Breaking The Ice

By DILLON TABISH for the Flathead Beacon Newspaper

At Whitefish screening of award-winning documentary, researchers discuss potential impacts of melting glaciers


EIS field technician, Adam LeWinter on iceberg, Columbia Bay, Alaska; June 19, 2008. | Courtesy photo

There’s less than 10 square miles of glacial ice remaining in Glacier National Park, and it’s expected to disappear completely in under 20 years.

When a pair of scientists based in West Glacier published their research in 2003, revealing the drastic melting of the park’s trademark features, they provided an early spark for a debate that remains ongoing.

Climate change is a polarizing subject in America. For every scientist who reaffirms the impacts of man-made global warming on the landscape, there appears to be a skeptic raising charges of distortion and disbelief.

James Balog was a self-described global warming naysayer, doubting mankind’s ability to significantly influence the earth and considering the climate change movement an “advocate cause.”

But, as Balog has said, “Then I heard the story that the glaciers are telling.”

Beginning in 2007, the renowned National Geographic photographer and a small team of assistants captured images of the world’s ancient glaciers as part of a project called the Extreme Ice Survey. Balog established time-lapse cameras in places like Greenland, Iceland, the Alps, Alaska and Glacier Park.

Within only a couple years, Balog’s footage provided the most comprehensive visual evidence of the planet’s changing landscape due to climate change. The pictures showed vast stretches of massive glaciers shrinking, some by as much as 2.5 miles. All 28 cameras at 13 glaciers showed dramatic reductions and transformations. The cameras also captured the largest calving event, when a glacier ruptures and breaks, ever recorded. The footage, described by Balog as a “miracle and horror,” lasted 75 minutes and featured a piece of glacier as large as the lower portion of Manhattan.

Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey became the subject of an award-winning documentary, titled “Chasing Ice,” which was released in 2012. The film, which recounts Balog’s project and recent extreme weather events, such as record fire seasons, screened before a sold-out audience in Whitefish on April 27. The Glacier Climate Action group and the National Parks Conservation Association organized the event, which attracted roughly 350 people packed inside the O’Shaughnessy Center.

“It’s time to take action on climate change,” said Steve Thompson, the head coordinator of the Glacier Climate Action, a local group that started in February to advocate responsible energy and climate policies and educate the public about the negative impacts of climate change.

After the documentary film, a panel of local researchers and a former Glacier Park superintendent discussed the impacts of climate change in the valley and the possible repercussions of Glacier Park’s ecosystem drastically changing.

Adam LeWinter ice climbing in Survey Canyon, Greenland

Adam LeWinter ice climbing in Survey Canyon, Greenland

“We can’t project all of these chaotic, complex things. We can see that they’re happening, but there are so many variables, that the way it will all work out is a little bit up in the air,” said Dan Fagre, research ecologist and glacier scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

He added, “We obviously have to stop making it worse. And I don’t say that as a policy analysis. That’s simply common sense. If you’re already heading in the wrong direction, you don’t keep going there.”

Along with Fagre, the panel featured Chas Cartwright, who retired in January as Glacier Park’s superintendent; Jack Potter, a retired chief of science at Glacier who worked in the park for more than 40 years; and Clint Muhlfeld, a research ecologist and fisheries biologist with the USGS.

All four panelists described the different impacts that climate change can have on the local landscape, including changes in the makeup of wildlife and fish species that have to adapt to new ecosystems and the onset of larger wildfire seasons.

“One of the consequences if we continue this warming trend is we’ll have more trees and more fuel at higher elevations, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re starting to see fires in the alpine,” Fagre said.

Potter described the three biggest “landscape scale changes” he witnessed in his years at Glacier: larger wildfires; the proliferation of insect diseases, such as the blister rust decimating whitebark pine; and melting glaciers.

“The most dramatic thing for me was the formation of a lake at the foot of Grinnell Glacier,” Potter said. “When I was on the trail crew, there was no lake. Now there is where the glacier once was.”

Chasing Ice Director Jeffery Orlowski shooting in Uummannaq, Greenland, Summer of 2007. | Courtesy photo

Chasing Ice Director Jeffery Orlowski shooting in Uummannaq, Greenland, Summer of 2007. | Courtesy photo

There were roughly 150 glaciers present when the park was established 1910. As of today, estimates show 25 remaining glaciers. A research report, co-authored by Fagre and Myrna Hall in 2003, described the melt rate under current climate scenarios and estimated the remaining glaciers will disappear by 2030.

Cartwright said he agrees with the motto that there needs to be more action and less talking, but he still sees a need to spread education about climate change and its effects.

“Our education on this issue has been going on for awhile but the absence of efforts on a national level and international level says to me that we need to do more work in terms of educating our next generations,” Cartwright said. “We’re working on it but we have a lot of work to go in that arena.”

Fagre echoed Cartwright, saying the work of individuals to combat climate change is important, primarily because it can grow into a “societal change” that leads to policy changes.

The final statements included a more optimistic tone, with all four men expressing hope that eventually more efforts will go into finding solutions than endlessly debating something that has become apparent.

“All the pieces are pretty much still there, but now is the time,” Muhlfeld said. “We have to be proactive.”