Home Glaciers Elk heads and ice caves: what’s changing on Mount Rainier?

Elk heads and ice caves: what’s changing on Mount Rainier?

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For Mount Rainier fans, Mowich’s face is instantly recognizable.

From the point of Liberty Cap to the western side of the mountain, the slopes of Mowich are very popular with skiers, climbers and researchers. On a clear day from the plateau you can see the ‘elk’s head’, a snow formation cut by rocky cliffs on the Mowich that somewhat resembles a moose’s head.

But by summer’s end the momentum had melted away, leaving behind another steep rock face on the already parched Mowich.

For Dan Petchnick, a 75-year-old Plateau resident, Vietnam veteran and retired Enumclaw High School teacher, seeing the mountain in such a state was “heartfelt”.

“It’s painful to look up there and see the mountain the way it’s not meant to be,” said Pechnick, “just totally stripped down.”

This photo of Mount Rainier, taken on September 21 from Enumclaw, shows the mountain having regained its snowpack.

A summer dream

Mount Rainier, also known as Tahoma, always dries up in late summer and rebuilds the snowpack in fall and winter. But the intense heat of early summer accelerated the snowfall, ultimately revealing rock faces that some outdoor enthusiasts say they have never seen before.

The long-term movement of glaciers and other mountain features is the subject of extensive study by geologists and other scientists. For everyday Rainier fans, the loss of features like the Elk Face, even temporarily, may seem historic.

After more than 40 years of observing the mountains, the Mowich “was naked like I had never seen it before,” said Jeff Antonelis-Lapp, educator, naturalist, author and former Courier-Herald columnist. He and Pechnick both found the Elk Face unrecognizable in late summer, though recent snowfall brought him back.

Dan Petchnick holds a framed print of his 1960 photo of the Paradise Ice Caves.  These ice caves have now disappeared due to the drying out of the Paradise Glacier.

Dan Petchnick holds a framed print of his 1960 photo of the Paradise Ice Caves. These ice caves have now disappeared due to the drying out of the Paradise Glacier.

Pechnick has been hiking and climbing his entire life, including leading several Mount Rainier expeditions. In 1960, at the age of 14, Pechnick took a photo of the ethereal ice caves of Paradise. These caves disappeared after Paradise Glacier melted enough to shatter in the 1990s.

So, for Pechnick, the drying up of the Mowich this year was another loss of “heart” and a reminder of the effects of climate change.

“There is no more important element on Mount Rainier than the Mowich face,” said Petchnick. “It’s like saying ‘This is Seattle, now take out the Space Needle.’ … When you look at the mountain and you see the missing elk head, it’s alarming.

Measuring the mountain’s changing climate is not easy, and the results defy simplistic accounts.

Last winter brought a snowpack about 5 percent above the 100-year average, but it melted earlier than usual with a hot summer and the historic June heat wave that roasted the Pacific Northwest.

This “heat dome” melted 30% of the remaining snowpack on Rainier in just four days. Temperatures at Camp Muir, 10,100 feet above sea level, reached 66 degrees on the afternoon of June 29, according to Scott Beason, a geologist for Mount Rainier National Park. (The average would have been 40 to 50 degrees, he said.)

“I think every Tahoma observer / student from the mountain was shocked by the sudden melting” of this event, said Antonelis-Lapp. “The numbers are not there, but for the record, no one in the world has seen the mountain so bare.”

This image, captured by Dan Petchnick on a flight around Mount Rainier, shows the state of the famous Elk Head on September 16.

This image, captured by Dan Petchnick on a flight around Mount Rainier, shows the state of the famous Elk Head on September 16.

The thermal dome probably ranks among the 10 fastest melting events recorded on the mountain over the past century, Beason said. A July study published in World Weather Attribution found the heat wave would have been “virtually impossible” without man-made climate change.

This year’s melt rate was higher than average, Beason said, and over the long term, what scientists are seeing on Mount Rainier “is consistent with the anticipated effects of regional climate change.”

