Into the Cirque
Straddling a bright blue crevasse, Dan Fagre stands alone, dwarfed by the ice before him. It stretches for a quarter mile—nearly half a kilometer—in every direction. But the freeze is turning to a rapid thaw. The imposing alpine glacier, launched years ago by a cooling climate, is heating up. Fagre is stripped to a green T-shirt and can feel the warmth—it’s another record-breaking summer. Cubes and blocks are crumbling: Small streamlets drain the ice. Fagre, a government scientist, has climbed 3,000 feet (914 meters) to take the pulse of the melting colossus.
Still huge by human dimensions, Grinnell Glacier is one of the last Rocky Mountain giants. Nestled in the mountain cirque, the stadium-like bowl at Fagre’s feet, the glacier is enormous—over 150 acres broad and 320 feet (98 meters) thick at the center. However, before man lit a modern match on this continent, it was more than triple that size. Otherwise, the ice field looks about the same as it has since the dawn of industry. Blinding white snow and dull ivory ice cover most of the cirque, from headwall to foot, except for the distant moraines—the exposed rock rubble at the edges. The retreating white glacier has left a brown and barren apron about its periphery. High and low, Grinnell is a study in contrast. Below its foot is silver: Its toe produces a steady stream of glistening ice water that flows over black rocks.
Beneath the ice terminus is an immense lake of meltwater, Upper Grinnell Lake, the glacier’s drippings; the lake in turn is vented by another alpine stream that cascades over the lip of the cirque toward the Many Glacier Valley below. From there, the stream joins the St. Mary’s River, barreling north through Canada to Hudson Bay, home of the polar bear, where briefly some of the water will reconstitute as ice, before melting again. At both ends of the watershed—alpine and arctic—the ice is slipping away.
I have traveled from my home along the foothills of the New Mexican Rockies to Montana to write a profile on Dan Fagre, the leading glacier expert in the country. For years, I have written about water—topics from sailing to canoeing to diving—but now I return to my first passion: mountaineering. Peaks and glaciers have always meant solitude and freedom to me. More recently, the melting of the ice fields has been troubling: What will the loss of all that alpine water mean? Most of what I’ve heard about climate change is remote either in time or distance—impacts that are a century removed or that are as far away as the poles. The search for local and immediate manifestations of warming has brought me to Glacier National Park, to learn what I can about our future. I feel like one of those lookouts on the Titanic
, tracking the path of fractured and melting ice.
The distress calls will come soon enough. Fagre picks up a ball of snow from the crest of the crevasse and lifts it to his mouth. It crumbles in his hand like sand. He blows the last snowflakes into the August wind, and a fraction of them boomerang, stinging his face. The snow in the cirque, he says, given enough time, will turn to ice, and the ice to meltwater, the fresh water joining the sea. Formerly this was a slow geologic process. But the planet is warming at an unprecedented rate. Already, the burning of fossil fuels has elevated the average temperature of the planet by more than 1.5 degrees F (nearly 1 degree C); the heat keeps climbing. Montana snow from the 1960s, converted into ice, is tumbling into the lake. And melting.
Grinnell Glacier is just one of many to suffer. Worldwide, mountain glaciers are on a fast track to oblivion. They are expected to vanish faster than polar ice, both north and south. Grinnell and the other ice-age remnants of Glacier National Park, Montana, may be the first to extinguish at altitude—they are among the most exposed glaciers in North America (and, relatively, the smallest) and thus most susceptible. In 1850, nearly 150 of these glaciers populated the Rocky Mountains of northwest Montana, what would become the Park in 1910. By 1966, there were thirty-seven glaciers or fewer. In 2008, as I tromp around Grinnell, there are twenty-seven. Fagre knows them all.
Dan Fagre (pronounced FAY-gree) is a research ecologist turned glacier scientist. He has been monitoring the Rockies’ northern glaciers for nearly twenty years—checking their pulse. He also takes the temperature of the glaciers’ snowpack. He measures their dimensions and densities. He gauges their mass. Fagre is a diagnostician. He is the official monitor of the health and lifespan of glaciers in Montana. In 2003, he predicted that, in the face of climate disruption, the largest ice field in the Park (Blackfoot Glacier) would vanish by 2030—nearly thirty years hence. The day he explores Grinnell with me, five years into his forecast, he is reading the glaciers again to see if his timeline is correct. He may have to recalculate.
Within our immediate view are three glaciers—Grinnell, Salamander, and Gem—all of which were connected before a big meltdown split them into a triptych at the dawn of the American industrial age—the advent of factories coughing carbon smoke. Salamander and Gem are poised above the headwall at the back of the cirque like crusted snow on a rooftop. The two overhanging glaciers seem teetering for a crash—each an ice avalanche frozen in time. Stepping back from the gaping crevasse at his feet, Fagre points to these two small glaciers overhead and talks of reading the ice.
“We use sophisticated technology to measure the ice,” he says to me, “but we can pretty much tell the health of a glacier by eyeballing it.” He points upward, to the left. “Take Gem—that round jewel glistening above the headwall—it’s impossible to reach on foot. But from a distance we can tell it’s still moving, creeping downhill, because you can see crevasses at its base, just before it slips over the cliff. So we know it’s a viable glacier, not just a snowfield.”
A living glacier is always on the move, kicking and carving its way downhill.
Fagre traces the outline of Gem and then lowers his eyes to Grinnell, sketching its features with his finger. “Gem is shrinking,” he continues, “but the real loser is Grinnell, the mother glacier for this valley. Look at the lateral moraine, that pile of rock and rubble plowed aside by the glacier. The ice is at least 200 yards (183 meters) short of it now—that’s how much the ice sheet has contracted in 160 years.” Fagre turns his back to me to scan the side moraine. I notice some fir saplings growing in new soil, where ice once roamed, another sign that the glacier began receding a while ago.
While pondering the timing of the glaciers’ demise, Fagre often asks why the ice is disappearing and why trees are growing in their paths.
“Trees are migrating to higher altitudes,” he says, turning and stooping to pick up a cellophane wrapper from the trail. “It’s warmer up here now. Would you ever have imagined a lowland fir invading the domain of a glacier? In mountain ranges all over the world, plants and wildlife are forced higher and higher by global warming. Alpine summits are a cul-de-sac; species are running out of room.”
