Mount Rainier: Case study of a changing Earth

At the foot of the Nisqually Glacier, the roar of rushing water and grinding rock is so loud you have to shout to be heard.

Water bursts from an ice cave the size of an aircraft hangar, its arched roof dripping in the sun. Flurries of stones clatter down canyon walls.

Paul Kennard, a National Park Service geomorphologist here with a team of researchers using laser scanners to locate the volume and sources of rock coming off the glacier, wears a helmet for protection against stones streaking like hot grounders from the glacier’s upper slopes.

As the scientists calibrate their equipment, they take turns as lookout, shouting “Rock!” whenever a volley looks as if it might strike.

While they work, two chunks of ice the size of refrigerators break away from the glacier and crunch onto the rocks below.

For anyone familiar with the effects of climate change, it comes as no surprise that Mount Rainier’s glaciers are melting.

The Nisqually Glacier, the one of Rainier’s 28 named glaciers most accessible to visitors, has been receding rapidly since 1983. It’s at a historic minimum, and this summer it shrank toward the mountain’s summit at unprecedented speed: more than 3 feet every 10 days.

Sediment from the glaciers is filling the park’s river beds and wiping out roads faster than the park can repair them, raising the distinct possibility that, before long, visiting the park by private automobile might no longer be possible.

“Basically, the whole mountain wants to fall down,” Kennard said. “We have a tremendous amount of sediment coming off our glaciers, and it’s literally filling up our rivers and choking them.”

Scientists say the speed at which Mount Rainier’s glaciers are melting is clear evidence of climate change — more convincing than any computer model of the effects of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

In 2006, Gordon Grant, professor of geosciences at Oregon State University, called floods and debris flows at Mount Rainier “the most dramatic catastrophic effects of climate change in the United States.”

Park biologists say rising temperatures could change the current mix of plant and animal species in the park from top to bottom in this century.

The magnitude of possible consequences at Mount Rainier is so great that the park has become a magnet for climate-change researchers from around the country.

With its melting glaciers and vertically stacked life zones, the mountain is a living laboratory for climate change, they say. It’s a microcosm of changes that scientists warn will reshape ecosystems around the planet during the next several decades.

However, if Mount Rainier is a microcosm of climate change, it’s also a microcosm of the difficulty of proving the climate-change case to skeptics and for figuring out what — if anything — to do about it.

In the National Park Service, scientists and managers long ago left behind discussions of whether climate change exists and whether it’s caused by humans.

“Climate change is clearly human caused,” Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said in an interview with The News Tribune. “It is happening now. We can see the impacts, and we need to step up to the facts and take actions.”

It’s also a fact that it’s impossible to say precisely what the effects of climate change have been or will be in the park.

The park’s weather varies so widely year to year and decade to decade, it obscures long-term changes.

The first weather station in the park wasn’t installed until 1909, so there’s not enough historic data on temperature or snowfall — especially at high altitudes — to establish trends with those numbers.

With rare exceptions, baseline data and monitoring of plant and animal species hasn’t been adequate to establish climate-caused changes.

Geologists and biologists are making predictions based on global climate models, but those models were designed for predicting changes on broad, ecosystem-size regions and don’t work well for predicting specific changes on an area as small and unusual as Mount Rainier.

That makes it difficult for park officials to communicate their sense of urgency to skeptics in Congress, some of whom still profess to believe that the whole idea of global warming is fiction.

U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., is a staunch critic of climate science and in line to become one of America’s most powerful voices on environmental policies.

Inhofe is expected to chair the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works in the new Republican-controlled Congress. He bases his objection in part on his Christian faith.

Without congressional support, it’s impossible for park officials to do the two things they think are most important. First, cut back on greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and completely as possible. And second, fund research so it’s possible to recognize climate-caused changes and come up with management solutions.