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Vanishing Glaciers: Student Journalism Part 6

[This is a story by Ashley Ahearn, who took a road trip recently to Glacier National Park and filed this from some remote spot in Canada. She did what a good reporter does: Looked around, met people, took notes, and thought hard about her topic. She has excellent description of the landscape, of the mechanics of glaciers, and includes a couple of character sketches of park rangers. Once again I'm boiling it down a fair bit and I hope the cuts don't ruin the tale.]

International Relations on a Glacial Scale

By Ashley Ahearn

Final bastions of arctic dominion, the shrinking glaciers cling to the bowls and cliffs of the highest peaks of Glacier National Park. Etched in their dirt-encrusted faces are the marks of thousands of pounds of earth crushed beneath them, thousands of years of sun and rain, through cold spells and hot. Global temperature flip-flops go unnoticed, ice ages and periods of drought pass over them like seasons, largely ignored. One might even think the glaciers were eternal, invincible at least.

Dan Fagre, head research ecologist for the US Geological Survey office in West Glacier, Montana, scrolls through aerial photographs of Blackfoot Glacier, the largest glacier in Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. In the photos the snow drapes the grey slopes, casting its white nets down to silhouette the ridges and falls, running its fingers along the contours of the rock face. But the fingers are receding, drawing into clenched claws of white, grasping at the highest points of the mountains, as though struggling to remain earthbound against the skyward march of naked earth.

Within Glacier Park (the section on the Montana side of the park's international border) there are now 27 glaciers left of the 150 first recorded in 1850. The glaciers on the Canadian side in Waterton have now completely melted into an extensive glacial lake system. On average, the glaciers that still exist are about 10 percent of their original masses. In twenty five years they will be gone completely.

Right now the park is home to one of the only fully intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states. It encompasses diverse habitats, forests, alpine meadows and lakes. Sheltered within its borders are 70 different species of mammals and over 260 species of birds.

"So goes the snow, so goes the whole ecosystem," Fagre concludes after a lengthy show of slides, photos, charts and graphs demonstrating the accelerated glacial recession since 1976. "There's no doubt in my mind that this is a result of green house gases. We've seen the earth follow repetitive temperature and climactic shifts over thousands of years. Our presence on this planet is making these swings more and more extreme." According to Fagre, 2002, 2003, and 2004 were the hottest years in recorded history. The glaciers have survived dry periods before, but their reserves have been tapped to the point of no recovery.....

A glacier's survival depends on its ability to continuously accumulate snow, because that's what a glacier is: thousands of pounds of snow and ice, usually a minimum of sixty-five feet in depth, pushing down on a bottom layer of snow until it is tempered into a moving layer of "living ice." Fagre says a healthy glacier will move about fifty to sixty meters per year. The measured glacial movement of Grinnell Glacier of Glacier Park is down to about two centimeters a year. When the glacier stops moving it means it has stopped accumulating depth and is therefore no longer capable of carving out the rock formations for which Waterton-Glacier Park is so well known.

"Fifty percent of the water the world consumes comes from mountains; and glaciers are the greatest harbingers of global climate change, better than any thermometer." says Fagre, pushing his thick glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Glaciers act as a sort of global water reserve. The water they store provides a constant and reliable source regardless of how depleted local precipitation reserves may be. "In an average river, maybe only one percent of the water is glacial in origin, but you can be sure that when the rest of the local rain water dries up, that one percent will still be flowing." When the glaciers are gone, we will not only be short a reserve, we will lose the ability to balance and cool the water across the earth's surface, and therefore global temperatures will rise....

....But on the surface of Upper Waterton Lake, all seems pristine, invincible even. Things are simple at Waterton. "We work to make things work the way they always have." says Edwin Knox, a Canadian Park Warden at Waterton Lakes Park. The small village within the park's gates looks like a 1910's Swiss alpine village. The narrow streets are lined with quaint shops, their windows frosted with little white Christmas lights. Above the village, on a stark promontory jutting out into the Lake, the Prince of Wales hotel stands watch, harkening back to a time when Henry James might have fallen in love with a parasol-ed fellow traveler in the lobby, before going out on a boat ride in the clear glacial lake. This could be Henry James' Switzerland, but here the elk wander freely across the roads and swim lazily out into the lake, as though the park village is simply an inconvenience, not an established European tourist site....

...Edwin Knox walks out of the warden station, clad in the forest green canvas of his Waterton Park warden's uniform. He could just as easily be walking out of an ancient Scottish highland lodge, or a miner's hut in the old Yukon. By his side trots Sally, a reservation dog he got from the pound about a year and a half ago. She looks like she might be part Coyote, maybe some shepherd too. Her ears fold curtly at the tips and are perked as she walks along the Upper Waterton Lake trail. She doesn't leave Edwin's side, and he talks to her. "Are you the smartest little monkey Sally? Are you part coyote?" he says, reaching down to idly catch her fluffy tail. Sally's ears flick back, acknowledging us, but there is something far more interesting that only she can see in the wet brush beside the water.

Edwin Knox's full beard is dusted white and red, a deep Scottish red that his ancestors must have sported to protect their faces from the cold Atlantic winters of Prince Edward Island, where they settled on the Eastern coast of Canada a few hundred years ago. His eyes are a watery light blue that nestle like glacial pools in the pale pinkish skin of a face that has aged to smile-sun-wind-worn perfection. Edwin doesn't walk. His long legs stretch out carefully and seem to pole him along with stork-like dignity. Dorothy's scarecrow meets Norman Rockwell. His boots look as though they could be the same pair he sported when he first joined the Canadian Park Service fifteen years ago.

Edwin and Sally are on their way out for their daily stroll around a section of Upper Waterton Lake and don't seem to mind my tagging along. It's a rainy Saturday morning but this doesn't seem to bother the happy couple. "After work today I'll take her for a bit of a hike up the billiegoat trail," Edwin says, his accent a mix of soft Midwestern "oh's" and airy Canadian "eh's." "I hike the same trails over and over again and find them more beautiful each time. It's about getting satisfaction from the simple things."

....Where Edwin Knox stands tall, Ranger Frye is about 5'9" or 10" and spry for his 50-some odd years. He's been in the US park service since 1972, and the Chief Ranger at Glacier since 1992. When I meet him in the morning he is just coming in from a ten mile hike into the back country to check on trail conditions and precipitation levels. "It's been a wet winter, but that doesn't always mean it will be a wet summer. We get some of our worst fires after wet winters." He speaks slowly, holding my eye contact like a vise. People in cities don't keep eye contact like this. They look at billboards, coffee machines, passing cars, buildings, anything, the options are endless. But in this wilderness of forests, marshland, lakes, alpine slopes and glaciers, the visual choices are not so abundant, or perhaps they demand a certain silent attentiveness from the people that live here...

...Waking up by Upper Waterton Lake makes you quiet in the morning. The mist wraps up and around the glaciated peaks that surround the freezing mirror. The shore is lined with smooth stones. Perfect skipping stones, stones you could throw with your left hand, backwards, over your head, and they'd still skip at least three times, little wrinkles spreading out around them, smaller and smaller until the pebbles slap down and sink into the depths. Five hundred feet depths, the deepest in the Canadian Rockies and too cold to put your fingers in, let alone your toes. So we can simply stand on the shore, looking out at what is perfect on the surface. We can mourn the silent destruction to which the landscape is finally beginning to succumb. But we can take hope in the unspoken mutual respect and respect for the earth that the stewards of this place, regardless of nationality, share indefinitely. -- Ashley Ahearn

By Joel Achenbach  |  May 19, 2005; 11:11 AM ET
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