Thoughts From the Grinnell Glacier Trail in Glacier National Park

by |August 29, 2018
two people in front of glacier at glacier national park

The author and her father posing in front of Grinnell Glacier. Photo: Natalie Belew

By Natalie Belew for GlacierHub

After four hours hiking the Grinnell Glacier Trail and with the roar of a waterfall from glacial runoff in the backdrop, there they were: the three patches of ice known as the Grinnell, Salamander, and Gem glaciers.

The glaciers, some of the few remaining in Montana’s Glacier National Park, are located in the Many Glacier region on the east side of the park. My father and I had traversed along the trail all morning, nearly six miles, to get closer to a glacier than we had ever been before.

Although we could see the three glaciers from a few miles away on the trail, the massive lake awaiting us at the end, with its stunning blue waters, took me by surprise. I had few expectations in terms of the size of the glaciers; I knew they would be small and receding, and the snowfields would be at their smallest size this time of the year (summer). It was only when I came across photographs of the glaciers from previous years that I realized just how much rock and water is now exposed compared to ice.

Salamander Glacier and lake at Glacier National Park

The Salamander Glacier at Glacier National Park. Photo: Natalie Belew

I had first visited Glacier National Park over two years ago in the middle of March when most of the park was officially closed for winter. There happened to be a blizzard blowing in at the time, and my parents and I drove in only as far as we could from the St. Mary’s entrance. We pulled over for a few pictures of snow-covered peaks on the side of the road before hightailing it back to Great Falls, Montana, where my father lives.

During that first trip, I didn’t think much about the park’s glaciers beyond how beautiful they were in the distance among the haze of the blizzard winds. I also didn’t know much about how fast they were receding or the significance of their loss. I knew the park was succumbing to the effects of climate change, but I didn’t understand more about the problem beyond rising global temperatures.

A lot is different from my first visit to the park back in 2016 versus now. Since then, I began writing for GlacierHub and also completed the master’s program in Climate and Society at Columbia University. My understanding of glaciers has grown exponentially over this past year from reporting on the latest studies on shrinking glaciers (with a few notable exceptions in parts of the world such as the Karakoram) and our changing planet. And now, I’ve seen not just one but three glaciers up close and personal.

Compared to older photographs taken just two years ago, it is remarkable how much smaller the glaciers are in person. But with temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and standing just a football field away, I was also impressed at how much ice stood. Still, the glaciers looked so vulnerable surrounded by the forces of water, rock, and heat. And humans.

Two years from my first visit, I realize how complicated the science behind climate change can be: it is more than just warming average global temperatures. Likewise, warming temperatures plus glaciers doesn’t always equal recession.

I have also come to realize the need for more effective communication, not only on the topic of climate change but also about science in general. With all of the nuance surrounding the complicated physics of our planet, communicating its problems is not simple, especially now given the current political atmosphere. Through their Silencing Science Tracker, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law recently reported 155 instances of the Trump administration restricting or inhibiting science. Even mentioning the phrase climate change in a public office, such as the National Park Service, has become controversial.

Two years from my first visit, I realize how complicated the science behind climate change can be: it is more than just warming average global temperatures. Likewise, warming temperatures plus glaciers doesn’t always equal recession.

For Glacier National Park, once the backdrop of Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, receding glaciers are a powerful symbol of climate change occurring right in our backyard. While visiting Glacier, I was curious about how the park was communicating its reality with its millions of visitors (3.3 million people visited the park in 2017, according to park statistics).

On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the signs around the park that talked about climate change. Several openly acknowledged how climate change (and the human activity driving it) is silently destroying the namesake of Glacier National Park. There were even some signs that had been updated last year, according to the date in their corner. Only one stated how human activity “partially” explains the accelerated melting of glaciers since 1880. Its lack of a timestamp made it unclear whether it was a product of the Obama or Trump administration.

In the annual park newspaper available in the lobby of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, an entire page (albeit the second-to-last page) was dedicated to “Climate Change and the Crown of the Continent,” highlighting the global threat of climate change as “one of the most pressing issues of our time.” Although hidden in the back of the paper, this brief message about climate change’s impact on Glacier National Park’s ecological integrity was profound in its clear-cut messaging.

remains of fire in glacier national park

The remains of a fire in Glacier National Park. Photo: Natalie Belew in 2016

Then there were the fires and record-breaking 100-degree heat that also happened concurrent to the weekend of my visit. Fires broke out on the east side of Glacier National Park near McDonald Lake the evening of August 11. Flying into Great Falls that day from New York City, I immediately picked up on the hazy skies during my layover in Minneapolis, and the entire flight from Minnesota to Montana had an eerie film over the Big Sky country.

When I arrived the next day, the recent forest fires in the park and across the West were a primary topic of conservation. I overheard fellow visitors and park employees discussing forced evacuations of parts of the park and destruction of historic lodges in the wake of the fires. The fires also attracted national media and revamped attention toward the topic of climate change. As Twitter exploded on the topic, my father and I drove up to Logan’s Pass along the Going-to-the-Sun Road where park law enforcement blocked off further entry.

On that drive, entering the St. Mary’s entrance, multiple patches of charred skeletal remains of trees reminded us of the commonality of fires. With a complicated web of direct and indirect socio-environmental causes, wildfires are one natural disaster scientists can’t always directly link to climate change. An example of the complex nebulousness that scientists and scholars observe, it’s difficult to untangle for a broader audience without losing its integrity or image.

sign in front of mountains at glacier national park

Sunset after a long day of hiking. Photo: Natalie Belew

Information at Glacier National Park doesn’t pretend like there’s a shot of saving the glaciers. At the Jackson Glacier Overlook, a sign there describes how when the park was established in 1910, there were over 100 glaciers within the park boundaries. By 1966, only 35 remained. As of 2015, only 26 “met the criteria to be designated active glaciers.” All of them are shrinking. And with the view of Jackson coming in and out of focus amid the smoky haze, it is hard not to feel hopeless for their doomed fate.

Coming face-to-face with three of the remaining glaciers helped me put my work and studies into perspective. Much like the all-day hike, the Climate & Society program was a long and strenuous year filled with challenging coursework. And much like witnessing melting glaciers, perhaps for the only time in my life, I had the opportunity to learn about the intersection of climate and society. But unlike the fate of the glaciers in Glacier National Park, destiny isn’t settled for our planet and our fight against climate change. I remain hopeful that we can improve the communication around the science and in turn bring awareness for necessary action.

This post was originally published on GlacierHub.org.

GlacierHub is managed by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the Earth Institute and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. Natalie Belew is an alumna of Columbia’s master’s program in Climate and Society.

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Toogie

What an interesting article and well written!

Barry Parker
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Great article. It’s my dream to visit Glacier National Park and I will some day!