WEST GLACIER – Twenty-two years ago, when Dan Fagre first walked up to the Grinnell Glacier, its icy mass towered overhead. Today, it’s about as high as his knees.
Grinnell is one of the few glaciers that still exists inside the 1 million acres of Glacier National Park. But just because Grinnell and the other glaciers find shelter inside the preserve doesn’t mean they are not endangered. In fact, due to rising temperatures, scientists believe the park’s namesake bodies of ice will be gone in a few decades. In 1850, it’s estimated that there were 150 glaciers inside the park; today there are just 25. Fagre, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, says it is one of the most visual examples of climate change in the continental United States.
“It’s a teaching moment,” Fagre said. “Because within a few decades the glaciers that have been here for 7,000 years will be gone.”
Fagre is one of the nation’s leading climate change scientists and has written three books and dozens of articles and papers on the matter. He graduated from the University of California, Davis, with a doctorate in animal ecology and behavior and came to Glacier National Park a year after Congress passed the Global Change Research Act of 1990. The act mandated that federal agencies study the impact of climate change.
In Glacier, Fagre was tasked with setting up what would eventually become the USGS’ Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems program. The national parks were selected as laboratories for climate change because they have been relatively unchanged by humans. Glacier in particular was selected because of its namesake, which according to Fagre, “act like a checking account for the climate.” Unlike plants or animals, which can be sickened by disease or impacted in other ways, glaciers only respond to changes in the climate.
In the mid-1880s, there was an estimated 40 square miles of ice in the park; today there are about five square miles, according to Fagre. In order for a body of ice to be considered a glacier it must be at least 25 acres in size and be slowly sliding toward sea level.
The melting glaciers garnered national attention in 1997, when then-Vice President Al Gore visited the park for a major address on climate change. Fagre said what surprised him the most about the visit, and resulting media attention, was how interested people were in the before-and-after photos of the glaciers.
“We were pretty surprised when people kept focusing on the pictures of the glaciers and not the actual data,” Fagre said. “We then realized that it was a very powerful way to show the impact of climate change.”
Since then, Fagre and his small staff have put a lot of effort into repeat photography of the glaciers and the images have been shared around the world. But USGS scientists also measure and monitor glaciers, and every June Fagre and his team venture to Sperry Glacier to see how it has changed. While most years they have documented the glacier’s retreat, Fagre said there have been a few years where the glacier stabilized or grew. However, it’s not enough to make up for what was already lost and Sperry is expected to be gone within a few decades.
But Fagre’s work goes beyond melting ice, and in the last decade the USGS’ mission in the park has been geared toward studying climate change’s impact on mountain ecosystems, including snowpack, alpine climate, vegetation and avalanches. Just a few weeks ago, Fagre and his team went to Apgar to gather snow samples to send to a lab in Denver as part of an ongoing snow study in the western parks. Fagre said by melting snow, scientists have found different atmospheric pollutants, including some chemicals that have been banned in the United States, like Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, also known as DDT. The chemical is still in use in parts of Asia and Fagre said the pollutant can travel through Trans-Pacific weather patterns to our region.
“It shows you that even though you have a very large park that is protected, just like ours, it’s still touched by whatever is happening around it,” he said.
Perhaps no one within the National Park Service is as familiar with climate change than Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow. Prior to coming to Montana, Mow was the chief of Kenai Fjords National Park, a site on the front lines of climate change in Alaska. Mow said the most important thing for the Park Service is to reduce its own carbon footprint and educate people on the changes ahead.
During his tenure at Kenai Fjords, the iconic Exit Glacier disappeared.
“We’re heading into a period of less and less certainty of what the world will look like and you have to learn to be comfortable with that,” Mow said.
For Fagre, now in his 23rd year in Glacier, those uncertainties are what bring him back to his office in a small house behind park headquarters in West Glacier. Fagre said the study of climate change has brought about some amazing discoveries about mountain ecosystems that may not have happened otherwise. As he sat in his office, he flipped through yet another climate change report that had come out a few days earlier.
“The questions pile up much faster than answers and the more you study the more you start asking questions about this, that and the other. It’s an endlessly fascinating story,” he said. “We’ve filled in an awful lot of the story, but like a good detective novel, there are still some twists and turns and that’s what keeps you turning the pages. It’s what keeps me out there working.”
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