Like a geyser between eruptions, Fagre’s passion bubbles over on the hour, like clockwork. I sympathize with his concern. The alpine landscape looks different from my memories of it, hiking here in 1976, when nearly forty glaciers reigned. I remember ice shrouding the mountains like a white powdered wig; now the hairline is receding. I ask him about the widening distance to the moraine, whether that is his best forensic clue.
The ecologist scans the rubble and ravine; it borders the glacier like a skirt. “A broad moraine like this may be old news,” he says, “so our best visual gauge of what’s happening today is the snow line.” This rough line or contour traverses the glacier, showing when there is enough snow to compensate for what has melted. It works like this: In late summer, the visible snow line looks like a meandering hemline with white snow above, which is accumulating, and exposed gray ice below, which is melting. If the snow line is at least two-thirds down the glacier, the ice mass is considered healthy—it is growing or holding its own. Today, the demarcation is clearly up toward the headwall, only one-third down the slope. The rest is wasting away. The official field results: The glacier may be flatlining. In the months ahead I would learn Fagre had a barrage of tests and tools at the ready to profile a glacier. He keeps a diagnostic chart on each, their vital signs carefully listed.
Dan Fagre is a maverick at the U.S. Geological Survey, his employer at the West Glacier Field Station, where he directs the Program for Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems and a crew of five. He abhors deskwork. Two young men and two women are with him today, presently climbing the last track to join their leader on the ice. Through recent years of a conservative government, he has maintained credibility (and kept above the fray) by undertaking good, unimpeachable science. In return, the Bush Administration has given him a free rein, except in one regard: he is restricted from advocating any specific climate-change policy. By law, he limits his public pronouncements to the causes and effects of global warming—the science. For him, specific remedies and policy initiatives are off-limits. Only political appointees in Washington, D.C., have been allowed to speak. Now, in August 2008, he is perhaps looking forward to the election. But he will not say.
Adjusting to his niche, Fagre has become a jack-of-all-trades in Montana’s mountains. As coordinator of glacier-monitoring efforts in Glacier National Park, his activities range from computer modeling to GPS (Global Positioning System) measurements, usually atop crampons or cross-country skis. He is a legend to his crew, most of whom are half his age—he is fifty-six—and they hike and climb at a fast pace, often with Fagre in the lead. He is stocky and fit—built like a mountaineer and rugged looking. His boyish haircut makes him seem younger than his years. But, unusual for a scientist, he doesn’t mask his youthful passion. “The loss of a glacier hits me hard,” he says. “I like snow and ice. I’d rather be living in the Pleistocene.”
The mission of Fagre’s alpine program is to study the ecological and geological effects of the global warming trend as it manifests locally in the mountains of northwest Montana. The Park is a crucible, a proving ground for the rest of the alpine world. Global environmental problems often appear here first—the world is watching. Besides recording glacial melting, local monitoring includes reading avalanches, forest fires, stream temperatures (and volumes), and tree line changes, as conditions become more temperate at higher elevations. Not only trees and wildlife are moving uphill. Even coldwater fish are forced upstream as once-cool habitats begin to warm up. Of course, they can’t swim much higher—the frigid stretches of streams peter out. They end up in fragmented pockets of cool water. Ecologically, they’ve been painted into a corner.
Fagre locks eyes with me and clicks a ski pole against his boot, like a spoon rapping a wineglass. He and I stand at the base of the glacier, each with a foot on the ice, the other anchored on rock. He has something to say. “We’re not doing ice radar or stream transects today; our objective is strictly to get GPS positions for the glacier—to measure the acreage—by boat and land.” That’s why he has brought along two rubber rafts. Fagre gently taps the yellow inflatable on his uncomfortable-looking pack. The surfeit of straps on the frame looks like something from the Spanish Inquisition. Just then, one of his crew wanders next to us. Chris Miller carries the second raft and other gear. Fagre continues, “Even a major glacier like this is so small, relative to the resolution of satellite imagery, that satellite remote sensing is not accurate, so we employ aerial photography—and ground-truth anything we get from the air.”
Miller says, “That’s how I’ve worn the tread off my boots this summer—ground-truthing for the government. Hauling the gear. Checking every corner of the glacier. I’m a government mule. Lucky it’s for a good cause.” His boots are caked with snow. A healthy snowpack, after years of winter drought, means it is uncertain if the glacier will recede or grow this year, so Fagre and Miller are even more curious than usual. They plan on mapping the glacier’s dimensions from GPS coordinates just to make sure they confirm or disprove the trend. The current hypothesis: extinction for the glacier within twenty-two years or less.
But exactly how much time is really left is uncertain. Grinnell, one of the five largest cirque (or bowl) glaciers in the Park, faces north and, compared to south-facing ice, is slower to melt. Still, it’s been losing 2.5 acres annually—on average—over the past forty years. It’s in critical condition.
Not all glaciers are equal—massive ones are termed “ice sheets,” remnants are named “glacierets”—but all have certain aspects in common. Each glacier, by one common definition, is composed of ice—solid water formed from compacted snow—thick enough (over a hundred feet) for the mass to move forward and downward with gravity under its own weight. The compressed bottom layer is fluid, pliable, and oozes like Silly Putty. It may move inches or feet over the course of a year, but it is always advancing, like a shark. When a glacier is reduced to a size where it stops moving, it is essentially dead. At that point, Fagre cuts it from his viable list.
Grinnell Glacier’s age is uncertain: it may date from the last full ice age—the Pleistocene, the time of the woolly mammoth, reaching its height eighteen thousand years ago—or it may be a product of the Little Ice Age, which ended in 1850, or somewhere halfway. From partial ice core samples, the best estimate is seven thousand years. Likely, there has been a cycle of glaciers occupying this amphitheater over the millennia, with dry, warm periods in between. Their size is a balance between growth (from snowfall) and summer melting (called “ablation”), essentially how the glacier advances and retreats. That balance reveals the double threat of climate change: It can affect precipitation as well as temperature. Snowfall has been light over the last few decades. Winter drought and summer warming work at both ends to cut glaciers to the quick.
Drought and melting have been brought on by local warming, reflecting a global trend over the past century. Average global temperatures have increased by 1.44 degrees F (0.8 degrees C) since 1900. (Locally, summer temperatures in the Park have nearly doubled that variation, thanks to its altitude, which nurtures cloud cover that traps heat, and its northern position, which places it in the path of warm air from the Pacific.) This timeline coincides with the overloading of greenhouse gases, from the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal), into the atmosphere. Named for their tendency to cloak the Earth, these gases allow sunlight through but repress the escape of heat from the earth’s surface—like the windowpanes of a hothouse. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide from car exhaust and electric power plants, are expected to increase steadily, as population and industrialization grow. According to the United Nations, global temperatures may elevate as much as 7.2 degrees F (4 degrees C) by the end of the century. In terms of impact on the climate and weather, this is a huge amount. The warming trend in alpine and polar regions may accelerate even quicker, their temperatures climbing in part because of “positive feedback” loops, such as the tendency of dark open seas (adjacent to floating ice) and exposed mountain walls (next to snowpack) to absorb solar radiation, thus prompting more melting. Then, as more dark water or rock reaches the surface, it brings even more heating and loss of ice. Feedback loops are popping up all over. Consequently, weather patterns will certainly shift. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and typhoons will likely intensify in frequency and force. Rainfall and snowfall will lessen in some places, strengthen in others. In the wake of intense drought, agriculture is expected to suffer in many regions of the world.
While weather is a complex engine and difficult to predict, the melting of glaciers is relatively clear-cut: Heat melts ice. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, and the alpine glaciers in between, as temperatures climb, ice is vanishing at rates far exceeding natural attrition. The North Pole and surrounding waters will be free of summer pack ice for the first time in human history, as early as 2020. The snows of Kilimanjaro will die by 2033. What is most startling is the timescale of the melting: What normally happens over thousands of years is now happening in less than a century. It’s as if—after four thousand years—the Great Pyramids crumbled to dust overnight.
Although melting is straightforward, the myriad consequences of glacial extinction are not so simple. Few of today’s outcomes were predicted twenty years ago. Surprising interactions include major disruptions to ocean currents from an infusion of fresh water, which in turn will further affect the global climate. More direct links include the rise in sea levels that has already begun. The average global sea level has climbed four to six inches in the past hundred years—so far mostly from alpine glacier melt, though soon to be eclipsed by polar meltwater—and may top three feet or more by the end of the century. More than a hundred million people worldwide live within three feet of mean sea level. As witnessed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York is at risk, not to mention low-lying Florida, Bangladesh, and the Netherlands. Before this catastrophe reaches full measure with the loss of Antarctic ice, alpine glaciers will melt. Over the century, they will contribute less than three percent of the anticipated sea level rise (because polar melt is accelerating), but their influence will be more immediate on other fronts. Around the civilized world, mountain glaciers and snowpack contribute nearly fifty percent of freshwater drinking and irrigation supplies. Some glaciers are even more essential. On the Indian subcontinent, the Ganges River derives seventy percent of its summer volume from Himalayan ice melt. When the Himalayan glaciers reduce significantly in size, sometime around 2100, India and China can expect widespread drought and famine. For millennia, the Earth has been in balance; in the space of a century, modern civilization and its manipulated climate have torn the equilibrium apart.
* * *
On the hike and climb to Grinnell this morning, sea level rise and the exhaust from cars and smokestacks seemed far away. Glacier National Park encompasses one of the greatest natural treasures in American hands. To many, the vistas are as eye-popping as Yosemite. Only wilder. With over 1 million acres of land, the Park is larger than the State of Rhode Island. Historically, it has comprised one of the largest intact wilderness areas in the country. As such, the Park and surrounding land has been termed the “Crown of the Continent.” Every creature that resided in these mountains before Europeans arrived still thrives here—predator and prey alike, from beaver to elk to the timber wolf. No major disruption to the wilderness has impinged on its intrinsic value—until now.
Our hike—past mountain lakes, alpine forests, and meadows—was a temporary reprieve. It was easy to forget the global crisis. At a clearing, my attention was drawn to a tiny white Arctic flower, northern eyebright, at the edge of the trail. Distracted, I stumbled into the next spruce, the branches slapping my face and spooking a Steller’s jay. Looking up, I was mesmerized by the green-and-blue palette of the near horizon, by the dark cliffs overhead, by the hint of white glaciers around the bend. Midway, the trail hugged a serpentine ridge between an aspen grove and a carpet mat of red-stemmed saxifrage, each mound like a rounded river stone. The gold aspen leaves flashed like shimmering pebbles in that stream. Color cascaded down the ridge. I became lost in the idyllic moment, for a minute listening to two ravens arguing as they soared against the azure sky—a darker blue at that altitude, nearly 7,000 feet (2,133 meters). My whole life, my most awestruck moments, have been offered up by wilderness—days like this. On mountain climbs on three continents, I’ve marked my path by those encounters, some peaceful and restoring, some violent and raw, but all pristine and humbling. On all those backcountry adventures, man had not been in charge, least of all me. Storms and clouds and weather held dominion. Nature always seemed bigger than us, always in control.
Now, as if to prove the point, a spectacle awaited me around the next bend. A park ranger stood in the middle of the trail with members of a guided tour—all drawing binoculars from their packs—searching the aspens on the slope above us. The ranger looked at Fagre’s and my quizzical faces and said, “Grizzly!” Apex of the pyramid, her kind is always poised between beauty and violence. The great bear had turned her back. Aspen branches crackled and broke around her, some fifty yards from us. We kept walking, more briskly now. Grizzlies are the top predator of the northern mountains, a world of snow and ice. Like the polar bear, they are unpredictable. This one might have accompanied a family nearby—mother and cub, a lethal combination for us. I had no desire to see either one up close.
Sometimes we manifest our worst fears. It will be three years before I have another close encounter.
Farther ahead, near a stream crossing, we regrouped. The glacier trail was nearly six miles long, rising more than half a vertical mile from the Many Glacier Valley; we had come halfway. From the rest stop, we could see the two upper glaciers—Gem and Salamander—hanging halfway up the flank of Mt. Gould. Our objective was the larger Grinnell Glacier, still hidden at our angle behind a high promontory. A waterfall tumbled over the edge.
