‘Inspirational’ Landscape of Glacier National Park Emerges as Thread in Climate Trial

Testimony from renowned Earth scientist, glaciologist figures prominently into second day of youth-led constitutional climate trial Held v. Montana

By Micah Drew
Dan Fagre takes repeat photographs of Grinnell Glacier on Aug. 17, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

HELENA — Attorneys representing 16 youth plaintiffs in a constitutional climate-change lawsuit against the state of Montana on Tuesday presented testimony from an internationally renowned Earth scientist and a retired glaciologist who for three decades studied the diminishing ice masses of Glacier National Park. Both witnesses described to a Helena courtroom how the state’s steady warming trend is transforming the landscape for future generations, including one of the young plaintiffs who grew up on Glacier’s doorstep.

Much of the landmark environmental trial’s second full day of testimony centered on the connection between Montana’s warming climate and the harm alleged by the youth plaintiffs, who say their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment” has been violated by the state’s practice of promoting and permitting the fossil fuel industry, contributing to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions.

“The climate science is clear there’s an urgent problem,” said Cathy Whitlock, a Montana State University professor who studies environmental change over the course of millennia. Describing the increase of severe drought, major flood events and more frequent and intense wildfires, Whitlock warned “the harm will get worse.”

“Montana’s actions to promote the utilization and development of fossil fuels are inconsistent with the need to reduce emissions to stabilize the climate system,” Whitlock continued. “These ongoing actions can harm our children and future generations including the 16 youth plaintiffs. And they will be penalized as far into the future as we can imagine.”

Climate scientist Cathy Whitlock testified to the impacts of climate change in Montana during Held v. Montana on June 13, 2023. | Micah Drew

For retired U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) glaciologist Dan Fagre, learning about the penalties of the future meant looking at the past.

Describing Glacier’s pristine landscape as “inspirational,” Fagre was responsible for mapping the historic range of 146 of the park’s eponymous landforms. Today just 26 named glaciers remain in Glacier Park, and those are fractions of their former size.

“Glaciers are a physical manifestation of climate laying on the landscape,” Fagre said. “They just sit there and respond to temperature and precipitation.”

Following the adage that seeing is believing, Fagre shared exhibits from the USGS Repeat Photography Project, a series of historic photos taken during the late 1800s and early 1900s that researchers replicated from the same vantage points starting in 1997. Fagre led the program during his time with the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in West Glacier, constructing side-by-side visual comparisons of the images to measure glacial recession.

Since the mid-19th century, the number of glaciers in the park has declined by 82%, Fagre said, and the total area of glacial ice has declined by 70%. The rate of melting has increased in recent decades, according to Fagre, with the existing glaciers losing nearly 1% of their area per year between 2005 and 2015.

“Clearly if we’d seen melting at that rate with the original glaciers starting in 1850, we would have lost them a long time ago,” he said, directly attributing the decline to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. “There’s nothing else that would change the climate that quickly.”

Dan Fagre takes repeat photographs of Grinnell Glacier on Aug. 17, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

That didn’t sit well with two of the youth plaintiffs who testified Tuesday — Mica Kantor, 15, of Missoula, and Badge Busse, 15, of Kalispell.

Mica Kantor, 14, stands in front of a ponderosa pine during a recent hike in Pattee Canyon Recreation Area in Missoula, Mont. Kantor is one of 16 young people suing the state over climate change. | Lesley Clark/E&E News

Kantor was four years old when he first learned about climate change, he said, after he watched the 2012 documentary “Chasing Ice.” Throughout elementary and middle school, he took part in climate protests and rallies, including Fridays for Future, the global youth climate strike movement started by activist Greta Thunberg.

Kantor also described visiting Glacier National Park where his favorite animal, the pika, lives. Both the potential loss of pika habitat, and the decline in the park’s glaciers, added to his concerns over the future climate. Growing up, Kantor said he experienced the physical impact of climate change as wildfires frequently filled his hometown with smoke and limited his ability to go outside.

As an avid runner — Kantor has run a 5:05 mile and following the trial’s conclusion will take part in the Missoula Half Marathon — he worries about how smoke could damage his lungs and limit his ability to keep running, particularly in light of his asthma.

Kalispell’s Busse, whose brother is a co-plaintiff in the case, described his upbringing hunting and fishing in northwest Montana, and skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort. He was even named after the nearby Badger-Two Medicine region southeast of Glacier National Park, a favorite area for himself and his dad to recreate in. Through the years, Busse said he’s noticed his favorite bird to hunt, Hungarian Partridges, have been more difficult to find, which he learned will become more common if as the animals relocate to a better climate.

In the winters, Busse spends his free days on the slopes and is a member of the local Freestyle Ski Team. He described his excitement to put on his skis the first day there’s enough snow but has noticed changes to snow conditions in recent winters, making him worry about the future of the sport.

“I would like my future children to be able to experience skiing the same way I do,” he said.

Badge Busse in Kalispell on May 3, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Wrapping up the day’s testimony was Dr. Lori Byron, a pediatrician in Crow Agency who testified to the young plaintiffs’ physical and mental health. Under direct examination by Phil Gregory, explained the physiological differences between kids and adults that make young people more susceptible environmental stressors such as extreme heat and increased pollution.

Children have higher respiratory rates, higher basal metabolic rates and sweat less than adults, Byron said, which means they take longer to acclimatize to extreme heat. She said during heat waves hospitals see an uptick in the number of children admitted.

In addition, the developing respiratory systems in children make them more susceptible to airborne particulates, such as those from wildfire smoke. Air pollution can absorb into the bloodstream from the lungs, she said, and research shows that can trigger or worsen leukemia, asthma and juvenile idiopathic arthritis, an autoimmune disease. Several of the young plaintiffs have asthma and Byron cited research showing the increased risks they face when dealing with poor air quality.

“Just as it behooves a smoker to quit smoking before they develop lung cancer, it behooves the state of Montana to take an interest in our future, reduce fossil fuels and begin with climate change mitigation on a serious level,” she said.

Representing the state in its defense, attorney Thane Johnson conducted the cross-examination of Whitlock with lines of questioning aimed at casting doubt on the myriad research studies Whitlock presented. Johnson pressed Whitlock on whether completely ceasing fossil fuels emissions in Montana, which the State has characterized as minuscule on the global scale, would have any immediate, measurable effect on the global climate. Whitlock repeatedly emphasized that every ton of CO2 emitted contributes to the destabilization of the climate, and Montana needs to do its part.

The Held v. Montana proceedings will continue Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. with continued testimony by Dr. Byron and additional witnesses Shane Doyle and Michael Durglo, and youth plaintiffs Sariel and Taleah.