Glacier National Park faces a massive meltdown

By Laura Bly, USA TODAY

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. — Standing under a cloudless midsummer sky at the Many Glacier Hotel, ranger Bob Schuster gestures toward the saw-toothed southern horizon and holds up evidence of a changing climate in a place indigenous Blackfeet Indians dubbed the "backbone of the world." His repeat photographs show the rapid retreat of the 100-year-old park's iconic geological features, which have declined from about 150 at the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-19th century to about two dozen today.

It's all but impossible for Schuster's charges to distinguish whether those white patches glinting in the distance represent snowpacks or glaciers (the latter, he explains, are defined as moving icefields at least 100 feet thick and 25 acres in size). What's more, the vast majority of the park's 2.2 million annual visitors will never make the grueling six-hour trek that's required for an up-close glimpse of Grinnell, the most accessible of the 1,600-square-mile preserve's remaining glaciers.

No matter.

Though the views from this northwestern Montana vantage point probably will be just as spectacular a century from now as they were when the USA's 10th national park was founded in 1910, Schuster's before-and-after photos illustrate what park experts say could mean dramatic changes to its ecosystem.

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"How much of (the glacier loss) is a natural cycle and how much is human-caused is a complex issue," says Schuster, who notes recent estimates that the park's last glacier could vanish within 10 to 20 years.

"But the majority of scientific evidence points very strongly to the fact that humans are involved, because there's been such an unprecedented rise in temperatures and CO2 levels."

And that, according to a new report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council, could affect everything from the turquoise hue of the park's glacially fed lakes and the waterfalls that drape its U-shaped valleys to the frequency and severity of seasonal wildfires.

'The Switzerland of America'

But for its throngs of summer admirers, those potentially dire scenarios are overshadowed by still-extravagant scenery and wild-life in what early Great Northern Railway promoters advertised as "The Switzerland of America."

Thanks in part to a series of late-spring storms, the upper reaches of the park's precipitous, perennially under-construction Going-to-the-Sun Road remain flanked by deep snowbanks. Shorts-clad youngsters fling snowballs from the boardwalk at 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass, where delicate yellow glacier lilies peek through the soggy ground and snowboarders nearly outnumber pedestrians on a recent afternoon. A few miles away at the aptly named Weeping Wall, traffic slows as passing motorists stretch out their arms to catch the spray from a parade of waterfalls.

Despite the gee-whiz grandeur of Going-to-the-Sun — completed in 1932, the two-lane road is the only U.S. highway to be named on the National Register of Historic Places, a National Historic Landmark and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark — Glacier veterans insist the park is best appreciated by lacing up a pair of boots and sampling its more than 700 miles of hiking trails.

Trails range from arduous (an all-day, more than 2,300-foot elevation gain trek from the Swiftcurrent Inn to the hike-in-only Granite Park Chalet) to "practically couch potato" (a gentle, 2.8-mile round-trip walk from a parking area off Going-to-the-Sun Road to St. Mary's Falls, where visitors can hear the thunderous cascade long before they see it).

But close encounters with Glacier's fauna are all but guaranteed, even for those who venture no farther than rental cars or the park's fabled Red Buses, gas- and propane-fueled versions of the open-air touring vehicles that have been chugging through Glacier since the 1930s.

Last weekend, a lineup of cars snaking through the West Glacier entrance ground to a halt. Necks were craned and cameras were frantically hoisted as a ranger patrolled the roadside. The source of the hubbub: a grizzly, its furry brown backside barely visible as it ambled through a tangle of underbrush a few hundred yards away.

Up at Logan Pass, a pair of bighorn sheep staged a Mutual of Omaha-worthy moment as they pranced across a crowded parking lot, and a chubby marmot (a member of the squirrel family) preened for photographers atop a nearby granite ledge.

Perils of a changing climate

As West Glacier temperatures climb into the high 80s, college student Ricky Lux grips his paddle and leans into a wave on the chilly middle fork of the federally designated "wild and scenic" Flathead River, which forms the park's southern boundary and gained notoriety as one of the settings for Meryl Streep's The River Wild.

The outfitter who arranged Lux's trip, Bob Jordan of Wild River Adventures, says global warming does have a short-term upside: "From a selfish point of view," Jordan says, "for every degree the thermometer goes above 70, our call volume goes up, too."

But Jordan worries that a changing climate also could translate to scantier flows during the peak visitor times of late July and August and to more fires like the 2003 Roberts blaze, whose charred calling cards line the banks of the Flathead and nearby Lake McDonald.

It worries Lux, too.

"People think of a glacier as just a chunk of ice," says Lux, a senior at Bozeman's Montana State University. "But that ice has been a big part of what makes this park so beautiful." ... park_N.htm