On a nearby rock I found a series of mushroom-like stromatolites, fossils from reefs created by blue-green algae in the Proterozoic Era, over 800 million years ago, when parts of Montana were covered by an inland sea or ocean delta. Fagre said, “The Rocky Mountains have only been here for between 150 million and 200 million years, roughly in step with the arrival of the older mountain ranges of today—for example the Andes. Before mountains started to build, there were no alpine glaciers at mid-latitudes.” In the early Jurassic, it’s unlikely dinosaurs often stumbled into ice. According to one theory, the rising mountain ranges of the Age of Mammals changed the air circulation patterns of the planet, making recent ice ages and temperate glaciers possible.
Four hikers happened by. One asked Fagre if he was taking the rubber boat to the glacier to toboggan on the ice, as if we were out for recreation. “A little research on the lake,” he answered politely and bent down to pick up another gum wrapper. Litter punctuated the trail.
“Well, we’re hiking up to see the glacier before it’s gone,” she said. This impressed Fagre; he hadn’t heard that one before. Maybe park visitors were paying attention. But the other couple was cut from a different grain. The husband of the pair said, “I’m all for global warming—it’s too damn cold back in Wisconsin. I prefer Florida.” Fagre bit his lip. I followed close behind the leader for the last leg of the trail.
Fagre was born in Minnesota, he told me as we hiked along, where winters were also brutal, though bearing a little less snow. He was a nature kid, even in winter, rigging up wooden cross-country skis to explore and count wildlife. As a teenager, he honed his skills as a naturalist, bird-watching and reading classic natural history, which often had a spiritual bent. Between two extended trips to Japan, where his father taught humanities and philosophy at Tokyo University, Fagre canoed and fished the streams and lakes of upper Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the wilderness made famous by naturalist Sigurd Olson. He also sketched and painted, as an unexpected talent emerged. Wilderness became both a sport and a sanctuary.
Minnesota offered a broad canvas for a boy inclined toward art and nature, but it lacked the logical next vista—mountains. At Prescott College in Arizona, he took to backpacking and soon climbed his first peak at age seventeen—Buckskin Mountain in the Cascades. It was 1970, the first year of Earth Day, and Fagre had found his calling: ecology, the study of species in relation to their environment. This took him to the University of California at Davis for two graduate degrees. (His doctoral thesis was on coyote behavior.) For the young scientist, alpine ecology would be a marriage of convenience. Science and the high peaks. Vocation and avocation united in the backcountry as one.
At least half the reason Fagre shared so much on the trail was that loud voices deterred the bears. The other option would have been to dangle a few little cat bells from our packs, a common practice, but the joke in Glacier was that you could always tell there had been hikers on the trail by the bells jingling in the bear scat. In any case, Dan kept shouting. During each lull I joined in, with that unnatural volume reserved for yelling at predators and children.
My first climb was Algonquin Peak, the second highest summit in the Adirondack Mountains; I was eleven. My inaugural mountain and the Adirondacks immediately became a temple for me, a holy place in the Druidic sense of the word. I would eventually climb all forty-six high peaks in that vast wilderness—the largest in the continental U.S.—before I turned eighteen. I summited several in winter, I told Fagre, but not Algonquin—a perfect white-capped dome in January. I was proud of my “failure.” I knew an older Adirondack guide, Tom Brooks, who always stopped short of a summit and made a short bow, giving each mountain back its mystery. Such a philosophy easily rubbed off on me.
Fagre said, “Climbing peaks, summit or not, is a quest for the aesthetic.” He stopped in his tracks and rotated slightly so the profile of his pack and face were in my view. “That’s what they hold for me. Mountain literature is full of accounts of the spiritual challenges encountered by climbers, how the expedition fulfills a personal need. Mountains can be mystical, mysterious and beckoning. Who can look at this panorama and not be touched by its beauty?”
In Glacier National Park, the eye-catching wilderness surrounds you in every direction—down, around, and overhead—and swallows you whole. Behind and below us, the Grinnell watershed ran northeast, sculpted by wave after wave of past glaciers that had hollowed out the valley as if a giant hoe had tilled the earth. Flanking the hollow, the rock walls of Mt. Grinnell and Allen Mountain rose from 4,800 feet to 8,600 and 9,300 feet, respectively—a height on par with Half Dome and El Capitan. The ice that plowed this valley must have been over 1,000 feet (305 meters) thick. The unnamed creek, receiving water from Grinnell Glacier, linked together a series of chain lakes—Josephine, Swiftcurrent, Sherburne—that wandered down the valley toward the northbound St. Mary’s River. From our perch, the linked lakes below mimicked the giant footprints of some ancient beast.
Those depressions in the landscape, like giant potholes in a prairie, reminded me of the mighty excavating power of the vast Pleistocene ice blocks, now long gone. Carving rock and carrying boulders, by the millions of tons, they pulverized rock and left moraines behind. These huge pools of water stand in their wake. By comparison, the pair of glaciers in our view ahead were mere pockets—ice remnants—from a grander day. Still, I quickened my pace to witness what was left of the Pleistocene and the subsequent Little Ice Age. I was humbled by the sheer expanse of time and space passing by my eyes.
I had balcony seats to an epoch.
Along the valley floor, bordering the lakes, was a spruce forest, but up here we enjoyed alpine meadows, interspersed with aspen and scrub that shielded mountain goats and bighorn sheep, maybe even a wolf, from our view. They’d show themselves soon enough. For now, we kept our eyes trained ahead and our voices cranked up loud—bear-proofing. Around the next bend, we spied Grinnell Falls, a four-hundred-foot cascade, close enough to hear. The glacier lay just ahead, all but its headwall hidden behind the cataract like some lost horizon. Within minutes we would stand on ice. Fagre and his team of four scrambled over the last few steps. The procession slipped into silence, a still reverence, as we entered the cirque.
* * *
Stepping back from the crevasse field, Fagre takes in the breadth of the amphitheater, the ice bowl, and the drama in play. Instinctively, he points out features of the rock and ice like an actor reaching for the box seats. At the far upper end of the cirque is a 1,500-foot (457-meter) headwall, a vertical buttress of limestone called the Garden Wall. Its knife-edge summit, called an arête, is the Continental Divide. At the south end of this arête, above Gem Glacier, stands Mt. Gould (9,553 feet; 2,912 meters), a peak that affords a bird’s-eye view of Grinnell and the outpost for some of the team’s remote photography. Snow falls down the Garden Wall and accumulates on the upper slopes of the glacier, where it is first compacted. Here the ice factory begins.
