Glaciers advancing in Washington State

Glaciers advancing in Washington State

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“All Mt. Baker glaciers are significantly more extensive today than they were in 1950, refuting claims of disastrous, unprecedented glacier recession.” – Dr. Don J. Easterbrook

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GLACIERS ON MT. BAKER, WA BEGIN TO ADVANCE

By Dr. Don J. Easterbrook

Recently the Seattle Times, Bellingham Herald, and other news media have published headline stories with claims by Maurice Pelto and others that glacier recession in the Cascade Mts. of Washington has been “disastrous” and “Glaciers across the North Cascades could lose 5 to 10 percent of their volume this year” “One scientist estimates the region’s glaciers are smaller than they have been in at least 4,000 years.” “The best word for it is disastrous.”

Mt Baker location
Figure 1. Index map

Photos and maps clearly show that the Mt. Baker glaciers reached their maximum extent of the past century in 1915 at the end of the 1880 to 1915 cold period. The glaciers then melted back strongly during the 1915 to 1950 warm period. The climate then turned cool again, and Mt. Baker glaciers advanced strongly for 30 years (1950-1980).

Figure 2. Mt Baker and North Cascade Range

In 1977, the climate abruptly turned warm again and since about 1980, glaciers have been retreating. But they haven’t retreated as far upvalley as they did during the 1915-1950 warm period, even though the 1915-1950 retreat started much farther downvalley (i.e., the 1915-1950 warm period was much more robust than the 1978-2000 warm period, and most of the glacier retreat of the past century took place then).

These photos and maps prove that all Mt. Baker glaciers are significantly more extensive today than they were in 1950, refuting claims of disastrous, unprecedented glacier recession.

Temperatures in the western Cascades have been cooler by –2.5°F during the past decade and that seems to have halted ice retreat of at least some glaciers. Most of Mt Baker glaciers have response times of 3-8 years (time lag between climate change and response of the terminus) so this makes sense).

Roosevelt and Coleman Glaciers
Figure 3. Roosevelt and Coleman glaciers on Mt. Baker.

Pelto’s claim of Cascade glaciers losing 5-10% of their volume this year should result in noticeable retreat of glacial termini, so I examined photos of Roosevelt and Coleman glaciers (Fig. 3) on Mt. Baker, taken in 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015 and was surprised to see that both glaciers had stopped retreating and had advanced slightly in the past several years.

The advance is not great, but it is significant because of the change from terminal recession to terminal advance. Documenting of other recent Mt. Baker glacier termini was not yet possible because of snow cover on the glacier termini that obscured the exact position of the glacier margins.

Figure 4. Terminus of the Roosevelt glacier in 2011. The red arrow points to bare ground beyond the glacier terminus.
Figure 4. Terminus of the Roosevelt glacier in 2011. The red arrow points to bare ground beyond the glacier terminus.

Figures 4 and 5 show the position of the terminus of the Roosevelt glacier in 2011 and 2013. Note the bare ground at the red arrow in 2011 and the same area covered by ice in 2013. Photos taken in 2015 show that this area continues to be covered with ice, which calves off the terminus at the cliff. Common reference points in both photos are shown by small arrow points.

Figure 5. Terminus of the Roosevelt glacier in 2013. The red arrow points to ice now covering bare ground in 2011.
Figure 5. Terminus of the Roosevelt glacier in 2013. The red arrow points to ice now covering bare ground in 2011.

Between 2011 and 2013, the glacier terminus advanced over bare ground. Photos in 2015 show that the terminus is still at the cliff edge.

Figures 6 and 7 show the position of the terminus of the Coleman glacier in 2011 and 2013. Note the bare ground at the red circles in 2011 and the same area covered by ice in 2013.Photos taken in 2015 show that the lobe of ice at the left margin of the glacier has moved downvalley even more.

