Scientists trace 2003 Wind River Range torrent to global warming |

Scientists trace 2003 Wind River Range torrent to global warming

Allen Best

DUBOIS, Wyo. – Early in September 2003 a creek in Wyoming’s Wind River Range mysteriously began swelling.No large rainstorm had occurred, yet a gauge on Dinwoody Creek outside of the small town of Dubois suddenly shot up to 900 cubic feet per second. That’s about three times as much water as the Eagle River was carrying at Gypsum after the storms a couple of weeks ago.What had happened was likely a consequence of warming temperatures. Grasshopper Glacier, like so many glaciers across the world, has been melting. The ice, a mile wide and two miles long, is located at an elevation of about 12,000 feet along the spine of the Wind River Range.The glacier had served as a dam to an unnamed lake. As the glacier melted, the lake’s 650 million gallons cut a new channel through the ice, slowly at first and then in a torrent, leaving a wall of ice 60 feet high. Below, as the water raced down the mountain, it ripped a trench through the soil that in places was estimated to be 30 feet deep.”I was just so excited because it was such a huge event,” said Liz Oswald, a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service who flew over the area after the deluge. “The scale is so enormous. It sort of makes you feel a little small.”Such torrents have become more common as glaciers around the world have melted. A year earlier, a collapsing glacier in the Caucasus Mountains, about 750 miles south of Moscow, had launched a chunk of ice 150 feet thick. The chunk rushed 20 miles downstream, reaching speeds of 62 miles per hour. The flood of ice and snow, mud and uprooted trees buried 125 villages. The torrent in the Wind Rivers came as no real surprise to David Naftz, a Salt Lake City-based geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Three times from 1991 to 2002, Naftz and others have climbed high into the Wind River Range to bore another glacier several miles away, one hugging the side of Wyoming’s highest mountain, Gannett Peak. Naftz and fellow scientists, using detective methods as ingenious as you are likely to read about in any murder mystery, studied the ice to trace the weather during the past 300 years in the region of the Wind Rivers. Reliable weather records were kept only in the last century, and only then in the adjoining valleys, never at high elevations.Analyzing the ice, Naftz has inferred that temperatures high on this mountain have been rising much more rapidly than at lower elevations. While temperatures around the globe during the last century rose 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit, high in the Wind River Range the temperature rose 4 to 9 degrees in just the last half-century. Naftz’s work is part of that growing evidence for more rapid high-elevation warming.”There appears to be something that is going on that is accelerating these temperature increases in high elevations,” says Naftz. The cause, he adds, is still up for speculation.Not all sites show similar temperature increases. On Niwot Ridge, between Granby and Boulder, temperature rises have been parallel to those at lower elevations. However, at many sites around the world – the Alps and Central Asia among them – the mountains are warming more rapidly than the valleys and plains.While many glaciers worldwide are threatened, the melting becomes more alarming at middle and lower latitudes. University of Zurich researchers in 1998 found that the glaciers of the Alps have lost 30 to 40 percent of their surface area and about 50 percent of their volume since 1850. Another study found New Zealand’s Southern Alps have lost 25 percent of their surface area.Glaciers in the Caucus Mountains, Europe’s highest range, have shrunk to half their size. The glacier near the base camp for Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Edmund Hillary has retreated three miles since their 1953 climb of Mt. Everest. And in equatorial Africa, Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” may soon become a memory, as 75 percent of the glacier on the mountain has disappeared. The rest expected to follow soon.Indeed, at a conference of ice-borers earlier this year in Greenland, scientists were urged to hasten to the mid- and lower-latitude glaciers to retrieve ice cores before the ice and the stories they tell have vanished.Vail Colorado

Support Local Journalism