“Snow gets buried and crunched by the weight above and freezes, then thaws from the warmth of the sun,” says Fagre. “Once again it refreezes. It takes two or three years for one winter’s snowpack to turn into ice.” In 2000, he measured the ice with radar at the base of the headwall. The sheet was thicker than a football field is long. It’s slimmer now. From that headwall it takes close to fifty years for the ice to travel, like an industrial conveyor, four hundred yards to the lower lip, where icebergs calve into the lake.
And melt into obscurity. One hundred years ago, beyond the lifespan of this conveyor’s load, Upper Grinnell Lake did not exist. Then, the warming took hold. Now it dominates the landscape at the base of the glacier. The lake basin covers sixty acres and is 187 feet deep—all meltwater from the retreating glacier. The ice factory now ends in water, in liquid form—and, for the glacier, it’s a losing proposition. Icebergs are quick to melt. Dozens of them float on the lake like outposts for penguins; the scene resembles a miniature McMurdo Sound. The oval lake itself is covered with a thin sheet of “glass ice” and slush; even though it’s mild today, the mountain air froze last night. Leads have opened up between the bergs and the surface ice. The water there is colored a cloudy green, its light refracted differently by suspended pulverized rock in the lake—called glacier flour.
Something dark against the distant snow catches Fagre’s eyes. At the head of a glacier, a few hundred yards above us and three hundred feet from the rock headwall, a jumble of rock blocks the size of pickup trucks are scattered on the surface of the glacier. These huge boulders fell off the Garden Wall when no one was listening. Already, the glacier has carried them a hundred yards downhill, like a load of groceries. Fagre now has a “marker”: The progress of the blocks will tell him how fast the glacier is moving. So far, he calculates it’ll take four decades or so for the boulders to spill into the lake—if the glacier keeps moving.
But today, he’s more concerned with the glass ice. A thin pane, it coats the surface of the water like film. Fagre and his team of four hauled those two yellow rubber rafts the five-and-a-half miles up here, to paddle across the lake to the terminus of the glacier. From that vantage, where the calving begins, they could reach the glacier’s downhill edge to send a GPS signal to the satellites. With the glass ice choking their access, however, the boats are useless today. The team will have to find another way to measure the foot of the glacier.
Even under ideal weather conditions, Fagre has a slim window each year to survey his glaciers. He tries to monitor three or four of them, but must wait until the winter’s snowpack has melted at the end of August to see the boundaries of the underlying ice. And he must hurry after that first window opens to register the coordinates of each glacier, to record the loss of ice, before autumn comes. Typically, he is left with the two or three weeks on either side of the first of September to do his job. Summer melting can happen quickly, but the snows soon follow. “We’re a little late,” he says today. “I didn’t expect to find ice in the lake this soon.” Dan, if anything, is optimistic to a fault.
Fagre’s team gathers around an exposed rock island, about the size of a trampoline, at the southeast edge of the lake. We jump rocks, bouncing from foot to foot, to get to it. His team consists of two young women—Lisa McKeon and Lindsey Bengtson—and two young men—Chris Miller (the oldest) and Dan Reynolds, whom we call Dan Junior. In tandem, they release their packs, drop them to the limestone, and retrieve water and sandwiches. Lisa and Lindsey peel off layers, down to short sleeves, revealing suntans from a summer of high-altitude research. The men (including me) keep their windbreakers on. Except Fagre, of course, who is wearing shorts and a T-shirt. He’s an iron man.
There’s a slight breeze coming off the lake. Even with the bright sun, the proximity of the glacier is like the neighborhood of an open refrigerator—ice cubes cool the air at our feet. Chris Miller is the last to remove his pack, carefully laying the rubber raft on the rock. He is a burly blond—Nordic in looks and strength. He is the first to speak.
“That was one hell of a portage,” he says. “My pack feels like a medieval torture device.”
“All that effort and no open water,” says Lisa.
“High and dry,” Lindsey adds.
Fagre smiles, joining in the chorus. “Ice is a showstopper today. I should have thought of it: Dynamite—we should’ve brought rope, crampons, and dynamite.” His face breaks into a wide grin, and the team chuckles. His lament is part frustration, part jest. Fagre wouldn’t disturb a glacier with a hiccup.
Lisa, crouching over her daypack at the center of the flat rock, offers her boss some hot tea from her “kick-ass” red thermos. She has bragged on it all summer long.
“Regular or unleaded?” Fagre says.
“My God, no,” Fagre sighs. “Give me strong coffee with cream and sugar—the works—every time. Or a glass of something even stronger.”
“Sorry, bar’s closed, and I left the cappuccino machine in the jeep.”
Lisa pours herself a steaming cup of green tea from the legendary thermos—remarkably hot for midday after steeping the tea before dawn. Chris kicks a patch of ice from our rock platform into the lake, which breaks through the windowpane ice like an oversize snowball, sending fracture lines across the expanse. Now, with the small snow patch gone, the limestone of the picnic area is completely exposed. Fagre informs his crew that the rock hasn’t seen sunlight since the last ice age—as recently as twelve years ago it was under fifty feet of ice. “A dozen summers is all it took,” he says. “It’s all happening so fast and we don’t have much time.” He sets aside his sandwich and stands up. He fidgets with his pockets like a man who has lost his keys.
On cue, his team wolfs down half a sandwich each, chugs some water, and buttons up their packs. I stand up stiffly—the long hike has left sore muscles, but I realize Fagre’s crew does this thing for a living, so I don’t complain. A cloud briefly passes over the sun, and I don some gloves and pull my wool cap down over my ears. The women are still getting a suntan.
The leader steps two paces ahead of the crew. Lisa and Lindsey, Chris Miller and Dan Junior, and I gather round. Fagre scans the ice, which stretches like a frozen field to the headwall bleachers, though triple the size of a stadium. At the base of the back cliff, huge cornices peak above the bench of ice, their tops breaking like white-tipped waves cresting over a placid sea.
Fagre spins around and speaks softly to the team.
