The Weekend Wonk: Cascade Glaciers Disastrous Melt Year

September 11, 2015

I got an urgent message from glacier scientist Mauri Pelto this week, about the observations from this year’s field work in the Northern Cascades. I accompanied Dr. Pelto to Easton Glacier in Northern Washington a few years ago, so I was shocked by the pictures of places that I know.

Dr. Pelto is a careful and meticulous observer, and has been making this spectacularly (trust me) arduous trek for the last 30 years, becoming certainly one of the globe’s most experienced and deeply grounded glacier experts.
If he’s using words like “disaster”, I’m paying attention.

Dr. Pelto’s blog is “From a Glacier’s Perspective”.

A disastrous year is unfolding in 2015 for North Cascade glaciers, if normal melt conditions continue the range will lose 5-7% of its entire glacier volume in one year! For the 32nd consecutive year we were in the North Cascade Range, of Washington to observe the mass balance of glaciers across the entire mountain range. The melt season is not over, but already the mass loss is greater than any other year, with six weeks of melting left. An alpine glacier’s income is the snow that accumulates, and to be have an equilibrium balance sheet for a year, alpine glaciers typically need 50-65% snow covered surfaces at the end of the melt season.  Below the accumulation zone, net assets are lost via ablation.

Upper portion of Columbia Glacier on Aug. 5, 2015 note lack of snowcover and all previous firn layers (firn is snow that survived a melt season but is not yet glacier ice).

Upper portion of Columbia Glacier on Aug. 5, 2015 note lack of snowcover and all previous firn layers (firn is snow that survived a melt season but is not yet glacier ice).


Measuring firn from 2011-2014 retained in a crevasse on Easton Glacier, 2015 snowpack lacking.

In 2015 of the 9 glaciers we examined in detail, 6 had less than 2% retained snowcover, which will be gone by the end of August.  Two more had no 2015 snowpack greater than 1.7 m in depth, which will also melt away before summer ends.  Average ablation during the August field season was 7 cm per day of snow, and 7.5 cm of ice. Only one glacier will have any retained snowcover at the end of the summer, we will be checking just how much in late September. This is the equivalent of a business having no net income for a year, but continuing to have to pay all of its bills. Of course that comes on top of more than 27 years of consecutive mass balance loss for the entire “industry” of global alpine glaciers.  The business model of alpine glaciers is not working and until the climate they run their “businesses” in changes, alpine glaciers have an unsustainable business model. Below this is illustrated glacier by glacier from this summer.  A following post will look at the glacier runoff aspect of this years field season.


The typical end of summer snowline elevation on Easton Glacier, bare ice and firn in 2015.

In a recent paper published in the Journal of Glaciology spearheaded by the WGMS group  (M. Zemp,  H. Frey, I.Gartner-Roer, S.Nussbaumer, M.Hoelzle, F.Paul, W.Haeberli and F.Denzinger), that I was co-author on, we examined the WGMS dataset on glacier front variations (~42 000 observations since 1600), along with glaciological and geodetic observations (~5200 since 1850).  The data set illustrated that “rates of early 21st-century mass loss are without precedent on a global scale, at least for the time period observed and probably also for recorded history.The rate of melting has been accelerating, and in the decade from 2001 to 2010, glaciers lost on average 75 centimetres of their thickness each year”, this is compared to the loss in the 1980’s and 1990’s 25 cm and 40 cm respectively each year (Pelto, 2015).

A comparison of the global and North Cascade Glacier mass balance records since 1980 indicate the cumulative loss

Terminus of Lower Curtis Glacier with many annual layers exposed to rapid melt, 31 m of retreat from spring to August 11th, 2015.

Terminus of Lower Curtis Glacier with many annual layers exposed to rapid melt, 31 m of retreat from spring to August 11th, 2015.

My 2012 piece, which focuses on the Easton Glacier site, is here.

The Associated Press has a piece on Pelto’s work this year, below.

The news is the same everywhere.

Suffield Times:

“The gorge was crammed by a horrible noise – the roar of stones,” stated villager Shakarbek Kurbonbekov.

“The mud took every little thing in its path – houses, automobiles,” he informed AFP by phone. “People who might, escaped to larger floor. There was no time to assume.”

