Olympic National Park glaciers continue to shrink, most recent study finds
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Photo by Olympic National Park archives.
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Photo by Olympic National Park archives.

By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News

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OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — The glaciers in the North Olympic Peninsula's national park have shrunk by an average of 15 percent of their mass since the 1980s.

“One glacier has completely disappeared,” Bill Baccus, Olympic National Park physical scientist, told a standing-room crowd of at least 100 people at the park's Visitor's Center on Tuesday.

Ferry Glacier, which was one of the 60 largest glaciers in the park in 1982, has disappeared completely from its rocky niche in the Bailey Range, Baccus said as he presented “Olympic Glaciers — Past, Present, Future,” looking in detail at the changes in the park's glaciers, particularly in the past 30 years.

Another glacier, Lillian, has “virtually disappeared,” he said.

311 glaciers

Baccus has been studying the park's 311 glaciers in detail since 2010, after receiving a grant in 2009 to study global climate change on the Olympic glaciers.

Because of the popularity of last week's presentation — some people had to be turned away — the park hopes to reschedule the talk and slide show sometime in the spring, Baccus said.

The situation in the Olympics is not as bad as it is in Glacier National Park, where it is estimated that the park's largest glaciers will vanish by 2030, he said.

However, the Olympic mountain range is losing glacier mass at a rate of a meter of ice per year, researchers say.

Warmer climate

“The glaciers are responding to the current climate,” Baccus said.

“It's been warmer on average the last 50 years than the 50 years prior to that.”

The average air temperature in the Pacific Northwest has gone up 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1920.

While it's undeniable there is a warming trend, Baccus said, he cautioned it isn't from one source; many factors have contributed.

Blue Glacier

The most recent study found that Blue Glacier — the largest and best-known glacier in Olympic National Park — has lost 18 percent of its mass since 1982.

In the 1980s, the thickness of Blue Glacier was estimated as being an average of 370 feet.

Since then, the top of Blue Glacier has “lost about 10 meters [33 feet] of thickness,” Baccus said.

At the foot of the glacier, it has lost 50 or 60 meters (165-196 feet) in depth, he said.

The loss of ice from 1982 to 2010 is even more striking when compared with an 1899 photograph of the Blue Glacier that shows it spilling far out of its existing valley.

Of the eight classic valley glaciers in the park in 1982, only four can now be classified as such, meaning that they fill an entire mountain valley.

The Carrie, Hubert, Anderson and Humes glaciers, which once were valley glaciers, have now receded up into their basins.

Those that remain are the Blue, White, Hoh and Eel glaciers.

Even though the mass of the glaciers is thinning, the number has increased.

There are actually more glaciers today than there once were because some large glaciers of the past have broken up into multiple small glaciers, Baccus said.

In 1982, researchers found 266 glaciers.

In 2010, they found 311.

Glaciers on north-facing slopes fared significantly better than south-facing glaciers, he said.

Disappearing glaciers

Ferry Glacier is the only glacier that researchers say has completely disappeared from the Olympics.

“We don't know the year,” Baccus said. “It was gone by 2009.

“It disappeared sometime in the last decade.”

The first time he passed it, “I didn't know it was supposed to be a glacier,” Baccus said.

At the time, it was raining heavily, and he couldn't see exactly where he was, he explained.

“It was my first experience with a glacier that no longer exists,” he said.

The next time he saw it, the glacier was very small, much smaller than earlier maps had indicated it should be.

The last time he went to the location, there was nothing more than a lake and a bit of snow, he said.

Although that's the only one that researchers will say is completely gone, others have shrunk to mere echoes of their former selves.

The Lillian Glacier, spotted from trails near Grand Pass and Obstruction Point, has almost entirely gone, though a little permanent ice can still be seen in the upper basin.

The Anderson Glacier, which can be seen from the trail above Enchanted Valley, also is much smaller than it once was, Baccus said.

15 years of applying

After 15 years of applying for funding to study the parks's glaciers, funding finally came through in 2009, just as a perfect set of circumstances — a dry winter and a hot summer — left glaciers clear of new snow, perfect for satellite photography to clearly reveal the edges of permanent ice features, Baccus said.

To be considered a glacier, an ice mass must have a number of traits, including:

■ A perennial ice body with an accumulation of snow of two years or longer.

■ Evidence of crevasses or exposed ice.

■ Terminal or lateral moraines.

■ Meltwater streams with “glacial flour” (fine-grained rock silt).

■ A hummocky topography.

Research assistant Steve Wilson of Portland State University in Oregon digitized 1982 maps of the park's glaciers and outlined each glacier so that they could be compared with current images.

When the satellite images were ambiguous — where dirt and rock covered a section or features did not photograph well — researchers visited the glaciers in person to take more detailed photographs.

The greatest volume of the remaining glaciers, 65 percent, is in the Hoh River watershed, Baccus said.

The Elwha River watershed contains 11 percent of remaining glacial volume, with 9 percent in the Queets River watershed, and 5 percent in Dosewallips River watershed.

Each of the remaining watersheds in the Olympic Mountain Range have glaciers but hold less than 5 percent of the total, he said.


Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-417-3535 or at arwyn.rice@peninsuladailynews.com.

Managing Editor Leah Leach contributed to this story.

Last modified: January 14. 2012 10:20PM
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