But it’s a long term process, and you can’t waste the forest for the trees when it comes to isolated weather events: “You have to look at the long term trend and see what it tells you.” , did he declare.

2011, for example, set records for summer snow levels on the ground in Paradise and some of the coldest months on record in over 100 years, The New York Times reported at the time. The snow lingered in Paradise until August 22 of the same year, Beason said.

A game of glaciers

Massive masses of dense ice, glaciers can be thought of as extremely slow rivers, weaving their way along mountains by their own weight and rebuilt at the top by snowfall. When they melt in the summer, glaciers supply wildlife, agriculture, hydroelectric power, and other systems with fresh, life-sustaining water.

Washington has more glacial ice than any state other than Alaska, and Mount Rainier alone carries nearly a quarter of all the glacial ice in the contiguous United States.

Glaciers “retreat” up the mountain when they melt to the bottom faster than they descend, and “advance” when the exact opposite is happening. A series of cold and wet years can accumulate them, just as hot and dry years can cause them to disappear.

Beason’s research indicates that all of the mountain’s major glaciers retreated between 1913 and the mid-20th century. They then advanced through the 1970s and 1980s through a period of wet winters and cool summers, and have been declining again – much faster – since at least 1994.

According to Beason’s research, Mount Rainier National Park lost 39% of the area and 45% of the volume of its glaciers between 1896 and 2015.

Not all retreats are done the same. Glaciers higher on the summit are likely to exist “in perpetuity,” Beason said, while those most threatened by warming and climate change are the smaller, lower elevation glaciers on the south side.

This map, created by Mount Rainier researchers, shows the extent of glacial retreat at Mount Rainier since 1896 (in brown), 1913 (in beige), 1971 (in cream), 1994 (in light blue), 2009 (in teal), and in 2015 (in the Navy.) A more detailed version of this map, with additional notes, is available at https://www.morageology.com/pubs/86.pdf.

This map, created by Mount Rainier researchers, shows the extent of glacial retreat at Mount Rainier since 1896 (in brown), 1913 (in beige), 1971 (in cream), 1994 (in light blue), 2009 (in teal), and in 2015 (in the Navy.) A more detailed version of this map, with additional notes, is available at https://www.morageology.com/pubs/86.pdf.

The South Tahoma Glacier, for example, is in danger of “melting completely” over the next 50 years, Beason said. It went from 2.29 square miles in 1896 to almost a quarter of a square mile in 2015, and lost two-thirds of its volume during that time, according to Beason’s research. (You can see statistics for all of the mountain’s glaciers at https://www.morageology.com/glacier.php.)

Meanwhile, high on the northern slope of the mountain, researchers estimate that the Winthrop Glacier covered about 3.93 square miles in 1913. 102 years later, it still controlled about 3.47 square miles as well as about 88% of its volume.

“We totally lost a couple,” Beason said, including Williwakas, Pinnacle and Unicorn Glaciers. The Stevens Glacier is also “essentially gone,” he said.

The death of a glacier doesn’t mean it’s gone, Beason said, but rather that it has lost too much mass to continue to descend. Almost as if afflicted with a deep depression, a dead glacier can no longer be forced even by the force of gravity to force its way down the mountain. With enough time, the inert chunk of ice might one day disappear completely.

Snow insulates glaciers from the summer heat, so the earlier in the season you melt through all the fluffy white matter, the more damage the glaciers take.

Does that mean the thermal dome could have melted glaciers especially this summer?

“I think that’s kind of our working assumption right now,” Beason said.

The verdict has not yet come. Beason and his colleagues will use high-resolution aerial photographs of the mountain to compare glaciers to years past. Precise figures on this change could be available by the spring of next year.

Beason said current evidence shows glaciers are likely to continue to shrink over the next century. But we could see periods of new glacial growth, he said, for example if the mountain experiences a good five-year period of high snow accumulation and low melt.

Tahoma undoubtedly has surprises in store for hikers and scientists. Outdoor enthusiasts like Pechnick just hope that for future generations there will be enough beauty for everyone.

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