“I don’t want you climbing near those cornices,” he says, “and you can forget those crevasses under Salamander. First of all, they’re too dangerous, and, second, we don’t need to measure their position. That headwall isn’t going anywhere. We have its position pinned down on the computer. It’s the other sides of the glacier we have to nail down. But with the lake frozen, we can’t use the boats so we’ll have to approximate the edges of the glacier.” Fagre picks up his two trekking poles. “I want one team—the men—to track the eastern side of the glacier. Climb up the slope and test the snow with a ski pole.” He taps the rock with both metal tips. “When you find the edge of the ice underneath, take your GPS measurement—bounce your radio signal off the satellites. That’ll be one of three sides of the glacier. We’ll get the coordinates of two—your edge and the front. We’ll let Salamander go.” Fagre points the poles at his crew. “Be conservative.” He says slowly. “Don’t underestimate the ice.”
Fagre doesn’t want to give his critics any ammunition.
He peers over his shoulder for a moment at the glacier above us. Then he levels a gaze at the crew. “How does that sound, everyone?”
Chris Miller responds first. “Okay. How many satellite readings do you want for the first edge?”
“Thirty or forty.” Chris nods, and the two young men head up the slope.
Lisa says, “I think I’ll take some photographs for the website.”
“That’s fine,” Fagre says. “Now Lindsey and I will take the other GPS unit and pace off the lower edge of the glacier, between the crevasse field and the lake. It won’t be as accurate as with the boats but we’ll get pretty close.”
Grinnell Glacier has been measured at least biannually since 2001 (and only sporadically before then)—both directly and with remote photography. The last aerial measurements are from 1998 and 2005, and, because of glass ice, this year will only produce interim data. Breaking with the biannual tradition, the next year will be monitored as well. This data will likely show a ten-year trend—a withering of the glacier since 1998.
By now the men have traversed a hundred yards up the glacier, past three boulders sitting on the ice. Fagre traces their progress. “From where Chris and Dan Junior are testing the ice up that slope,” he says, “it looks to me like the eastern edge has receded in a decade—nearly the width of a soccer field. I don’t recall those boulders ever being exposed. That’s amazing for speed.”
Lindsey hoists the bright yellow GPS pack onto her shoulders and buckles her belt. She is Fagre’s tech person, trained in GPS research. Fingering the instrument panel, she concentrates on her task, on the minutiae, which is not daunting for a woman who is also planning the intricate details of her wedding this week. She follows Fagre, already two hundred feet ahead, bobbing and weaving through the crevasse field again. The crevasses are bunched together. While the rock slope beneath the upper half of the glacier must be relatively smooth and gradual, here—at the lower end—the underlying bedrock is likely a tumble of rock. The foundation may bear a hidden precipice over which the ice cracks and tears. It cascades like a frozen waterfall. The violence causes splits and fissures in the ice that widen into deep crevasses, which penetrate far down into the glacier. At the edge of the lake, huge chunks of ice already vivisected by these crevasses breach from the glacier and “calve off,” floating free as icebergs in the lake.
Fagre and Lindsey stay clear of the calving zone, skipping and hopping as if playing hopscotch over smaller crevasses near the uphill fracture area. I join them, gingerly stepping over each crevice, from snow edge to ice, from danger to safety. I would prefer to wear crampons on my feet and have an ice axe in my hands. The crew climbs without a net. The ice ramp is dirty, littered with rocks and rubble and debris carried from the headwall as the conveyor grinds away. We climb over, around, and through an especially dark series of crevasses that border a gaping abyss. The cavern may be 150 feet deep. Be careful here, I think. This is not the Khumbu Icefall on Everest, but deadly nonetheless.
In slow motion, Lindsey hurdles the crevasses—crossing them perpendicularly—with startling agility. She is a brunette, with long straight hair that flops each time she jumps. I couldn’t match her coordination—she was the strongest hiker on our climb earlier in the day. And she is patient with the older men. She learned her etiquette while serving as a wilderness guide in Glacier. Lindsey negotiates two more crevasses and turns around to check in with the leader. A short, yellow pole with a yellow disk on top, like a saffron mushroom, protrudes from her pack—the antenna for signaling the satellites.
Fagre says, “A few more steps, closer to the lake.”
Lindsey looks dubiously over her shoulder. She is dangerously close to the calving zone but doesn’t complain; she has trained for this for several years. Lindsey retreats another six feet from us, carefully over broken ice, and lifts her eyes.
“It’s okay if we measure the glacier too big,” Fagre calls out to her, in response, “just not smaller than it is. We’ve got to be cautious in our predictions.” He surveys the scene to the left and right (and behind Lindsey), and acknowledges all the obstacles around. He’s a perfectionist but protective of his crew. He holds up his right hand, with index finger and thumb barely spread to indicate a smidgen. She withdraws half a step more.
“Okay, that’ll do. Make your reading.”
Lindsey grabs the handheld yellow GPS receiver and pushes several buttons. In less than a second, the pulse bounces off three satellites orbiting the Earth. Within the same second the signals reappear on her instrument panel. Technology has caught up with the ice age; here time is compressed on every level. She has a precise reading for the foot of the glacier in the blink of an eye.
The Global Positioning System, developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, is a worldwide radio-navigation scheme that registers an object’s exact position, within one or two feet. Lindsey’s receiver measures position and distance by analyzing the differential travel time of radio signals to and from three “close” satellites. Through “trilateration,” using the geometry of triangles, the exact position of the antenna pack can be located. This tracking relies on each radio signal always traveling at the speed of light, and therefore the travel times to and from each satellite change as the antenna moves about. For example, when the edge of a glacier retreats, it may move closer to a satellite, making the travel time of the radio signal shorter. A clock records these times. Thus, the distance of the antenna from each satellite can be calculated, pinpointing the edge of the glacier. The processor on the instrument panel of the GPS unit assigns a latitude and longitude to the position. Back at headquarters Fagre and his team plot these coordinates to map the glaciers.
Fagre stares into the crevasse between Lindsey and him, lost in thought for a moment, then lifts his eyes skyward in the direction of the satellites that will read the health of his patient. “In seventeen years,” he says, “we haven’t had one glacier advance—or increase significantly in size—in the Park. They’re all wasting away—maybe faster now than ten years ago.” He was losing two-and-a-half acres of ice each year; now it’s over three. The glacier may be leaving all forecasts, all predictions, in the dust.
