Changing climates, changing mountains |

Changing climates, changing mountains

Carolyn Pope
Carolyn Pope/Vail DailyEcologist Dr. Daniel Fagre with Alan Danson.

VAIL – Daniel Fagre, ecologist and global change research coordinator, has been hanging around ice and glaciers for many years. Fagre and the other researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center at Glacier National Park in Montana have been probing, testing and photographing the receding glaciers for decades. Originally photographed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it’s impossible to ignore the vastly changing shape of the stark mountain terrain. Where large glaciers loomed a mere 50 years ago, ice has turned to lakes, lakes have turned to scrub.

Fagre’s job is to figure out what this all means to the ecosystem, the environment, the animals, plants and, inevitably, the world’s future climate.”If it’s warming up, ice melts,” Fagre said. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see it happening in your martini.”Outdoor labsFagre spoke recently to the “Ed-venture” group of Gore Range Natural Science School at the home of Erik and Kathy Borgen in Vail’s Spraddle Creek. The school educates both adults and children about the environment, with the intent of helping people appreciate the mountains.Historically, Fagre said, rain and snow didn’t come in one big storm, like those the hit the valley this winter and spring. This situation has become acute in Switzerland because, increasingly, snow is falling after the ski season, when the warm beaches of Italy are beckoning the skiers to its shores. Not only is the snow coming later, it’s warming up enough that Switzerland lost 10 percent of its ice in just one year.Weather, of course, is difficult to predict. Just ask any television meteorologist. Weather is spatially variable and dynamic; it changes without telling anyone. One reason, among many, the climate is a concern, is that 75 percent of water in the western United States comes from the mountains, Fagre said. “Mountains are the water towers of the world,” he said.Many National Parks are located in the mountains, so this is oftentimes the laboratory for ecologists such as Fagre. “Subtle changes are detected early,” he said. “There’s not much civilization.”Environmental egoIn Montana’s Glacier National Park, the Continental Divide runs through the center and provides two different weather systems: Wet and cold in the Pacific Northwest and arid on the eastern side.”Glaciers are big lumps of ice that respond to climatic changes,” he said. That makes them easy to study and relatively consistent, he added. Glaciers tell the story of the climate. Grinnell Glacier in the park has dropped 500 feet in only 50 years. In just the past eight years, Grinnell has lost 43 acres. In 1950, glaciers numbered 150 in the park, only 23 remain. Current studies would indicate that in Glacier National Park, there won’t be any more glaciers by 2030.Fagre responded to three important questions that come out of this research. First of all, why is this happening? Our generation has been hammered with guilt; from our aerosol cans of which we dutifully disposed to car emissions, industrial pollution, chopping down rain forests – it must be our fault, right? According to Fagre, that’s a pretty egocentric approach. Apparently, these cycles are natural, though we are contributing to the rising heat. The cycle, however, began in the mid-19th century, even before the industrial revolution and our human influence on the environment. He has studied not only the glaciers but also tree rings, which tell the stories of droughts: the rings are tighter when the trees grew less; wider in water-laden years. We will get cold again, he said, though probably not as cold as we need to be to rebuild the glaciers and water supply. Be a water lawyerSecondly, what is the impact on the world?Pretty simple – we’re reducing our water supply because the water will not be supplied by glaciers. As the glaciers melt, the temperature goes up because the glaciers are not as cold, and the glaciers melt because it’s getting warmer. The food chain has to change because of the “dredge effect” on the lowlands: What used to be glacier will become meadows. The fisheries are effected, food supply changes, the whole ecosystem changes; water will be a commodity that everyone wants. The way that water is distributed and managed at this time appears to be archaic.”Tell your children to be water attorneys,” he said. “That’ll be a great job in the future.”Lastly, what can we do? Most importantly, we need to understand and to learn about the situation – become involved, be proactive, he said. “We understand what’s happening in our oceans less than what’s happening on the surface of Mars,” he said. Summer activityGore Range Natural Science School is now enrolling summer classes for adults and children that are exciting as well as educational. For more information, visit the school’s Web site at or call 827-9725.==========================================Vail, Colorado

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