Living on Glacial Time

The places we love are changing fast

  • Mike Norton/Istock
  • Students involved in the Parks Climate Challenge hike toward the Easton Glacier.

  • Danny Cuevas (Denver, Colo.), Jenny So (Cupertino, Calif.) and Laura Humes (Shoreline, Wash.) photograph a mountain goat on the slopes near Mount Baker.

  • NPS geologist Jon Riedel talks to students on the Railroad Grade moraine overlooking Mount Baker and the Easton Glacier while Hannah Lazo (Denver, Colo.) looks at a map of past glacial coverage.

  • Jordan Bell from Washington, D.C., looks for the terminus of Mount Baker's Easton Glacier among the clouds.

  • In the North Cascades, Silver Glacier in 1958 and 2006.

    Austin Post (historical), John Scurlock (modern)
  • Forbidden Glacier in 1960 and 2005

    Austin Post (historical), John Scurlock (modern)

Page 3

Last night, at Jon's house, rare summer sun lit the fluttering leaves of alders and shifted through open glades. When he and his wife bought their land, there was nothing but logging slash and mud. To see the place now, you'd hardly believe it. We toured the fruit orchard, the half-finished greenhouse, the treehouse for his girls, the hard-earned fixed-in-place accoutrements of home. Then we settled on the porch to swap stories.

We talked fire. Gazing up at the thick forest foothills, he described a fire that burned to within a half mile of the house. A neighbor woke him after midnight, claiming evacuation was imminent.

"Tell me about it," I said. Back home on the east side, wildfire acreages have grown like Wall Street bonuses.  In the past 15 years, we've watched fires in the surrounding wilderness areas -- fires within one windy day of our cabin -- burn 500 acres, then 5,000 acres, then 50,000. Part of the problem, foresters tell us, is too many years of fire suppression that allowed the trees to grow too tight, the brush too dense, the forest litter too deep. But part, too, is the changing climate: the lack of winter snowfall that leads to drought, longer summers that allow pine beetles to hatch double broods, and hotter summers that make fires harder to stop. A few years ago, in a fit of civic duty that I sometimes regret, I ran for fire commissioner. Now, fire district volunteers hold weekly clean-up parties around cabins and train for structure protection. We all know the big one will come, the one our best efforts won't stop. All we can do is mitigate.

We talked floods. More and more often, in November, warm rain falls on new mountain snow, and the Skagit and Stehekin rivers leap their banks and splay out into the woods, over roads, sometimes into cabins. You can read the river level in cubic feet per second on an Internet gauge, and those numbers keep going up, too: 15,000, 20,000, 25,000. In the same 15 years, we survived two 100-year floods and one 500-year flood. Our garden washed away each time. The postmaster's cabin swept into the churn. As part of his job, Jon designs bank barbs and grade controls, structures that deflect the force of the water, spread it out. We know more big floods will come. Again, all we can do is mitigate, be flexible, adapt.

The places we love, all of them, are changing fast in ways we never imagined: the broad amber stripe of beetle kill across the hillside, driftwood in the pine forest, blackened snags among the cedars, bears roaming in winter, geese staying year-round. No need to check the Internet gauge to know when the water's rising: Just stand on your doorstep and hear the roar. In response, we're readjusting, recalibrating our expectations and reactions. There's more than a hint of playground exasperation -- it's not fair! -- as the rules shift mid-game. None of it is easy.

Sometimes it's hard not to think in metaphor, to think we're like the glaciers: fixed in place, but elastic. When hard times push down on us like heavy ice, we feel the squeeze, and we move along. We change our ways. The problem lies in connotation, in how astonishingly fast, these days, we have to change. Didn't moving at a "glacial pace" used to mean "slow"?

Finally, Jon and I talked snow, our favorite topic bar none, since we're both avid cross-country skiers. Jon bragged about their winter, how he skied out his front door every day, while over on the usually snowy eastside we hunkered under a stagnant inversion: gray, dry, and bare. Not that Jon's winter was all fun. One night a storm dumped 36 inches of snow. The next day, temperatures rose and the snow turned to rain, bucketfuls, then barrelfuls, six or eight inches. The rain soaked the snow, and the snow started to slide, and his rain gutter sliced off his stovepipe, and water poured into the house. He climbed onto the icy roof to cover the hole with plywood. No big deal, he figured, since wood is not the family's main source of heat. Then the power went out. His family huddled around a heater run by a generator until the storm subsided.

"When you experience these things," I asked Jon, "do you connect it with your work, or is it separate, you know, because climate is not weather?"

Jon's no doomsayer, no exaggerator; he's Midwest-steady and Ph.D.-precise. I don't dare overstate.

"Sure," he answered, even-keeled as ever. "We know that we can expect extreme weather. This is extreme." 

I admire Jon for his long view, his knowledge, his reluctance to be histrionic. He's studied climate change, after all, for his entire adult life. In school, his professors taught him how to measure accumulation, how to model melting. Mine taught me to read Chaucer and Shakespeare. Sometimes I think I made a humungous mistake. Then again, imagination isn't a bad trait to nurture in these times. Where would we be, Jon and I, if not for Leopold and McPhee?

Back on the edge of the moraine, the city kids shift on the cold rocks and gather their gear. Despite the weather, it's been a good day. They've digested Jon's info, some at least, and they've seen their first marmot, their first mountain goats; they've seen red heather and white heather, trees thick as oil drums. Was it worth it? Maybe. Maybe the experience will prepare them for all the adapting and mitigating they're going to have to do. For now, they're heading down to camp. But I can't go yet. I came to stand on the glacier, and I won't leave until I do.

So I race ahead as the tread changes from dirt to slush, and farther, past climbers' tents and streaks of pink watermelon snow, to the middle of a swooping bowl where at last I can be sure there's moving ice below me. I stand stock-still, thinking about the melting and what there is to know, what I've seen change -- the last time I visited Upper Lyman Lake the glacier had shrunk by half -- and what these students, who are 25 years younger than me, will see change. I gaze down at the wide green Skagit Valley unfolding toward the horizon. The Cordilleran Ice Sheet covered everything in view a mere 17,000 years ago, all but the highest peaks. Once you start using Jon's eyes, or McPhee's for that matter, the earth looks different, older, shaped clearly as soft sand by a shovel.

If we're really like glaciers, I think, then we advance and retreat, and sooner or later we will disappear. That fact unnerves me. I am, by nature, an expert at denial, hopeful and resigned in equal measures, uncertain as hell. All I know is that, for now, we're still here, holding our ground the ever-changing best way we know how.


Also see the video documenting these students' experiences as they learned about climate change: Parks Climate Challenge: North Cascades 2009 by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.

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