and other elements of the mountain is of intense study by geologists and other scientists. For everyday Rainier fans, the loss of features like the Elk face, however temporarily, can feel historic.
After more than 40 years of mountain-watching, the Mowich “was bare like I’d never seen it,” said Jeff Antonelis-Lapp, an educator, naturalist, author and previous Courier-Herald columnist. He and Petchnick both found the Elk Face unrecognizable by the end of the summer, though recent snowfall has brought it back.
Petchnick has hiked and climbed all his life, including leading multiple expeditions up Mount Rainier. In 1960, at the age of 14, Petchnick snapped a photo of the ethereal Paradise ice caves. Those caves vanished after the Paradise glacier melted enough to break apart in the 1990s.
So for Petchnick, the drying out of the Mowich this year was another “heartfelt” loss, and a reminder of the effects of climate change.
“There’s no more one significant feature on Mount Rainier than the Mowich face,” Petchnick said. “It’s like saying ‘There’s Seattle, now take the Space Needle out.’ … When you look up at the mountain and see the elk head gone, it’s alarming.”
Measuring the mountain’s changing climate isn’t easy, and the results defy simplistic narratives.
Last winter brought a snowpack about 5 percent above the 100-year average, but it was melted earlier than usual by a hot summer and the historic June heat wave that roasted the Pacific Northwest.
That “heat dome” melted 30 percent of the remaining snowpack on Rainier in just four days. Temperatures at Camp Muir, 10,100 feet above sea level, reached a toasty 66 degrees the afternoon of June 29, according to Scott Beason, a geologist with the Mount Rainier National Park. (The average would have been 40 to 50 degrees, he said.)
“I think every Tahoma-watcher/student of the mountain was shocked by the sudden melt out” from that event, Antonelis-Lapp said. “The numbers aren’t in, but anecdotally, no one alive has seen the mountain looking so bare.”
The heat dome likely ranks among the top 10 most rapid melting events recorded on the mountain over the last century, Beason said. A July study published in World Weather Attribution found that the heat wave would have been “virtually impossible” if not for human-caused climate change.
This year’s melt-off speed was higher than average, Beason said, and in the long-run, what scientists are seeing on Mount Rainier “is consistent with the anticipated effects of regional climate change.”
But that’s a long-term process, and you can’t lose the forest for the trees when it comes to isolated weather events: “You have to look at the long-term trend, and see what it’s telling you,” he said.
2011, for example, set records for summer snow levels on the ground at Paradise and some of the coldest months on record in more than 100 years, the New York Times reported at the time. Snow lingered at Paradise as late as Aug. 22 that year, Beason said.
A Game of Glaciers
Massive bodies of dense ice, glaciers can be thought of as extremely slow-moving rivers, carving their way down mountain faces by their own weight and rebuilt at the top by snowfall. As they melt in the summer, glaciers feed wildlife, agriculture, hydroelectric power and other systems with life-replenishing cool water.
Washington has more glacial ice than any state besides Alaska, and Mount Rainier alone carries almost a quarter of all glacial ice in the contiguous United States.
Glaciers “retreat” up the mountain when they melt faster at the bottom than they move downhill, and “advance” when just the opposite happens. A series of cold, wet years can build them up, just as warm, dry years can strip them away.
Beason’s research indicates that all of the mountain’s major glaciers retreated between 1913 and the mid-20th century. They then advanced in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to a period of wet winters and cool summers, and have been retreating again — much more quickly — since at least 1994.
According to Beason’s research, Mount Rainier National Park lost 39 percent of the area and 45 percent of the volume of its glaciers between 1896 and 2015.
Not all retreat is made equally. The glaciers higher up on the summit will likely exist “in perpetuity,” Beason said, while those most at risk from heating and climate change are the smaller, low-elevation glaciers on the south side.
The South Tahoma glacier, for example, is at risk of “completely melting out” in the next 50 years, Beason said. It shrunk from 2.29 square miles in 1896 to almost only a quarter of a square mile in 2015, and lost two-thirds of its volume in that time, according to Beason’s research. (You can see the stats on all the mountain’s glaciers at https://www.morageology.com/glacier.php.)
Meanwhile, high on the north slope of the mountain, researchers estimate the Winthrop glacier covered around 3.93 square miles in 1913. 102 years later, it still commanded an estimated 3.47 square miles as well as around 88 percent of its volume.
“We have flat-out lost a couple,” Beason said, including the Williwakas, Pinnacle and Unicorn glaciers. The Stevens Glacier is “basically gone” as well, he said.
The death of a glacier doesn’t mean it’s vanished, Beason said, but rather that it has lost too much mass to continue moving downhill. Almost as if afflicted by a deep depression, a dead glacier can no longer be compelled by even the force of gravity to busily grind its way down the mountain. Given enough time, the hunk of inert ice may one day wither away completely.
Snow insulates the glaciers from summer heat, so the earlier in the season you melt through all the fluffy white stuff, the more punishment the glaciers take.
Does that mean the heat dome could have melted the glaciers especially hard this summer?
“I think that’s kind of our working hypothesis right now,” Beason said.
The verdict isn’t in yet. Beason and his colleagues will use high-resolution aerial photographs of the mountain to compare glaciers to years past. Specific numbers on that change might be available by spring next year.
Beason said the current evidence shows the glaciers will likely continue to shrink over the next century. But we could see periods of new glacial growth, he said, such as if the mountain gets a good five-year stretch of high snow accumulation and low melt.
Tahoma no doubt has surprises left in store for hikers and scientists alike. Outdoorsmen like Petchnick just hope that for future generations, there will be beauty enough to go around.