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for people who care about the West

Uh, oh - the glaciers are growing


Whitefish, Mont. - Bundled against the driving snow of another January blizzard, the regulars stomped into the Buffalo Cafe for their morning brew. The Flathead Valley was on the verge of exceeding the annual snowfall record with almost three winter months to go. The steamy cafe buzzed with chatter about aching backs, collapsed roofs and awesome powder.

Flipping through the newspaper, I quietly chuckled at an opportunity for mischief. "Says here that global warming is happening. Even as we speak," I said loud enough for the others to hear.

The Buffalo regulars, good-natured and argumentative, didn't miss a beat. "Looks more like global cooling," one snorted.

Today, three months later, I again consider the counterintuitive notion of record snowfall in a supposed era of global warming. An unyielding mountain snowpack looms above the Flathead Valley. Like everyone else at the Buffalo coffee counter, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Floods have led the national news for months, and government forecasters say it will be our turn sometime in early June.

Before this winter, the heaviest snowfall in the Flathead Valley was 101 inches in 1951. That record was shattered in January. Total snow accumulation this winter was 144 inches, and the mountain snowpack doubled that level. We already know the Flathead River will flood. If we have a sudden hot spell or a major rain-on-snow deluge or a freak June snowstorm such as we had in 1995, the flood could be catastrophic.

Still, I was dubious that the combustion of carbon-based fuels - the alleged culprit of human-caused global warming - could be responsible for our record-bursting snowfall. So I called Dan Fagre, the global-change research coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey at nearby Glacier National Park.

Fagre confirmed the connection: This is the kind of winter we'd expect in Montana if global warming were happening. Warmer oceans, more moisture in the atmosphere, more snow in Montana. Globally, scientists credit atmospheric warming for sharp increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events since 1980.

Ironically, global warming might actually help salvage the integrity of Glacier's name, Fagre said. Since 1850, the park's largest glaciers have shrunk 50-70 percent percent, with some disappearing altogether, due primarily to lower precipitation. Increasing snowfall could rejuvenate Glacier's glaciers.

More precipitation and carbon dioxide also could boost forest growth at lower altitudes, creating bigger fire-fuel loads for the hot, dry spells. Fagre noted that over the past two decades, Glacier has seen some of the wettest and driest years on record.

Scientists, Fagre among them, are quick to note that no single weather event can be attributed to global climate change. Our record snowfall might be a fluke. Even if it is, the impending floods here in the upper Flathead Valley won't be any easier to take. And humans will still be culpable for some of the damage.

Forty years of excessive clear-cutting and road-building on both public and private lands means spring waters come down faster and heavier than ever. Wetlands that historically acted as sponges have been drained and filled, reducing the ability of watersheds to absorb high water. Likewise, a bonanza of home construction in low-lying areas gives an extra economic zap to the sting of flooding.

Alas, all this is true beyond the borders of Montana, as the Mississippi River flood of 1993 and the Red River flood of 1997 demonstrate. Closer to home, torrential cloudbursts last winter in the Seattle area caused enormous damage, including two 100-year floods within four months.

Even as I write this, ominous storm clouds gather over the Whitefish Mountains. Better head downtown: There's plenty to talk about at the Buffalo Cafe.

Steve Thompson is an environmental consultant and freelance writer in Whitefish, Montana.