Olympic National Park’s iconic glaciers could be gone by 2070, according to a new scientific study.
The Olympic Peninsula in Washington state has lost about half of its glacier area since around 1900, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) wrote on Phys.org. Then, since 1980, 35 glaciers and 16 perennial snowfields have disappeared. Nearly all the glaciers on the peninsula are located within Olympic National Park or surrounding state lands.
The 250 remaining glaciers, spread across a roughly 2-square-mile area, are expected to disappear in another 50 years as humanity’s pollution warms the planet, according to the study, which was published in AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, which publishes research on the processes affecting the form and function of Earth’s surface.
“There’s little we can do to prevent the disappearance of these glaciers,” said Andrew Fountain, professor of geology and geography at Portland State University, who led the study, according to the AGU. “We’re on this global warming train right now. Even if we’re super good citizens and stop adding carbon dioxide in the atmosphere immediately, it will still be 100 years or so before the climate responds.”
The Olympic Mountains, which range in height from sea level to just under 8,000 feet in elevation, are almost entirely within the bounds of Olympic National Park. In recent years, the area typically has received more than 100 inches of precipitation, much of which falls as snow. The problem is that, as the climate warms, it has a significant effect on the low-elevation mountains and their glaciers.
It isn’t just the glaciers on the Olympic Peninsula that are threatened either.
What’s troubling is that data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows a similar decline of glacier ice in the North Cascades of Washington, further inland in Glacier National Park, Montana, and even farther north in Alaska, says Caitlyn Florentine, USGS Research physical scientist, according to the AGU. Indeed, the new study highlights glaciers’ vulnerability to warmer temperatures in both summer, which increases glacial melt, and winter, which decreases the chance for glacial growth, said Florentine.
“This double whammy has downstream implications for glacier-adapted ecosystems in the U.S. Pacific Northwest,” Florentine said.
As glaciers melt, and, ultimately, disappear, it will trigger a chain reaction of impact, “beginning with diminishing alpine streams and species like bull trout that have adapted to those cold waters,” according to the AGU. Then, negative impacts can “ripple throughout ecosystems and up food webs.”
“Once you lose your seasonal snow, the only source of water in these alpine areas is glacier melt. And without the glaciers, you’re not going to have that melt contributing to the stream flow, therefore impacting the ecology in alpine areas,” Fountain said, according to the AGU. “That’s a big deal with disastrous fallout.”
While it may already be too late to save the glaciers in Olympic National Park, Fountain and other scientists say it may still be possible to save other glaciers in the Pacific Northwest. A rapid end to fossil fuel burning could — possibly — delay glacial melt-off by decades, Fountain said, according to KUOW.
“We have to encourage our lawmakers to start enacting legislation to cut greenhouse gasses,” Fountain said, before adding, “I think, for the foreseeable future, the fate[s] of the glaciers on the Olympic Peninsula are sealed.”
Be sure to read all of our Olympic National Park content, including