Home Glaciers Scientists: Mount Rainier’s largest glacier is melting

Scientists: Mount Rainier’s largest glacier is melting


Dr. Claire Todd descended loose volcanic rock into a steep valley where the Emmons Glacier once lay in Mount Rainier National Park. She, along with a team of her geology students, then hiked 1 mile to the end of the glacier, where an ice cave gushed out of the water into the turbulent White River.

“We’re looking into the belly of the beast,” said Todd, a professor of geological sciences at California State University, San Bernardino. “It takes a lot of heat and melt to get this thing started for the season.”

Glaciers are essentially slow-moving rivers of ice and snow that hold water like a storage reservoir. During the summer months, their melt pours into streams and rivers. Emmons – the largest glacier in the continental United States – is an important source of fresh water for Puget Sound, feeding the White River which runs along State Route 410. Although Emmons has grown in size every winter for decades , its surface is now melting irregularly, raising questions about flooding and water supply as the climate warms.

Further research is needed to understand what the future might bring, as well as climate policy to drastically reduce greenhouse gases and slow climate change. The Inflation Recovery Act, recently passed by the US Senate, goes in this direction, in particular by aiming to reduce carbon emissions by approximately 40% by 2030 and to invest in clean energy sources.

In July, like every summer for 14 years, Todd traveled to Emmons to sample water quality and measure debris ranging from solidified lava boulders to fragments of talus or alpine rock. His fieldwork, currently funded by NASA and the University of Washington, enables sampling that adds significantly to the information gathered through aerial mapping.