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Backpacker Magazine – September 2007

How Climate Change is Affecting Our Alpine Environments

Thanks to melting ice and snow, climate change is effecting the future of our mountains

by: Michael Lanza

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Hot Times

Alaska's Glacier Bay is buried under an ice sheet 4,000 feet thick and up to 20 miles wide.

Glacier National Park has more than 150 glaciers.

Rising temperatures in the Sierra Nevada cause peak runoff earlier in the year.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is established.

The Paradise Ice Caves vanish from Mt. Rainier National Park as the Paradise Glacier retreats.

Mt. Rainier's glaciated area is 20 percent smaller than it was in 1913.

Aerial photos show that North Cascades National Park has lost 13 percent of its glacier area since 1971.

Glacier National Park has 73 percent less ice coverage than it did in 1850.

The IPCC predicts a global temperature increase of 2 to 11.5°F by 2100.

The last glaciers vacate Glacier National Park as mean summer temps hit 63°F. Meanwhile, Sierra snowpack is down 30 percent, threatening California's winter tourism industry and water supply.

Colorado Rockies snowpack declines 24 percent.

Half of the Arctic's permafrost acreage has melted to a depth of 10 feet. Spring runoff in Western rivers is down 10 to 20 percent.

Average temperatures in the Sierra Nevada have risen 4.5°F, advancing snowmelt runoff by another month.

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Christopher Shull
Mar 31, 2010

Mr. Lanza, you ask a terrific question. It is true that our climate has shifted through periods of warming and cooling on about a 10,000 year cycle, as I remember from my classes at Texas A&M some years ago. In those cycles temperatures would make very small shifts over thousands of years - kind of like simmering food. Volcanic eruptions and other natural effects caused this ongoing and very subtle change. The issue with climate change to day is the RATE at which human-produced gasses are accelerating the temperature change. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution we have seen what I recall to be just over a 1 degree F increase in the world's average temperature, with projections rising to about 3 degrees F if our emissions run unchecked over the near-term. This rate of warming over the past 100 years would take eons as a part of the 10,000 year ice-age cycle. Hope that sheds some light.

Apr 23, 2008

Michael Lanza,
Climate change may dramatically change things as you suggest. Your comments have gotten me thinking. My big question is how much of this is part of a grand cycle? Remember Otzi the backpacker found in the Tyrolean Alps? He died in a hollow depression that protected him from the glacier that eventually covered him up. The receding glacier revealed his body in 1991. Researchers say he died in approximately 3300 B.C. This makes me wonder if the glacier developed later - after he died. If so, what did the Alps look like then? Was it warmer? Maybe Otzi lived at the beginning of a cooling cycle and we are in a warming part of the cycle? Obviously, glaciers start sometime. This is especially evident in volcanic ranges. Mountains like St. Helen's form glaciers on top of the summits, but how long had the summit been there (especially St. Helens)? In Otzi's case, his body was well preserved by falling where he did. Now, if he actually fell into a cravasse at that location, then all bets are off on my glacier theory. wonders what he saw in those mountains 5000 years ago. I bet the sunsets were just as beautiful.


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