We talk about the causes of climate disruption for a minute, the global picture, a conversation more suited to New Jersey than Montana. Perhaps. We have too may cars, too many coal-fired power plants, he says, which are being built weekly in the developing world and still operated with little carbon recapture in the United States. At this point, even remedies like carbon-neutral power plants can’t save our local glaciers, he says. The sky holds too much carbon now. Fagre is less a doctor than a hospice worker; the loss of Montana’s glaciers may be beyond his control.
“We’re approaching a tipping point,” he says, “beyond which there is no turning back. At that point, cutting our own emissions won’t help—it can’t reverse the damage. I don’t know how much time we have. Some say ten years. But at some stage, on a warming planet, so much water vapor will evaporate from the oceans, adding to the greenhouse layer, that heating will accelerate even more and there’ll be no stopping the temperature rise. We’d have runaway climate change. If that happens, even the Himalayas and the poles could melt.”
The second team—Miller and Dan Junior—have climbed farther by now, to an ice gulley at the eastern edge of the glacier. I traverse the ice to take a look. Here, they prod the snow with ski poles to locate the underlying ice. The probes strike the frozen layer, resounding on each tap like a pickaxe hitting rock and echoing off the cirque with a ping
. The edge is closer than they thought. Fagre ascends the glacier diagonally to join us, and together we inspect the lateral edge, where the ice has pulled back from the moraine. The architecture of the ice is in full view. From the side, the ice is hollow underneath, like the cross-section of an igloo. Fagre is floored. He shakes his head in disbelief.
Lindsey finishes her readings and joins the men, next to a square boulder carried from the headwall by the ice conveyor. She marvels at the ice cave. “This part of the sheet is riddled with tunnels,” she says. “That’s where much of the melting must be happening. A river is running underneath, carving out the glacier.”
Over the next year or so, back at the office, the GPS measurements and subsequent mapping will show that the terminal edge has retracted 12 to 820 feet (up to 250 meters) since 1998, in ten years’ time. (The largest wastage is near the lake.) The glacier has lost an estimated 30 acres (0.12 square kilometers) in surface area, or seventeen percent, but its vertical mass could have plummeted even more. Today’s disturbing evidence of a hollow core confirms this likelihood. Next summer, Fagre plans on employing radar again to gauge the current depth of the ice. He will likely see that the front profile near the lake is narrowing, too, but by how much? He’d have to be patient as Job. In the meantime, the glacier would likely diminish—it was structurally unsound, so more calving was likely. More icebergs would certainly break loose and drown in the lake.
We glissade down the gulley to join Lisa at our luncheon rock. The snow is slushy after a day in the sunlight, and the ice pops into view, surfacing in gleaming patches like a row of miniature mountain peaks. I think of the hollow dome underneath my feet, a canopy like the ice atop a winter lake. It reminds me of those ice-capped basins in the Adirondacks of my teenage years. Only now I am not interested in going ice fishing. Or diving. We hug the lateral moraine and I feel more secure. If I crash through, I can always jump toward the moraine.
Lisa has made some beautiful photographs, covering the glacier from head to toe. She is Fagre’s memory, taking the thumbprint of the giant. She has to act fast. Like a metronome, the clock of the leviathan ticks away. I scan a few through her Nikon viewing monitor. She has captured both the headwall and the height of the icebergs by lying prone on the shelf at the toe of the glacier. Mountains and glaciers are often foreshortened in photographs, but she has given them their majesty.
To reconnect with the trail for our descent to the parking lot, we have to skirt the lake, its full breadth, crossing over the exit stream. This course, with attendant boulder hopping, gives us a better vantage to see the front of the glacier, where it has cracked and crevassed and calved into the lake. A dozen bergs huddle at the convergence, each tip rising over twenty feet high, their greater dimension—nearly 140 feet—underneath the water surface. They are bright white, like polished ivory, and reflect the afternoon sunlight sharply, making my eyes squint.
We stop on a small promontory, gathering around our leader. Fagre says, “Al Gore hiked up here with me in 1997. He wanted to see one of our glaciers firsthand. Up to that point, the lake had just been meltwater. Very little ice floated on its surface; it was clear. Then, two days before we arrived, there was a huge calving event: The leading edge of the glacier broke, splitting off a large chunk that shattered into dozens of small bergs. Ever since Al Gore’s trip, the lake has been choked with icebergs. He saw some of the first days of the disintegration of Grinnell.”
Curiosity about the disintegration of ice worldwide led Dan Fagre to Mt. Everest base camp the previous fall—to see how the world’s largest mountain chain was faring in the growing heat. He witnessed the retreat of the Khumbu Glacier, Fagre tells us as we huddle on the hill, and mourned the damage to Earth’s greatest peak. He also made the pilgrimage to feed his mountaineering hunger. Trekking the Himalayas was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. It is Fagre’s core belief that humanity can save Everest’s glaciers and their neighbors.
“But my most cherished mountain, my favorite climb, is not the highest summit,” he says. “It is Glacier Peak in the Cascades. It’s a beautiful mountain—an ancient volcano that now comes sharply to a summit. I climbed it in 1978, one of my first American peaks. It was a perfect bluebird day. My partner and I were alone on the mountain. With all the towering ice, we felt like characters out of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon
Glacier Peak (10,541 feet; 3,213 meters), which sits in the North Cascades of Washington State, is adorned with Scimitar Glacier (Fagre’s route), which winds like a curved blade down the mountain, and four other large ice fields. Fagre says they are still there. I climbed the peak, too, via Kennedy Glacier in 1986. I recall the summit rocks, a labyrinth at the crest of the glacier. “I slipped on one of those rocks and cut my leg with my own ice axe,” I say. I show him the scar.
We trade knowing looks.
Thus began our tradition of exchanging mountain stories, like two shipmates talking about old storms at sea. “Glacier Peak was my third or fourth outing on a glacier-clad mountain,” he says. “But it was better than a first date.” That early on, I tell him, none of us had yet figured out all the right moves.
Dan Fagre, it turns out, is a romantic—at least as far as mountains go. And memories of mountains usually run deep.
By now, the glass ice has opened up in places, giving way to open water. It is 3 P.M., however, too late in the day for boating. We have to head down before it gets dark. Not only is the window narrow for research each season, but, with a long approach hike, the day is short as well. “We’ll bring the boats up again next Labor Day,” Fagre says, “and paddle up between those bergs to the front of the glacier. Then at last we’ll have a precise location of where the glacier lies in its bowl.”
