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Major decrease in Water supplied from Northwest Glaciers

Water supplied from glaciers in the North Cascades declined 24 percent in the past 30 years, a potential loss of 800 billion gallons of water, according to research conducted by National Park Service geologists. “In the case of Skagit County, that’s 100 years of water supply,” Dr. Jon L. Riedel said, a geologist at North Cascades National Park. Riedel presented his work and research to about 40 people at Backcountry Essentials on Tuesday, Jan. 10. Riedel and his team found out snow is melting at a higher rate than snow accumulation, resulting in water loss in rivers. Reducing pollution may help reduce snowmelt, but natural causes like sun spots are also leading to the decline, Riedel said.

"With the current trend of the melts, if there are no more glaciers, there is nothing storing our water in the summer time to provide us fresh water in rivers.”

Meg All
Riedel defines glaciers as perennial bodies of ice, snow and rock moving downslope. He explained glaciers are extremely sensitive to weather and climate, specifically temperature. Riedel has been monitoring glaciers in the North Cascades since 1993. His studies focus on glacier volume and the balance between snow accumulation and snowmelt in the Pacific Northwest. Glaciers provide vast amounts of cold, fresh water to rivers and lakes in late summer and fall, Riedel said. The North Cascades’ glaciers provide between six to 12 percent of water for the Skagit River. “The glaciers are somewhat like a battery; they are a storage device for our fresh water,” sustainable community development student Katie Bunge said. “When our glaciers recede, we are more dependent on annual precipitation patterns and we don’t have that backup resource.” Bunge is concerned a lack of glacier water storage will negatively impact the community’s economy and ecosystem, especially with population growth. Attendee Meg All said glacier preservation is essential for enjoyable natural landscapes and the clean drinking water of future generations. “With the current trend of the melts, if there are no more glaciers, there is nothing storing our water in the summer time to provide us fresh water in rivers,” All said. “There would be a lot more issues with drought.” Climate change is impacting parts of the world more than others, Riedel said. “This is going on a planetary scale. The fastest changes are occurring in the coldest parts of this planet,” Riedel said. Riedel and his team gathered data by using a steam drill to melt holes into the warmest and coldest parts of glaciers. The team placed stakes inside the holes and took measurements in late spring, mid-summer and fall.  This fall they will take their final measurements. Backcountry Essentials will have another presentation on Valentine’s Day about hiking on Mount Rainier. Their last presentation will be from North Cascades photographer John Scurlock.  


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