Category Archives: climate change

In the news: Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times, covers ENVIR 495C

Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times recently covered my summer course with this excellent article and video.

The group poses on Grand Peak (photo by Steve Ringman of the Seattle Times)

The group poses on Grand Peak (photo by Steve Ringman of the Seattle Times)

Or paste this link into your browswer:


ENVIR 280: Documenting 2014-2015 retreat of the Nisqually Glacier

I often tell my students that naturalists are society’s “canaries in the coal mine” when it comes to noticing changes in the natural world. The difference in the extent of glacial ice at the snout of the Nisqually Glacier from just one year to the next astounded us as we held last year’s photo in front of us and compared it to this year’s view.

Nisqually Moraine 2014

Nisqually glacier terminus, on October 12, 2014. For purposes of comparison to the the 2015 photo below, note the location of the light colored triangle shaped deposit on the lateral moraine opposite of the moraine the student is standing on. I’ve outlined the triangle with red. Also, I’ve attempted to trace the outline of glacial ice, which is covered in rock debris for the most part. But note how the snout of the glacier extends well beyond the apex of the aforementioned triangular deposit.

Nisqually 2015 Tim outlined

View of the Nisqually Glacier terminous, from October 16, 2015, approximately 1 year after the first photo. I have used the same red triangle from the first photo to show the location of the triangular deposit on the opposite moraine. I have also traced in the approximate location of glacial ice from October 2014, in red. And I have outlined in yellow the extent of glacial ice on October 2015. Note the massive amount of retreat and ablation from 2014 to 2015! Using subalpine fir trees (approx. 20m tall) on the opposite moraine as a scale bar, you can see that the length of the glacier has shrunken by plus or minus 100m depending on how you measure it. It has also lost a significant amount of width, and has almost certainly lost some depth too.

With my course, we always compare the current extent of the Nisqually Glacier to historical photos and evidence for past glacial activity which we can find on the landscape, but to have created our own historical photo with the class in 2014, and to go back and document change in 2015, was a particularly unique opportunity. No doubt, the warm winter and record low snowpacks of 2014/2015 were a huge contributor to this striking change. Based on recent historical trends, the Nisqually Glacier will likely continue to retreat this year, but it will be exciting to go back in October 2016 to see if the retreat is as drastic as it was in the past year.

We are lucky to live in a time and place where we can see active glaciers. Seeing “living” glaciers and the landforms they create, helps us understand the history and formation of landscapes in the Puget Sound Region, and gives us insight into the effects of climate changes past and present. If the Nisqually Glacier continues to retreat at rates of 50m to 100m a year, however, it is not hard to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when courses like ours will no longer be able to study active glaciers in this region. The Nisqually Glacier is one of the longest in the Puget Sound Region, and is about 6km long currently, if you assume its start to be near the summit of Mt. Rainier. Presumably the lower elevation portions of this glacier, maybe the lower 3-4 km of it, will be gone in the next 50 years. If I ever have grandchildren, they will not get to experience the Nisqually Glacier or other valley glaciers like it in the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, if my own children go to college and take ENVIR 280, and hike to the same viewpoint, the view they see below them will certainly NOT include glacial ice. Is this a problem for me or for society? Certainly I stand in a privileged position to be able to fret about what my view will be like, or whether my hikes on Mt. Rainier will be on ice or rock, or whether species like the ice worm (see previous blog post) will go extinct. But the loss of glaciers will have implications for society at large. Melting glacial ice keeps our rivers cold and deep, even after winter snows melt. Diminished glacier ice means diminished summer and early-fall stream flows, which will mean water conservation issues for humans, and severe consequences for aquatic life, particularly salmonid fish, which need consistent strong, cold flows all summer long. If the Nisqually River, and other rivers like it are reduced to a warm trickle by summer, this will have profound consequences for river ecosystems across the northwest.¬† I tend to be fairly objective in my feelings when it comes to environmental change; afterall, there is much evidence on the landscape for dramatic climate swings throughout recent geologic time, and indeed our Pacific Northwest glaciers began retreating before the onset of anthropogenically induced warming. Some species always end up as “winners” and some as “losers”. But when I think that the current acceleration of climate change and drastic warming is caused largely by the actions of humans, I have trouble not viewing the loss of our Pacific Northwest Glaciers as a tragedy. I hope that you can get out and enjoy them now, and be thankful for them, while you can.

Nisqually snout 2014

Close up of the Nisqually Glacier terminus in October, 2014.

Nisuqally snout 2015

Close up of the Nisqually Glacier terminus in 2015.

ENVIR 495C: Ice worms, a legacy of the ice age

The warmest year on record (2015) since 1880 when such records were first recorded¬† is not the year you would expect to “discover” a glacier and an unusual link to the last ice age. But this is just what happened this year with my class, ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest. Here is the story.

In this photo, we are posing by a small snowfield on the off-trail traverse from Cedar Lake to Graywolf Pass. The snowfield is labeled 2112:9 in the photo below. On this warm day, we were enjoying the cool blast of air coming out of the stream-carved tunnel from under the snow, an activity I have many times enjoyed in Washington’s mountains. As we stood there enjoying nature’s air conditioning, however, I began to notice some things that told me this was not simply an ephemeral snowfield.

I’ve been hiking the off-trail traverse from Cedar Lake to Graywolf Pass for at least 10 years now. I usually hike it in early to late July, a time of year when the remnants of the previous winter’s snows still blanket most of the route. This summer, however, was perhaps the most anomalous summer in recorded history in the Olympic Mountains. With less than 14% of the normal winter snow pack, the only snow remaining in the mountains, and indeed on the route from Cedar Lake to Graywolf Pass, was snow that has accumulated (and never melted)¬† in shaded, sheltered pockets in years of much greater than average snow pack. I have always assumed that many of these snow pockets simply melt away during lean snow years, and build up again during strings of above average snow years. Some of these snow pockets, however, take on characteristics of glaciers–that is, they form ice in their interiors as snow compacts and crystals deform, and they start to develop crevasses as they slide downhill under their own weight. In these cases, I’ve always wondered if these were small glaciers that built up during a cooling period 250 years ago, or if they are remnants of the extensive glaciers that covered these mountains 16-17,000 years ago during the last ice age.

Graywolf glaciers

The snowfield depicted in the image above is labeled 2212:9 in this image provided to me by Bill Baccus of Olympic National Park. This snowfield is one of the permanent ice features identified in their recent glacier survey. Unbeknownst to me (until now) this little pocket of snow typically does not melt out even at the end of summer–at least according to aerial surveys that have been done here since the 1980s. I have always assumed that these little pockets of snow probably did melt away completely on strings of dry warm years (of which there were many prior to the Little Ice Age, and a few since the Little Ice Age) and probably reappeared after strings of colder wetter years. Either that, or they were remnants of small glaciers that formed during the “Little Ice Age” 250 years ago, but not remnants of glacial systems that formed during the last major continental-scale ice advance (~17,000 years ago).

As we stood by the mouth of the stream coming out of the snowfield, I noticed some features above that appeared to be crevasses–which would indicate movement of the snowfield. This kind of movement (and crevasse feature) is usually associated with true glaciers, but can sometimes be associated with temporary snowfields. So we went up to check it out. What we found astounded me. The snowfield actually consisted of about a 3 meter thick layer of what appeared to be glacial ice–very dense and blue. Some temporary snow features are underlain by ice snow, but this had the distinct appearance of the dense ice of a glacier. This snowfield, then was actually the remnant of small (and probably stagnant, i.e. no longer very active) glacier, and this feature was the remnant of a crevasse that opened when the glacier was active. But how old could this glacier be? A remnant of the Little Ice Age ice build up 250 years ago? Or a relict of the last true ice age 16,000-20,000 years ago?

Looking into the crevasse I was astonished to see a little wriggling thread, a little less than an inch long. An ice worm, (Mesenchytraeus solifugus)! I was blown away! I have explored many small snow fields and small glaciers, and it is highly unusual to find ice worms, unless the glacier is (or was recently) connected to a larger glacial system. Ice worms are a species that are unique to the Pacific northwest and Alaska. They live in glacial ice and are only associated with glacial ice. That is, they are not known to migrate away from glacial ice and across temporary snowfields. Finding ice worms here implies that this piece of glacial ice is a remnant not just of the Little Ice Age, but of the last true ice age some 20,000 years ago. Peter Wimberger at the University of Puget Sound has found that ice worms in some of the larger glaciers of the eastern Olympics are identical genetically to Alaskan ice worms, implying that the glaciers of the eastern Olympics were connected to the continental ice sheet that flowed down the Puget Sound from the north 17,000 years ago. Thus, this tiny patch of ice must at one time have been contiguous with the continental ice sheet 17,000 years ago (or at least contiguous with glaciers that had been themselves contiguous with the continental ice sheet). Far across the valley, there is a glacier high on Mount Deception in the Graywolf watershed, that is known to have ice worms–so this tiny fragment of ice must have at one time been contiguous with Deception’s glaciers, which themselves were in contact with the continental ice sheet flowing down the Puget Trough. I don’t see evidence that the Upper Graywolf Glaciers were in contact with Deception’s glaciers in the Little Ice Age, so my guess is that this patch of ice (2112:9) was last connected to Deception’s glaciers thousands of years ago. Simply amazing to think about. And make no mistake about it, ice worms are one of the more endangered organisms in the context of predicted changes in climate for this region. This small population of ice worms we discovered will disappear (if it hasn’t already) if we get another summer or 2 like the summer of 2015.

A close-up view of the worm, alive in a piece of snow, held by a student.

Student Shane Kelly holds an ice worm, a direct descendant of the last ice age, in a small melting snowball.

Life size image of the same ice worm depicted above. With more searching, we found hundreds of ice worms in this mini-glacier. They are known to feed on algae in the snow, and can burrow through ice with an anti-freeze like substance in their body. They burrow their way to the surface at night to feed on algae, thereby avoiding the harmful (to them) warmth of the sunshine, as well as predators (like Rosy Finches–which will also be harmed by loss of glaciers) who eat them. This population of worms, as far as I can see it, is essentially doomed here. If this ice patch didn’t melt out completely this summer, it will be gone within a few more similar summers, and gone with it will be this population of ice worms. A similar fate awaits any small populations of worms left in any of the other small ice patches around the Olympics.