Lindsey and Chris pick up their backpacks with the yellow satellite transponders and, hoisting them to their shoulders in mid-stride, tramp down the path. Lisa and I wait for Fagre, who adjusts the straps of his medieval torture device, not that it will do any good. Dan Junior wanders our way, kicking the dirt. He has something on his mind.
“There must be some way to save these glaciers,” he says, “some way to reverse the clock.” Dan Junior is the newest and youngest recruit to the team, on loan from the National Park Service. He has not yet logged in enough time to become realistic about the Park’s chances.
Fagre stares at his young charge for a second, then lifts his eyes to the icebergs beyond. He speaks hesitantly, like a man choosing his words carefully. “You know, the government limits me on what I can say. I can’t say everyone in the country should demand cars with fifty miles to the gallon or demand compact fluorescent lightbulbs. I can’t say that. The Bush Administration won’t let me. I can’t tell people what they should do. I can only say options exist to cut down carbon emissions, if that’s what you want to do. Is that what you want to do?”
“Well, then, you need to stop burning fossil fuels.”
“What’s the best way to do it?”
Fagre shakes his head in obvious frustration. His glaciers are in critical care. He knows all the antidotes, but can’t get government approval for the remedy. He slips into an uncomfortable silence. Perhaps to distract himself, he picks up another gum wrapper—refuse of the trail—and stuffs it into his shorts.
Fagre’s brief discourse with Dan Junior is two months before the Obama–McCain election. From where his team stands, it is years away. However, Fagre doesn’t believe a new president will necessarily be a quick fix.
“Things will be different after the election,” Dan Junior offers.
“Maybe,” Fagre says. “However, curbing climate change always comes down to economics. What politicians don’t realize is that the environment is our greatest resource.”
Chris adds, “You can’t have water without the snowpack. You can’t have medicines without the wilderness. Or honey in your tea.”
“Now you’re talking,” Lisa says.
Fagre smiles, then shuts his lips. He is not yet free of his shackles.
Before departing, the four of us scan the Grinnell amphitheater one more time, drinking in the beauty. And the tragedy. I scan the six hundred vertical feet from the tabletop of the glacier to Salamander’s ice apron above, a sheer precipice with a brilliant trickle of water draining the edge. I realize Grinnell once stretched up to embrace that high sparkling ice—yet she has only one-third that reach today. It’s as if she has been withdrawing into herself—retracting and retreating—a magician that vanishes into her own white cloak.
I kick a stone into the lake and the wandering ripples, staring at my feet, race to mid-channel like a gyre and disappear under the glass ice. The wind now dapples the water—just at the edge of freezing. To some a wasteland, to me the alpine zone above tree line seems alive, resolutely alive—each animal, each shrub, each ice crystal holding a niche where others would fail. That is the power of the place: living on the edge, at the limits of existence. Nature is stripped down to its essence here, and yet it prevails—apart from us. Nature doesn’t need us, yet civilization is totally dependent on the environment. The flow of services is one way. Yes, glaciers offer direct benefits to humanity—drinking water, irrigation sources, recreation—but it is all the indirect and subtle traits that touch me today. Like the unexpected bright blue of a crevasse. I am humbled by this glacier. I am in awe of her. Above all, a mountain offers us humility. A little less hubris may save the climate.
At my feet I discover an alpine glacier poppy, a single, black-centered, orange flower barely rising out of the sharp, red argillite scree. Its existence seems improbable in such a harsh environment. This pygmy poppy is endemic, meaning it grows in only one place on Earth—here, specially adapted to the alpine tundra of Glacier National Park. The lone poppy stands up to the wind like a mast in a storm. With its local climate shifting, its singular habitat shrinking, I wonder how long this rare species can survive. Its essential cool temperatures are wanting. The flower is rare and alone, yet it touches me. We are all in this together, I consider, and bow my head to authenticity.
I rejoin the group. Lisa takes one last picture: three men with red parkas on the edge of an ice floe, as if we were polar bound.
“I prefer the mountains,” Fagre says. “Something about the heights stretches your mind. Before I was forty, I climbed a bunch of peaks on this continent—Mt. Baker in the Cascades, Popocatepetl, that huge volcano in Mexico, six Bugaboos in British Columbia—and I always thought the glaciers of North America were secure. No indication they’d vanish, at least not on this scale—maybe in a thousand years but never in my lifetime.” Fagre walks down the trail, stooping here and there to pick up more trash—cellophane bags and a fiberglass antenna discarded by a previous team.
“Now everything’s insecure,” he continues. “Just as disappearing birds signaled a silent spring fifty years ago, vanishing glaciers are a bellwether of climate change. They show the health of the planet. Glaciers are measuring the crisis, a huge crisis—something that’s going to fundamentally alter civilization.”
We can’t catch up to Lindsey and Chris—too far ahead and too young—but perhaps they will spook the grizzlies. Just the same, we speak loudly on the descent, forcing the conversation after a long day. Fagre has recovered from the rant about public policy, his attention returning to his twenty-seven glaciers, the jewels in his crown. Grinnell is his touchstone, one of the few he visits almost every season. He tells Lisa, his senior assistant, that they’ll have to work up today’s coordinates as soon as they get back to headquarters. He is anxious to plot the glacier’s margins, to make a prognosis. In his mind, he is suspicious the melt rate will prove worse than two years ago. The hollow edges suggest it. But he is always meticulous with the data. Science should remain separate from policy, he says, his heart with his profession, his mind with the future.
“We may have to revise the 2030 forecast,” Fagre now shouts, as much to the grizzlies as to us. He stoops to pick up a discarded penny. “I’m not sure these glaciers have twenty-two years left.” If the glaciers do vanish sooner than 2030, Glacier National Park may have to give up its name. Fagre pauses to look back up the trail at the triptych of glaciers, then stands and spins around to face us. He tosses the penny high—it hangs in the air for a moment then lands in his palm, but he conceals the outcome.
“Yes, sir,” he says with the coin in his fist. “The whole world is turning upside down.”
Copyright © 2013 by Christopher White
CHRISTOPHER WHITE has written several books, including Skipjack: The Story of America's Last Sailing Oystermen, and written for National Geographic, Exploration, and other publications. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.