The 60-year-old man survived the catastrophe that hit the previous Soviet republic of Tajikistan’s mountainous japanese areas final month, however many others did not—the mudslides and flooding claimed a minimum of 12 lives and destroyed shut to at least one hundred houses.

The wave of destruction that began with a heatwave on July 16 is a harbinger of the broader ecological change looming over landlocked Central Asia, a fractured area that depends on a inventory of quickly melting glaciers for long-term survival.

The glaciers in Tajikistan’s Pamir vary and the close by Tien-Shan vary in Kyrgyzstan feed the strategic Amu and Syr rivers respectively, irrigating farmland that populations have trusted for hundreds of years.

They’re receding quickly.

In line with a research revealed final week by the GFZ German Analysis Centre for Geosciences, the glacier inventory within the Tien-Shan vary is shrinking at 4 occasions the tempo of the worldwide common in current many years.

The research’s authors declare half the Tien-Shan’s glaciers—already diminished by over 1 / 4 from their 1961 measurement—will soften away by 2050.

Below, a supplemental interview from 2012 with Dr. Pelto, shows in more detail how much ice has been lost from Easton Glacier in the past century.


9 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Cascade Glaciers Disastrous Melt Year”

  1. Bob Doublin Says:

    Thanks,Peter. I saw this in Tuesday’s Seattle Times and shared it on my fb pages. Nice to get additional comments on it. Is there an official end to the glacier melt season here in the NW? I know the rainy season starts in Oct. and really kicks in with snow in Nov.

    • rayduray Says:


      I live in Central Oregon. Around here the Cascade peaks are probably 1,000 to 2,000 feet less elevation on average than in the North Cascades National Park. We have already had some snow at the higher elevations this year. Didn’t stick. But the snow that falls from Oct. 1 around here usually marks the transition from local glaciers receding to gaining annual snow cover.

  2. nwcodetalker Says:

    Yes, the Seattle Times did write something but Cliff Mass, a scientist at the University of Washington, also wrote something in reply.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      After reading the link, IMO Cliff Mass is a self-styled “weather celebrity” who likes to hear himself talk. He does not appear to be a denier per se, but rather someone who accepts AGW but likes to be a contrarian. From the link:

      “By the end of the century, anthropogenic global warming will be large over our region and there will be a serious loss of lower-elevation glaciers. Summer glacial melt will be greatly reduced. It won’t be good. Fish will suffer. Water supplies will tighten in a few locations. But it won’t be a disaster or crisis”.


      How nice that he-who-plays-with-words-but-NOT-logic so casually ignores the fact that “by the end of the century anthropogenic global warming will be large OVER THE WHOLE PLANET according to 99+% of climate scientists, even though it may not be a total “disaster” or “crisis” in the Pacific Northwest. And where can I get the crystal ball he uses to make such definitive statements about 85 years into the future? Lord love a duck!

      Could Mass be one of those stupid smart people like Musk? (I wonder what his position is on Mars colonization?)

      • greenman3610 Says:

        this is a guy who says there is really no drought, it’s just spin.

      • firstdano Says:

        I used to live in Seattle and listen to him on the radio. He is maddeningly contrarian one minute then OK the next, if it doesn’t mean changing lifestyles. I wonder if he isn’t auditioning for Breakthrough Institute for a second career after retirement.



  3. redskylite Says:

    Interesting short video, showing a lot of runoff, I can fast forward (in my mind) to a point when they are gone completely, and the resultant nightmare in water supply (after the floods and rockfalls have diminished in places like Himalaya foothills). Glacier melt is very evident here in New Zealand’s South Island, and from the attached news article in South America too.

    So I do not understand how Trumpites can continue in a dull mist of denial, denial that it is getting warmer, denial that there are no consequences, denial that it is accelerated by releasing CO2 and other Greenhouse gases into the air. All Trump can see are Wind Turbines whilst he is playing golf, in his ancestral Scots homeland. Maybe someone can organize a Trump visit to a receding glacier, and take a few other blind-to-facts folk with them.

    Yes they recognize it in Peru too. . .

    “The Incachiriasca glacier, located on the Vilcabamba mountain range in the Peruvian region of Cuzco, has retreated some 62 meters (203 feet) over the past eight years due to the effects of climate change”

  4. Visited Glacier National Park in 1990 for work – amazing! So sad to hear of the impending demise of the glaciers.

    Here is another video exploring a disappearing glacier in France:

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: