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Glaciers - A melting icon in the Crown of the Continent

By Rebecca Vogt, KCFW Reporter, rvogt@kcfw.com
Published On: Feb 12 2013 05:46:26 PM MST
WEST GLACIER, Mont. -

Glacier National Park - carved from ancient glaciers that left the mountains high enough to scrape the sky.

"It's beautiful. It's beautiful. I mean views are spectacular and the wildlife is fantastic."

An important facet to Glacier National Park's ecosystem and aesthetics - the glaciers - may soon become a thing of the past. In 1850 there were 150 glaciers. Today? Just 26. They're not the glaciers the park was named for, but they are melting and melting fast.

"For many of the glaciers, there has been a melt rate of about 50% or 70%, pretty high amounts," said Dan Fagre. "And in a few cases, it's been 100% because they've actually disappeared."

Dan Fagre and his team at the United States Geological Survey have been closely monitoring glacier melt in the park. They photograph the Glacier to compare its melt across decades. They also do something else called Mass Balance Monitoring.

"Instead of just looking at the footprint, how much area it covers, you look at all the other parameters like the depth, the total mass of ice there. and you try to see what those kinds of change are," Fagre continued.

Grinnell Glacier is just one of many that is measured and photographed every few years. Dramatic changes can be seen in the repeat photos from 1938 to 2009. Glacier Guides' Corrie Holloway tells NBC Montana Grinnell is her favorite place to take visitors backpacking.

"They get a pretty valuable experience going up there in itself," said Holloway. "And whether or not you see snow and a glacier you're still going to get a valuable experience going up there."

Fagre said the park's glaciers are melting because our mountain system has warmed up two times as much as other parts of the planet. The higher you go up in elevation, the faster the rate of change.

"The drivers are pretty clear with greenhouse gas emissions and so forth," said Fagre. "So we do know that these are pushing the envelope."

Models predict all of the park's glaciers will be melted by 2030. Fagre feels there will be some long term shifts in the ecosystem when they're gone, as they provide a water source to alpine flowers, land, and aquatic species.

"During hot, dry summers they're still able to melt and provide water when many of the snow fields are gone and the soil is dried up," Fagre explained. "It becomes a lifeline for some of these aquatic organisms."

But the world is constantly changing, and both feel Glacier National Park will never be the same Glacier National Park when it was founded in 1910, or the mass of ice that covered the park nearly 12,000 years ago.

"We set a place like this aside. wanting it to be that way for future generations. So clearly, there's a sense of loss on a lot of people's part that this protected area is not completely protected," Fagre concluded.

"It is a natural process and it's still going to be a beautiful area even after they're gone," said Holloway.