Category Archives: volcanoes

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 280, Natural History of the Puget Sound Region, Autumn 2014, Highlights

Fall in the northwest! This was the first offering of ENVIR 280 in the fall (as opposed to spring), and we weren’t sure how it would work out. But it worked out splendidly, with awesome opportunities to explore the alpine and glaciers, chances to witness migration in full swing, plenty of life in the lowlands as the summer wound down, and an opportunity to see the fall colors come out as the landscape readied itself for winter. Thanks everyone for a great quarter! And a special thank you to the freshman FIG cohort who took a chance and made this one of their first classes of their college career. Hope to see you all again soon.


Early in the quarter, first stop: Nisqually Delta. Canada geese gathering for migration.


Nisqually Delta, looking out to the Puget Sound. Tornado approaching. Not what you want to see when you are leading a course. Luckily it veered away from us, and then the weather improved.


Tree Frogs abound at Nisqually Delta!


Such a variety of color forms.


More colors!


Garter snakes coiled in the trees, perhaps waiting for tree frogs.


Next stop, Mima Mounds. In the absence of fire, Douglas firs invade the prairie.


Journaling on the Mima Mounds.


Getting excited about a non-native Praying Mantis.


Allie drawing the mantid.


Macro mantid! It turns out this species is probably non-native.


Jorge discussing birds on the prairie.

DSC_0330 (Medium)

Sunday: Mount Rainier, emerging from the orographic clouds!


A cloud layer descends over the lower Nisqually Glacier. The group studies the ice from the lateral moraine.


Sketching glacial formations on the Nisqually Glacier.


Sketching on the moraine, and studying the movement and deposits of glaciers.


The toe of the rapidly retreating Nisqually Glacier.


In the Puget Sound region, you don’t have to travel back to the ice age to understand what glaciers are and how glaciers work. Here is the outwash stream of the Nisqually Glacier from the moraine.


Clouds trying to lift.


Intrepid students of natural history braving the cool weather of our approaching winter on the mountain.


Examining a Ruffed Grouse.


Learning to “read” the forest at Kautz Creek.


Teaching in the grove of trees that hooked me on the natural history of the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to my mentor at the time, Valerie Bowen, for introducing me to this grove in 1997.

The remarkable Douglas fir cone mushroom, specific to, you guessed it, Douglas fir cones. We found this one beneath an old growth Douglas fir canopy in Mt. Rainier National Park.

The remarkable Douglas fir cone mushroom, specific to, you guessed it, Douglas fir cones. We found this one beneath an old growth Douglas fir canopy in Mt. Rainier National Park.


The group poses in the old grove low on the slopes of Mt. Rainier. Thanks to Jorge Tomasevic for the photo.


Jorge Tomasevic, photo.


Field Sketching workshop, with Maria Coryell-Martin, at UBNA on UW campus.


Halloween! The Natural History costume challenge.


To the east side to escape the rain. Examining the fangs and pits on this recently deceased rattle snake, now a specimen at the Burke Museum.


Mima Mound-like formations on Umtanum Ridge. The lithosol community is going dormant this time of year, and the cold winds of winter are returning. A far cry from the colorful palette of the spring landscape on Umtanum Ridge.


Naturalist at work.

280au14 sage

The fine hairs covering the leaves of Tall Sagebrush help it resist moisture loss in this windy, dry environment.


An aspen grove turns yellow, trees are probably all clones of each other. On the east side, Douglas fir is shade tolerant (relative to Ponderosa Pine), in the background.


Anthocyanins show through as chlorophyll is lost.


Peer TAs taking their job seriously, as usual! 😉


Wolf lichen! A yellowish natural dye can be made from this lichen.


Black Hawthorne in fall splendor, by Umtanum Creek.


Final trip of the fall, and perfect weather: Ebey’s Landing and Skagit flats. Jorge scanning the lagoon for waterfowl.


Golden-crowned sparrows are in abundance as winter comes on.


Releasing the sparrow.


Ebey’s Landing trail along Strait of Juan de Fuca. Photo by Kathleen Ervin (student).


TA, Jorge Tomasevic talks about gulls.


Journaling in the prairie strip along the bluffs.


Journaling and lunch above the Strait.


Mount Rainier from Skagit Flats, in the setting sun. A flock of snow geese had just flown over. In the distance in this photo, you can see a flock of shorebirds, appearing as a dark smudgy line on the left flank of Rainier, just above the shoreline hill.

Glacier Peak, July 2011.

GLACIER PEAK—snowbound in July, driving rain, and a summit!

