The first time I stepped onto a glacier, I had no idea what I was doing. As a freshly-transplanted Indiana Hoosier, I was an alpine greenhorn, a mountaineering accident waiting to happen. It was the 1970s, the days of Goldline climbing ropes and wooden-shafted ice axes. The first Gore-Tex jackets wouldn’t hit the racks at REI for another year. I’d joined a small party attempting to climb Mount Shuksan, a 9,131-foot crag near Mount Baker in the North Cascades. I remember little of the trip, except my terror on the steep upper slopes, the rocky summit scramble, and my unbridled joy in returning safely home.
Thirty-five years later, smarter and wiser about glacier travel, I assisted on a measurement project on the Nisqually Glacier at Mount Rainier National Park. Glaciers are slow-moving rivers of ice, and geologists wanted to know the Nisqually’s flow rate. Normal movement in summer is several feet per day; little or no movement can foreshadow the potential sudden release of ice and water known as a glacial outburst flood. With Longmire Village perched a few miles below the glacier, property and lives could be at risk.
We lugged GIS (Geographic Information Systems) equipment onto the lower section of the glacier, traipsing about to measure ice flow rates just above its terminus (the lowest-most end or extremity of the glacier). On this gorgeous but blisteringly hot summer day, the sun’s glare off the snow baked us like brownies in a Boy Scout reflector oven. Although out of harm’s way of runaway avalanches and gaping crevasses, a sense of danger still hung in the clear mountain air. Water gurgled as it ran invisibly underfoot. A distant rockfall rumbled, triggering an enormous dust cloud. A volunteer’s stumble resulted in a lacerated arm, a painful reminder of the possibilities.
After two summers of measurement, data showed that the upper portion of the Nisqually Glacier moved at the expected rate, but the mid- and lower sections moved only a few inches per day. This signaled the chance for outburst floods to gush down the Nisqually River, leading park staff to add the lurking hazard to Mount Rainier’s emergency response plan.
For those unfamiliar with glaciers, here’s some background on the gleaming sheets of permanent ice and snow that gird the mountain.
The original earth-moving equipment, glaciers have altered more than one-fourth of the planet’s surface. They scrape rock and soil like ponderous landscape graders, grinding bedrock to create a fine sediment known as glacial flour that their rivers carry to the sea. Heavyweight haulers, they transport everything from these suspended sediments to car-sized boulders many miles from their places of origin.
Glacial and polar ice comprise Earth’s largest freshwater reservoir, contributing to the health and maintenance of ecosystems spanning from alpine heights to coastal lowlands. Wildlife like the federally protected Chinook salmon and countless other river-borne species pin their survival on glacial meltwater during summer drought periods. Besides benefits to wildlife, Pacific Northwest glaciers annually provide billions of gallons of water for generating electricity, irrigation, drinking, household use, recreational pursuits, and other purposes.
Mount Rainier reigns as the “Grand Champion of Glaciers” in the lower 48 states, accounting for almost one-fourth of all glacial ice south of Alaska. That’s more than all of the Cascade peaks combined; its 30 square miles of glaciers are capable of covering half the city of Tacoma. Rainier’s two dozen-plus named glaciers range in size from the pint-sized Van Trump Glaciers at 43 acres to the ginormous Emmons, grinding and rolling over 4.2 square miles of alpine landscape.
The Carbon Glacier, also on our side of the mountain like the Emmons, is notable as Mt. Rainier’s thickest with a depth of 700 feet, longest at 5.2 miles, and lowest lying at 3,550 feet in elevation. The 17-mile round trip to see it can be a long day, but bicycling the five miles along the Carbon River Road to Ipsut Camp makes for a more manageable trip. To check out other glaciers, catch stunning panoramic views of the Emmons from the Emmons Vista and other trails at Sunrise, open from July to October. On the mountain’s south side on a clear day, especially from Paradise, views of the Nisqually and other glaciers are nothing short of breathtaking. Hike the Nisqually Vista or Moraine Trails to gain close but safe views, taking note of the wide U-shaped valley, carved by glaciers over thousands of years.
Now let’s look at the status of Mount Rainier’s glaciers. Park geologist Scott Beason’s recent study, Change in Glacial Extent at Mount Rainier National Park from 1896 to 2015, found that the surface area of glacial and perennial ice shrank by 39 percent, and the combined volumes of its glaciers dropped by 45 percent. In other words, in 120 years, glaciers lost over one-third of their coverage and nearly one-half of their thickness. The nearly one cubic mile of ice and snow—enough to fill a string of railroad tanker cars reaching to the moon—has wasted away by nearly one-fourth in the last 30 years.
There’s no way around it: all of the mountain’s glaciers are in wholesale retreat. Beason’s colleague, now retired geomorphologist Paul Kennard, said, “We’ve lost eight glaciers at Mount Rainier in my lifetime.” We also lost the fabled Paradise ice caves, an otherworldly system of ice tunnels at the base of the Paradise Glacier. The last of these wonders of nature melted away in the early 1990s.
The state of glaciers throughout the Pacific Northwest mirrors the conditions at Mount Rainier, with glacial ice in the Olympics having diminished by one-third since 1980. Data shows that all North Cascade glaciers continue to lose area and volume, except the recently-formed Crater Glacier at Mount St. Helens, where its shaded location within the summit crater allows for its gradual expansion. Continued glacial loss could bring decreasing summer flow rates that affect wildlife and the amount of water available for human usage.
Will Mount Rainier lose all of its glaciers? Experts like Beason and Kennard don’t think so. Lower lying, smaller ones may continue to dissipate or disappear altogether, but giants like the Carbon, Emmons, Nisqually, and others will most likely withstand current and future conditions.
Glaciers are a key part of Mount Rainier’s story and the region’s water supply, but there’s more to tell than their changes over the last hundred years. Next month, we’ll look at some of the cascading effects of melting glaciers. In the meantime, keep your boots dry and your spirits high.
Jeff Antonelis-Lapp is an educator, naturalist, and writer living in Enumclaw since 1982. Tahoma and Its People, his natural history of Mount Rainier National Park, was published this spring by Washington State University Press. Copies are available at https://jeffantonelis-lapp.com/. Jeff would love to hear from you about Mount Rainier. Send your questions and favorite stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, and subscribe to his blog, too.