Olympic Peninsula glaciers will have melted by 2070, researchers predict

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A panorama of the Blue Glacier on the north side of Mount Olympus in the Olympic Mountains of Washington taken from the Lateral Moraine. (Aaron Linville // CC BY-SA 4.0)

Portland State University researchers predict that by 2070, the glaciers on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula will have mostly melted.

According to their study published in JGR: Earth Surface, glaciers have already lost half their surface area since 1900, and since 1980, 35 glaciers and 16 permanent snowfields have completely melted.

Researchers say some glaciers are likely to remain, but will be “shells of themselves”.

“There’s not much we can do to prevent these glaciers from disappearing,” said PSU geology professor Andrew Fountain. “We are on this train of global warming right now. Even if we are super good citizens and immediately stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, it will still take about 100 years before the climate responds.”

Even with recent advances in the fight against climate change, glaciers continue to melt over long periods of time as they “catch up” with the environmental damage caused by rapid industrialization.

When glaciers melt, it creates a domino effect on the surrounding environment – researchers say alpine waterways will shrink and species like bull trout will die off as the cold water they are in accustomed will warm up.

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“Once you lose your seasonal snow, the only source of water in these alpine areas is melting glaciers. And without glaciers, you’re not going to see that melting contribute to streamflow, and so have an impact on the ecology in alpine areas,” says Fontaine. “It’s a big deal with disastrous fallout.”

US Geological Survey data shows similar glacial melting across the North Cascades, and photos taken in 1968, 1978, 2012 and 2015 show a dramatic retreat of the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier. This same study shows a decrease in glacial ice in Glacier National Park and Alaska.

Nisqually Glacier, Mount Rainier. (United States Geological Survey, Hassan Basagic)

“This assessment of glaciers in the Olympic Mountains highlights two key elements of glacier vulnerability. The first is warming summer temperatures, which affects the persistence of glacier ice throughout the summer melt season,” said USGS scientist Caitlyn Florentine. “The second, less obvious, is warming winter temperatures, which affects the replenishment of glacier ice during the winter season of snow accumulation. This double whammy has downstream implications for glacier-adapted ecosystems in the American Pacific Northwest.”

The PSU researchers say the Olympic glaciers are particularly vulnerable to melting due to their low elevation. Hotter summers mean more glacial melt, and warmer winters mean that instead of snow, glaciers are hit by rain, causing further melting.

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Fountain says his next goal is to “develop a comprehensive view of glaciers” in the western United States, including Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.


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