Some of you may remember when Glacier Peak, Washington’s 3rd highest volcano, was relatively easily to get to, and there were hot springs at the base camp. Not so any more. The easiest hike in is via the North Fork Sauk through about 10 miles of gorgeous riverside oldgrowth eventually leading to the flower-filled meadows of the Pacific Crest Trail, before one is forced to break out for another 10 miles or so of moderately sloped off-trail walking across alpine and glaciated high country to the summit. As was the trend this year, the road to the trailhead was closed due to a washout about 10 miles from the trailhead. This time we came prepared. We strapped our mountaineering packs onto our mountain bikes and biked 10 miles to the trailhead before heading about 3 miles in for night 1.

A perfect warm sunny day led us the following day up out of the valley across flower filled meadows on a south-facing slope, and then over the ridge and back into a winter landscape to camp—yep, snow camping again. The glaciers of Glacier Peak are well known to be in some of the most rapid recession of any of Washington’s glaciers with the White Chuck Glacier completely gone (although still depicted on maps), but this year you would not have known it. We could have easily skied all the way from the PCT to the summit of Glacier and back on terrain that on an average year at this time is now entirely rock and rubble in some places.

We began climbing before dawn in clear skies, a few clouds on the horizon. But as we hiked onwards in the darkness the shapes of the clouds got bigger and more ominous, with the sun trying to come up but not quite making it. No problem, just some marine air that will burn off, right? Well, Glacier Peak sucked in that marine air, and we were buffeted by cold horizontal rain all day long, huddling in the lee of rocks and ridges at any chance we could get as we trudged up the glaciers towards the summit. After cresting the false summit in driving rain and howling winds, the only recourse was to head down to more sheltered areas in the lee of the summit. Still early, we waited. By late afternoon, patches of blue began to appear and we made a dash up a pumice ridge, and the final rotten snow field to the rime encrusted summit about 1000 ft. above us. The sucker hole got us to the top before clouds closed in again. We trudged the miles of spectacular snowfields and glaciers back to camp while the setting sun painted amazing patterns across the landscape between the clouds. A spectacular day in a landscape of white, perhaps made more dramatic (if less pleasant) by the weather.

Of course, our final day dawned completely bluebird, and made for some truly spectacular walking through emerging flowers and back down into the summery mildness of the old growth forest.

Mt. Baker, climb and ski. July 4th, 2011.

JULY 4TH, 8000 FOOT SKI DESCENT ON MT. BAKER (2011 was a year in which snowpack was about 175% of the climate average!)

True to form, this holiday kicked off summer in Washington, with the first warm weather of the season and only the second really clear weekend of the spring (June 26th being the first). This year the Mt. Baker snowpack was about 175% of the climatological average at Mt. Baker and even on July 4th, deep snow lingered down to 3000 ft., well below treeline. With my Nordic skiing fitness lingering from the ski season, the skin up from our camp to the summit on the gentle south slopes of the mountain felt comfortable. Baker has one of the most geologically active craters in the Cascades and I always make a point to stop and linger, mesmerized by fumaroles and bursts of steam, before pushing onwards, across a well-bridged bergschrund and up the “Roman Wall” to the summit.

The views from the top were some of the most spectacular I have experienced in the Cascades in a long while. With the spring rains finally lifted, and not a cloud in the sky, the clarity of the atmosphere allowed for 100 mile views in every direction, mostly over a sea of white hovering above the dark greens of the incised valleys of the North Cascades, and the broad basin and deep blues of Puget Sound.

The south side of Mt. Baker is not considered a difficult ski, but I will admit that the steep slopes coming off the summit plateau gave me some hesitation as I looked down thousands of feet of mountain, and a yawning house-sized crevasse cutting across the fall-line about 500 feet below. Working over skier’s left, the slopes finally ease after you pass the giant crevasse and then the crater, and then move out onto the broad and moderate glaciers of the lower mountain. The snow conditions were perfect virtually the whole way back to camp from the summit.

The cruise on the lower glaciers was not without its share of adrenaline, however. Baker is famous for enormous crevasses, and although most were well-bridged, my heart momentarily lept into my throat as I peered into an abyss while flying over a hole that had been opened by the previous skier in our group. The snowbridge that looked solid enough from above, was much thinner than any of us imagined, even after careful scouting. A bullet was dodged and a lesson learned here—although I’ve never experienced this kind of situation before after skiing and climbing many glaciers in the northwest, at the very least we probably should have roped up for this section, especially given the warmth of the day. Luckily my speed landed me on the opposite edge and we continued downwards on a run of nearly 8000 vertical feet back to the car. The snow in the trees was icy and covered with pine needles, but our pride pushed us onwards, so far in fact that we found ourselves below the road and on the wrong side of a stream separating us from the car. This meant down climbing a steep snow wall, wading a river in ski boots and clawing our way back up the 6 foot snow wall on the other side before we could complete our final July 4th celebrations with food and refreshments at the car!