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Glacier National Park's glaciers are falling to pieces, study finds

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | March 13, 2024 2:00 AM

A study by the U.S. Geological Survey last fall found that 11 glaciers in Glacier National Park have broken into pieces, as climate change continues to warm the planet and the park.

It’s been expected for years that the Glacier Park’s namesake glaciers would melt to a fraction of their former selves and eventually disappear altogether.

The study by Andrew Fountain, Bryce Glenn and Christopher Mcneil found that glaciers continue to disappear across the West and Glacier Park is no exception. The team used high resolution aerial photos taken from 2016 to 2020 and other imaging to complete the study.

Fountain said in a subsequent interview that it takes time to assemble the data, which accounts for the delay in the imaging dates. The study looked at glacier retreat across the Western United States.

Fountain said they are currently looking at data on the rate of ice loss in mountain states. In the Cascade Range, he said, the loss has been about 33% since the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

But in places like the Lewis Range, which includes Glacier Park, it's about 44%.

The study found that Agassiz, Blackfoot, Carter, Dixon, Harrison, Kintla, Logan, Shepard, Two Ocean, Siyeh and Whitecrow glaciers had broken into pieces. Most were two or three pieces and included perennial snowfields, but Whitecrow and Harrison were now five pieces with snowfields.

In Montana, the researchers  found that six glaciers had disappeared entirely — one was in the park — Boulder glacier was reclassified as a perennial snowfield.  The glacier used to sit above Boulder Pass.

The Mission Mountains also appear to have lost two glaciers — Fissure glacier and Gray Wolf glacier. Gray Wolf was reclassified as a perennial snowfield and Fissure was less than  .01 square kilometer.

In 2016, research completed by now-retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist Dan Fagre and his staff found that the park had 26 named glaciers left.

At the peak of the Little Ice Age, there were likely 80 glaciers in the park. In 1966, there were 35 named glaciers.

Glaciers play an important role in the park’s ecosystems, particularly in the summer months.

They provide a source of cold, clean water as the runoff cools stream temperatures in the driest and hottest part of the summer after seasonal snowpacks have vanished, researchers note.

Anyone hiking over Gunsight Pass for example, will see water cascading off Mount Jackson in the summertime from ice and snowfields above from Harrison, Jackson and Blackfoot glaciers.