Mount Rainier is famous as the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. But the massive flows of ice and snow that cover the mountain are retreating rapidly, likely more rapidly than ever in the record warmth of this summer.
They joined park staff at a viewpoint overlooking the mountain’s most iconic glaciers, to take a look at how things have been changing lately.
Geomorphologist Paul Kennard told the group the lack of snow and ice on the mountain is about as low right now as they’d ever see it.
“Until next year,” he joked as the group huddled around him.
Park scientists have been measuring the glaciers’ retreat and have found they’re now melting six times faster than the historic rate.
“Since 2003, it’s every ten days, it’s retreating at least a meter. And that’s averaged throughout the year. So it’s obviously faster in the summer,” Kennard said.
He says the glaciers often leave behind piles of very loose material on steep slopes. Those become recipes for avalanche-like debris flows that rip down the mountainsides, carried by sudden pulses of melted water, as one did last week from the South Tahoma Galcier. They clog the rivers and cause flooding and road closures.
The melting is also making the glaciers themselves less stable. Kennard says he walked to the edge of the famous Nisqually Glacier just this week and was shocked to see the terminus riddled with holes, like swiss cheese. Normally it would melt more slowly, as a big block of ice does.
He suspects it’s an indication of even faster retreat this summer.
“I’ve just never seen anything like that in my history of working with Mt Rainer glaciers," he said, looking out at the mountain. "That’s a long way of saying I think it’s going to be going faster than the rate I just told you.”
Kennard says Rainier’s glaciers are important indicators of climate change. Because they’re up high, they get the effects much earlier than anywhere else. He wants the fellows in the climate boot camp to remember this reality.
Joanna Young, a glaciologist who came from Fairbanks, Alaska says she definitely will.
“We’re seeing the same thing, it’s just a difference of scale I think. Here, in Rainier, you can see those changes so dramatically, very quickly, because the glaciers are smaller. That’s pretty powerful,” she said.
She added that she hopes the park is able to bring this message to tourists who visit.
Young is one of 33 climate boot camp fellows from all over the country. They’re heading home now, back to careers as communicators of science that organizers hope will help communities more quickly prepare for inevitable changes such as more severe weather, sea level rise and melting glaciers.