As a mountaineering instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), I have spent a significant amount of time living and traveling on North Cascades glaciers over the past five years. I just returned from a 10-day mountaineering course on Mount Baker to see Ana Maria Spagna's essay, "Living on Glacial Time," and the article could not have been more relevant to my personal observations (HCN, 9/14/09). Working on Mount Baker this September, I saw more bare ice and questionable snow bridges and had more route-finding difficulties than in past years. It was amazing, but not surprising, to see how the toe of the Boulder Glacier has receded since last year, after record-breaking summer temperatures triggered the highest July glacier melt rates seen in the North Cascades in 26 years, according to the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project.
What does surprise me is the number of NOLS students (our demographic is predominantly college students from upper middle-class families throughout the U.S.) who lack an understanding of the science of climate change. While the majority understand that there is scientific consensus that human actions have contributed to global warming, a surprising number of college-educated students have had little scientific education about climate change and as a result think it is a "hoax" of the "liberal media." Educating these students about climate change in a setting where we daily confront the physical evidence has a powerful impact on their beliefs, and we need more programs like the Parks Climate Challenge and NOLS to get students witnessing the impacts of climate change firsthand.
Over the next 40-plus years, we will watch the disappearance of 65-75 percent of glaciers in the North Cascades alone. Climate change will –– and already is –– irrevocably changing global ecosystems in a geologic instant, and even the most optimistic scenarios present a future planet Earth that is hotter, more crowded, more unpredictable and less biologically diverse than the planet we inhabit today. Successfully adapting to that future will require change, cooperation and innovation, none of which can be accomplished without first providing effective science education that gives students a basic understanding of the world around them.