Appreciating the things that are disappearing in the age of climate change
St. Mary’s Glacier near Idaho Springs, Colorado, was never actually a glacier in the first place. It’s a semi-permanent or perennial snowfield. The distinction is, St. Mary’s doesn’t move. It isn’t a river of ice flowing slowly and carving the landscape. It’s just snow that doesn’t melt in the summer and compacted into an icy, snowy, semi-vertical land-berg. So it was never a glacier, and soon it isn’t going to be anything.
Misnamed or not, it is one of the most popular hikes in the Denver area. It isn’t too far away for an afternoon’s uphill trek, and Denverites and suburbanites have been coming up to ski, snowboard, sled, make snowballs, or simply wander around and marvel for generations. The forest of bristlecone pine, the dramatic skeletons of trees that have died, the small snowfield-fed lake, and, of course, the snowfield itself make for stunning scenery. And for those who are a little more ambitious, hiking up the snowfield leads to dramatic views of James Peak (13,301′, 4054m) and Kingston Peak (12,043', 3671m).
The area is so beloved it is overused. There are social trails everywhere, many of them wide enough to be mistaken for the official one. And in places, it is hard to tell if the lack of vegetation is due to elevation or human trampling. When I went up recently on a Thursday afternoon, a workday in fall, it was, nevertheless, crowded.
I went up for a fun reason about a serious topic. I participate in the occasional Instagram challenge, and this one was by @dorianmases, who has created a great online photography community. The issue was climate change. The challenge: post a photo that illustrates one of the many aspects of the problem or one of the ways people are addressing it, and caption it with details and information.
“Well,” I thought, “not everyone is so lucky as to have a handy ‘glacier!’” I had hiked up there on occasion when I used to house-sit for my brother and sister-in-law, who, at that time, lived in the nearby town of Alice. That was at least ten years ago, probably a good bit more. I knew things would have changed. I also knew that it was fall, and that after a summer’s worth of warm temperatures, the snowfield would be at its smallest. I still wasn’t prepared for just how small. It has nearly split in two. One section pinches into a narrow neck of dirty ice-pack with a creek’s worth of runoff flowing underneath.
I wanted to know how much it just seemed smaller to me. After all, it had been a long time. I’m older now, and it was autumn. I dug around online, but to no avail. I couldn’t find any statistics. The snowfield is in Arapahoe National Forest, so I called the Forest Service, but they didn’t know of any studies. I reached out to the local Universities and found a trove of information about the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research Program, but nothing about St. Mary’s.
Eventually, I tracked down some more general information to use for my caption.
In 2017 one team of researchers published a survey of glaciers and perennial snowfields in the late mid-century in the US West (https://tinyurl.com/y3ayuvuc). Most of their data fell in a mid-century cool period when glaciers and perennial snowfields stopped retreating. Another study, done on glaciers and perennial snowfields from 2010 to 2014 published data on the same area in 2016 (https://tinyurl.com/y2675wan). The methodologies were different, and the inventories cannot be compared confidently with an apples to apples approach. Bearing that in mind, a comparison, perhaps apples to pears, yields a 39% decrease in glaciers and perennial snowfields covered area. Sit with that for a moment — 39% since the mid-latter half of the 20th century.
I found out more about how vital glaciers and perennial snowfields are for vulnerable alpine ecosystems. In the more arid interior of the western US, they provide a year-round water source for plants and wildlife, and chill waters of their runoff keeps the water temperatures low enough for many aquatic species. The retreat of glaciers and perennial snowfields is a harbinger of warmer temperatures that are melting the adjacent permafrost, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere. And, as they run out of higher elevations and cooler temperatures to retreat to, one alpine species, in particular, the Pika, is in grave danger.
So glaciers and perennial snowfields are another canary in a coal mine that is getting darker and deeper every season.
Other participants in the challenge posted equally alarming statistics and information. Some posted hopeful photos, a hydroelectric dam, bikes, electric vehicle charging stations, a beautiful image of a stainless-steel straw. But the representations of progress, impressive as they were, seem small compared to the scope of the problem.
The test for all of us is what to do with the information.
The Instagram challenge was a brilliant way to get individuals to engage with the problem personally and locally. A children’s soccer field, flooded in October, along the Merrimac; a drying lakebed in Portugal; a lonely hibiscus flower in Brisbane, the tree unable to produce more because of drought; see #challengeclimatepic for these and many more.
I found myself troubled by the experience. As I good and well should be. Scientists started ringing the alarm bells about climate change while I was still in school. But it was always something that would happen. A bleak future scenario, a dirty gift we were leaving for my nieces to grow up into.
At an intellectual level, I’ve known that I would see the impacts, was already seeing them, for that matter. Forest fires have always been the scariest threat from our environment where I live, and now we hold our breath summer, spring, and fall, even sometimes in winter. Fire season is always just a warm, dry spell away.
But knowing these things intellectually isn’t the same as seeing a landmark of your young adulthood shrinking fast. Suddenly, it is the future they warned us about. Climate change isn’t only just as real as they said it was; it is also now.
I’ve been struggling with what to do with this experience. What can you say that people who know don’t more or less know already, and people who don’t know, don’t want to?
I could exhort everyone to act locally and think globally by recycling, cutting down on plastics, driving less, and so on. I could urge us to vote, to donate to campaigns and environmental NGOs, to canvass our neighbors and get involved, to write to our political representatives. And all those things are good, and virtuous, and essential. But if we know, we know about all that stuff already.
It’s hard to process ideas as big as global changes to weather and temperature, impacting every ecosystem. Especially when scientists, being sticklers for accuracy by nature, are cautious about directly attributing things like specific hurricanes to warming temperatures. And when we are always talking about impacts in 2050 or 2100, it’s hard to see what is already happening.
So instead of urging people to do all the things we already know we should be doing, I would invite everyone to take part in @dorianmases’ challenge in their own lives. Look around you. Find your own ‘glacier.’ Pay attention to the things which are disappearing or changing right now, before our eyes. Climate change isn’t in the future any longer. We can talk about the impacts in 2050, or at the turn of the century. We must. But we must also acknowledge what is happening now. And we must appreciate and document the things that will be unrecognizable in our lifetimes.