Climate

Montana's Iconic Glaciers Could Disappear by 2030

Ice flows at Glacier National Park have receded by as much as 85 percent since 1966, according to a new survey.

Glacier National Park, located on the US-Canada border in Montana, is one of the jewels of the US parks system. Spanning more than one million square acres of protected wilderness, the park is home to magnificent ice formations and 37 named glaciers.

Well, it was.

According to new data released today by the US Geological Survey (USGS), the warming climate has reduced the size of ice formations around the park as much as 85 percent since 1966. According to the new data, melting has been so severe that only 26 of the park's ice formations now technically qualify as glaciers.

If current climate patterns persist, researchers say the glaciers will disappear entirely by the year 2030.

The figures were primarily calculated using digital maps generated from aerial photography and satellite images.

But the researchers also took an admirably old-fashioned, two-fisted approach to science. Several ground surveys were dispatched to the glacial fields, with geologists gathering data by way of GPS equipment and repeat photography.

Researchers measured all 37 named glaciers in the park, as well as two glaciers on adjacent US Forest Service land. Images and measurements were compared to data from previous studies in 1966, 1998, 2005, and 2015. On average, glaciers have receded by 39 percent in the past 50 years.

The new study, conducted in cooperation with researchers at Portland State University, adds evidence to the critical state of the world's glaciers. 

"While the shrinkage in Montana is more severe than some other places in the US, it is in line with trends that have been happening on a global scale," said Portland State geologist Andrew G. Fountain in a statement.

As to the short-term ramifications, researchers warm that the shrinking glaciers will almost certainly have an impact on local wildlife. 

"The park-wide loss of ice can have ecological effects on aquatic species by changing stream water volume, water temperature, and run-off timing in the higher elevations of the park," said lead USGS scientist Daniel Fagre.

The park, established in 1910, attracted over 2 million visitors in 2007, according to the US National Park Service.  

Lisa McKeon, a USGS scientist, has documented glacier change since 1997.

"Tracking these small alpine glaciers," she said, "has been instrumental in describing climate change effects on Glacier National Park to park management and the public."

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