Mount Baker is a provider of both environmental resources and recreational activities for the inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. However, glacial melt is a phenomenon that is changing the face of Mount Baker and affecting the people it provides services to.
Glaciers are large masses that were formed by the natural packing of excess snow into ice. As climate change effects become more apparent, it has become clear that glaciers are receding at a quicker rate than ever before.
Glaciers begin to retreat when the ice melts at a faster rate than it is getting replaced, Associate Professor of Geology Doug Clark said.
“When that melting is happening, the ice isn’t flowing fast enough to replace it,” Clark said.
Robert Mitchell, professor of geology, is working with a small team of University of Washington and Western graduate students to create a model for what will happen to the glaciers on Mount Baker in the short and long-term future. One of their main goals is to use their research to help the Nooksack Indian Tribe prepare for glacial melt the best way they can.
Glacial melt is a problem for many people, but its immediate effects are especially prominent for the Nooksack Indian Tribe, whose livelihood depends on glacier water in the Nooksack River. The tribe catches, eats and sells salmon as a huge part of their lifestyle. Without large glaciers feeding into the river, water temperature will go down and salmon won’t be able to live out their lives.
Water volume in the river is another variable that’s concerning to Mitchell. Fish need a certain volume of water in order to stay healthy and move through the river. When the glaciers melt enough that they are no longer feeding the Nooksack, it’s volume will go down greatly.
“We’re in constant communication with the tribe because they’re collecting data and managing other elements of this and we’re doing our part, which is the modeling,” Mitchell said. “They’re going to take the science, and it’s going to help them make some management decisions.”
According to Mitchell, the modeling effort began in 2010 and will continue throughout their next project, which is beginning in the fall and will look at how snowpack will reduce glacier size and what that will do to streamflow.
Western students are also concerned about glacial melt on Mount Baker. Skiing, snowshoeing, and even photographing glaciers are common pastimes for students and residents of Bellingham.
“There’s the environmental aspect, but there’s also the recreational side. That can be a huge part of someone’s life,” environmental studies major Alexa Brandt said.
Scientists and researchers such as Mitchell and Clark predict that there will always be some glaciers on Mount Baker. However, they will be significantly smaller than ever before and they will only be found high up on the mountain. This will change the way people can use the mountain.
It would take an enormous rise in snow line and an enormous temperature increase to completely get rid of the snow on Mount Baker, Clark said.
“Mount Baker is high enough that if you want to hike up and do back country skiing, there will be snow, but it’s not realistic for a ski area up there. It’s at the top of the peaks it’s on right now and so it can’t easily go higher,” Clark said.
Glacial melt cannot be stopped, but action can be taken to reduce its effects and preserve some of the mountain’s future.
“I’m not sure there’s anything we can do directly to save glaciers, per se,” Clark said. “But the point I’ve always had is that we need to start actually approaching this climate change thing as a global community, and especially in terms of the political forum.”
Clark said he encourages students to be active and vote about issues related to climate change, he said the most effective way to make change is to do our part at the political level.