MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — Hot on the heels of President Obama’s latest state of the union address, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, came home to Washington to meet with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service.
But this wasn’t your usual boardroom PowerPoint session.
The group snowshoed out to a snowy overlook to check out the Nisqually Glacier. That’s the source of the Nisqually River, which drains from the slopes of Mount Rainier out into Puget Sound.
The Nisqually glacier supplies drinking water to several communities downstream and it’s receded by almost half a mile.
Jewell stands next to Paul Kennard, a scientist with the National Park Service, as he points to the vast valley where the Nisqually glacier used to be.
“In 1840 the ice was at the top of that which is really hard to believe,” Kennard said, gesturing at the walls of the empty, snow covered valley behind him. “The ice is mechanically buttressing this slope so when it leaves it’s much more prone to failure.”
You might think of glaciers as icy corsets, locking in mountain mud. When the ice melts away, the mud is free to slide off the slopes and down into nearby rivers, like the Nisqually.
Scientists believe the flooding and mudslides that hit that river in 2006, causing millions of dollars worth of damage, may have been exacerbated by the warming climate, changing precipitation patterns and receding glaciers.
Don’t let the snow fool you. In the mid-1800s the Nisqually Glacier filled this valley down to the bridge. Now it’s receded up around the bend and out of sight from this stretch of the access road. Credit: Ashley Ahearn
Jewell says the president is committed to tackling climate change.
“He’s been very consistent in helping his cabinet understand that this is one of his top priorities to address while we’re here because it’s what the next generation expects of us and we’re in a position to do something about it,” she said.
The glaciers of Mount Rainier have decreased in area by almost 20 percent in the past 100 years or so.
Glaciers in Washington state’s Olympic and North Cascades national parks are down more than 50 percent over a similar period of time.
Correction: Feb. 4, 2014. An earlier version of this story misidentified scientist Paul Kennard’s employer. He works for the National Park Service.
Sediment rushing down from the Nisqually Glacier in 2005. Scientists believe climate change could lead to more precipitation coming as rain instead of snow, flushing glacial debris into Northwest rivers. Credit: Justin Dykstra
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