Receding Glaciers

Grinnell Glacier Repeat Photography, USGS photos,T.J. Hileman 1938, C. Key 1981, L. Bengtson 2009

At the current rate of melting, it is predicted that what remains of Glacier National Park’s glaciers will be gone in the next 10-20 years due to increases in summer temperatures and a reduction in winter snowpack.

Since glaciers respond directly to changes in environmental trends such as temperature, precipitation, and cloud cover, they are excellent barometers of climate change. Those same factors contribute to changes in ecosystems; however, unlike plants and animals, glaciers do not have the ability to adapt behaviorally or physiologically to these impacts. Since changes to the mass and dimensions of glaciers occur over longer periods of time, the retreat of glaciers point toward long-term shifts in climatic conditions as opposed to short-term differences that can be attributed to year-to-year variability in weather patterns.

Intact natural systems such as Glacier National Park—and other areas of the Crown of the Continent—are of particular significance because these protected areas function as early warning systems. By measuring rates of glacial retreat in these protected areas, climate change researchers are able to better predict future environmental changes. These predictions allow managers to work through a variety of potential landscape scenarios for the future and to develop management strategies and action plans to be used in each scenario.