Andrew Fountain, a professor at Portland State University, has studied the shrinking glaciers of the American West since the 1980s. He said that for years he had studied their retreat dispassionately — as an interesting phenomenon to to try to understand. Then last year he had an epiphany.
“I realized that, ‘wait a minute, in 20 or 30 years, everything I’ve studied is useless because there are no glaciers'” Fountain Told KUOW.
The Olympic Peninsula has lost 45% of its ice cover since 1980, according to a new study by Fountain and coauthors from Washington state and British Columbia.
The peninsula’s 250 remaining glaciers, which last estimated covered about two square miles, are set to disappear in 50 years as humanity’s pollution continues to overheat the planet, according to the study.
Fountain said glaciers around the world are suffering something of a double whammy: less snowfall in winter and more melting in summer. Beyond the fascination they exert on a small community of researchers, glaciers serve as frozen reservoirs.
“These glaciers provide water during the hottest and driest times of the year,” Fountain said.
Salmon and the inhabitants of glacier-fed watersheds depend on natural glaciers to keep rivers flowing and cool each summer.
Fountain said a quick end to burning fossil fuels could delay the melting of the ice by decades.
“We need to encourage our legislators to start enacting legislation to reduce greenhouse gases,” Fountain said. “I think for the foreseeable future the fate(s) of the Olympic Peninsula glaciers are sealed.”
Western Washington University glaciologist Douglas Clark, who was not involved in the new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Earth Surface, called its findings “particularly striking.”
“The fact that virtually all of the glaciers in an entire mountain range, the Olympics, will be gone by 2070 should unnerve even the most ardent of climate contrarians,” Clark said via email.
The glaciers in Olympic National Park are found at relatively low elevations, between about 5,000 and 6,000 feet, and are shrinking faster than the ice fields at higher elevations. Fountain called Olympic Glaciers “the canary in the coal mine” to others in the western United States.
“It’s the same story when you go from one mountain range to another, how they react,” said Mauri Pelto, a geologist at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass. Pelto has been studying the ice at the top of the North Cascades for nearly 40 years. . “A lot of glaciers have already disappeared.”
Although scientists point out that it is not too late to ward off catastrophic climate change, some amount of warming is already ’embedded’ in the atmosphere from pollution already emitted.
“It may be too late for Olympic glaciers, but it may not be for those elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, especially on our highest (mostly volcanic) peaks,” Clark said.
Pelto estimated that three-quarters of the glaciers in the North Cascades could not survive the current climate, let alone an even warmer climate.
If the region experiences warmer summers like 2021, “there won’t be much left on Glacier Peak or Mount Baker, that’s for sure,” Pelto said.
Pelto said glacier research is a mixture of discovery, joy and sadness.
“Of course your work is relevant and important, and that keeps you going and keeping you focused,” he said. “That’s what you have to do.”
Fountain said that sometimes, thinking about the future of the frozen realms he specializes in, he just shakes his head.
“Am I wasting my time here? Maybe I should do something else,” he said. “But you have to fight the good fight when you can. And that’s what I think a lot of glaciologists are doing now.