Figure 6. Terminus of the Coleman glacier in 2011. Note the bare ground at the red circles.
Figure 6. Terminus of the Coleman glacier in 2011. Note the bare ground at the red circles.

Figure 7. Terminus of the Coleman glacier in 2013. Note that ice now covers bare ground shown in the 2011 photo.
Figure 7. Terminus of the Coleman glacier in 2013. Note that ice now covers bare ground shown in the 2011 photo.

Temperatures for the preceding decade

The cause of recent advance of the Roosevelt and Coleman glacier termini appears to be cooling in the western Cascades during the preceding decade. Temperatures recorded by NOAAin the western Cascades for the decade prior to the 2013 advance are shown in Fig. 8. The data show a cooling trend of –2.5°F per decade from 2003 to 2013.

Figure 8. NOAA temperature measurements for the western Cascade Range for the decade prior to the 2013 advance of the Roosevelt and Coleman glaciers. Then red part of the curve was warmer than the average annual temperature for the decade, the blue area was cooler. The straight line is the temperature trend for the decade, –2.5°F per decade.
Figure 8. NOAA temperature measurements for the western Cascade Range for the decade prior to the 2013 advance of the Roosevelt and Coleman glaciers. Then red part of the curve was warmer than the average annual temperature for the decade, the blue area was cooler. The straight line is the temperature trend for the decade, –2.5°F per decade.


Precipitation for the preceding decade

Winter snowfall also affects glacier behavior by conversion of snow to glacial ice. Winter snow packs in the Cascade Mts. since the 1980s have been generally positive even during the glacier recession, suggesting that temperature is more directly correlative with terminal activity.

Figure 9. Annual snowpack snow water equivalent from 1976 to 2011. (From SNOTEL)
Figure 9. Annual snowpack snow water equivalent from 1976 to 2011. (From SNOTEL)

Significance of the advance

The advance of the Roosevelt and Coleman glaciers shown on the 2013 photosare also seen on 2015 photos, despite a fairly warm summer in 2014 and low snowpack in the winter of 2014-2015.

Although the advance so far is quite small, it is significant because the advance has persisted for 2-3 years and shows a reversal of the recessional trend from the 1980s. The advance may or may not continue into the future―time will tell.

Don EasterbrookDr. Don J. Easterbrook, Emeritus Professor of Geology, Western Washington University, Ph.D., Geology, University of Washington, Seattle, M.S., Geology, University of Washington, Seattle B.S., Geology, University of Washington, Seattle


9 thoughts on “Glaciers advancing in Washington State

  1. We all know that we are all just one peer reviewed paper away from definitive proof that advancing glaciers are caused by increased Co2 levels.

  2. I tried to read this, but it is tough with the charts and photos showing over the print. Is there a link to an original article?

    • I didn’t realize how poorly this was showing up in Firefox (it looked great in Chrome). I’ve repaired it so hopefully you can see it okay now.

  3. I’m sure that the Seattle Times, the Bellingham Herald, along with the media in general will rush in at once and correct the record.
    .
    PS Don’t hold your breath.

  4. wow the ripple effect as it clings onto the sheer slope before the drop off is amazing.
    not a good spot to sit down under:-)

  5. It is somewhat misleading to equate glacial extent with temperature over short time-scales. If there is a reduction of cloud-cover for a decade there will be less snowfall and at the same time solar driven sublimation will increase. After a decade you would see wasting away of glaciers despite average temperatures remaining steady or cooling.
    Short steep glaciers like Al Gore’s Chacaltaya in Peru are bound to vanish where-as long flat glaciers like the Baltoro in Pakistan would remain largely the same.
    If anything, the planets ice mass shows remarkable stability.

  6. Professor Easterbrook did not follow the current scientific method.
    You are not supposed to actually make a physical inspection of what is happening. The proper method is to look at a computer program predicting what should have taken place and treat the computer program as the settled science no matter what actual observations show.
    He has to get with the program. 🙂

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