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Stunning Photos of Glaciers in Retreat

Terrell Johnson
Published: July 19, 2013

Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park (1938 and 2009)

Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park (1938 and 2009)

A side-by-side comparison of Grinnell Glacier in Montana's Glacier National Park. The black-and-white photo on the left dates from 1938, while the color photo on the right was taken in 2009. (T.J. Hileman and Lindsey Bengtson, USGS)

  • Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park (1938 and 2009)
  • Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park (1940)
  • Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park (2006)
  • Boulder Glacier, Glacier National Park (1932)
  • Boulder Glacier, Glacier National Park (2005)
  • Muir Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park (1880s)
  • Muir Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park (2005)
  • Pedersen Glacier, Kenai Mountains (1920s - 1940s)
  • Pedersen Glacier, Kenai Mountains (2005)
  • Yale Glacier, Chugach National Forest (1937)
  • Yale Glacier, Chugach National Forest (2006)
  • Holgate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park (1909)
  • Holgate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park (2004)
  • Bear Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park (1909)
  • Bear Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park (2005)
  • McCarty Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park (1909)
  • McCarty Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park (2004)
  • Plateau Glacier, St. Elias Mountains (1961)
  • Plateau Glacier, St. Elias Mountains (2003)
  • Reid Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park (1899)
  • Reid Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park (2003)
  • Harris Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park (1920s-1940s)
  • Harris Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park (2005)
  • Boulder Glacier, Glacier National Park (1913)
  • Boulder Glacier, Glacier National Park (2012)
  • Iceberg Glacier, Glacier National Park (1940)
  • Iceberg Glacier, Glacier National Park (2010)
  • Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park (1936)
  • Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park (2010)
  • Shepard Glacier, Glacier National Park (1913)
  • Shepard Glacier, Glacier National Park (2005)
  • Bear Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park (2002)
  • Bear Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park (2007)

Seventeen years.

That's about how long the glaciers that give Montana's Glacier National Park its name have before they disappear completely, scientists who study the park's snow and ice say.

By 2030 or even sooner -- perhaps even by the end of this decade -- most or all of the park's remaining 25 or so glaciers will be gone forever, according to Dan Fagre, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist and glacial expert.

"I think that if you come here in 10 years, you will find at least remnants of glaciers," he said in a video interview. "I think many of our glaciers will have become so small that they'll be hardly worthy of being called a glacier, but there will still be glacial ice there."

Fagre has worked with the park since 1991 as part of its Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems program, which measures the retreat (and occasional advance) of its glaciers every year and keeps a photographic record of them that dates back to the early 1900s.

You can browse through hundreds of these photos online at the Repeat Photography Project, which reveals the degree to which the ice and snow that were once abundant in Glacier's mountains have given way to streams, trees and vegetation.

The pace of climate change and the acceleration of warming temperatures has been especially pronounced in many of Earth's high-altitude, high-latitude environments like Glacier, which spans nearly 1,600 square miles along Montana's northern border with Canada.

"Our warm springs and summers start the onset of snow and ice melting earlier, which lasts longer and has been intensified throughout the summer season," said Greg Pederson, an ecologist with the USGS in Bozeman, Mont. "So they not only receive less snow pack because of warming, but it's also increasingly melting the glaciers in the summertime."

In 1850, the area that is now Glacier National Park contained an estimated 150 glaciers, most of which were still present when it was founded in 1910. By 2010, only about 25 glaciers that measured 25 acres or more in size were left (though smaller chunks of glacial ice can be found throughout the park).

Today, spring comes earlier and is followed by warmer, longer summers. So far there is no sign that that trend won't continue unabated, Fagre said at a Montana panel discussion earlier this year, because the warming that has occurred results in large part from carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere for more than a century.

Any reversing of that trend will take a "long, long time," he added. "CO2 from Henry Ford's first car is still up there."

 

MORE: Glaciers Are 'Nature's Thermometers'


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