North State ice age
Global warming melts glaciers elsewhere, but not at Mount Shasta
First, the good news: Mount Shasta’s seven glaciers are on the grow. The largest, Whitney Glacier, has averaged a 60-foot-a-year growth spree for the past 50 years, according to Dr. Slawek Tulaczyk, a professor of earth sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Now, the bad news: The 14,000-foot volcano’s glacier growth isn’t a reliable canary in a mineshaft when it comes to global warming woes.
“Mount Shasta is just a local system and does not really tell us much about global warming,” Tulaczyk said in an e-mail. “Everybody should know from their own experience that weather and climate are highly variable in space and time. It is absolutely incorrect to use Mount Shasta as some kind of proof that there is no global warming.”
So what’s up with this volcanic mountain—home to lenticular clouds and, lore says, outer-space lumarians—some 130 miles north of Chico?
Why, while other glaciers are melting like sun-struck snowmen, are North State glaciers plumping?
And what does it mean in the scheme of global warming issues, even as vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin denies that emissions or other man-created factors are to blame for temperature upticks?
Ed Josberger, a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey in Tacoma, Wash., says North State glacier growth is proof of global warming, even if, on the surface, it strikes a counterintuitive chord. Shifts in weather patterns are likely to heat some places while chilling others.
“In terms of climate change,” he said, “there’s going to be winners and losers.”
Mount Shasta glaciers have grown, in part, because they’re high enough to escape some (about 2 degrees) of the Earth’s warming trends, and the shifting weather patterns have dumped more Pacific Ocean-generated precipitation onto the mountain, explains Andrew Fountain, a geology professor at Portland State University.
Fountain likens a glacier to a bank account: It grows when there are more deposits (winter precipitation) than withdrawals (summer melt). In most of the world, sped by temperature upticks, glaciers are drawing down as melt exceeds wintertime snow and ice.
“If air temperatures continue to increase in this century, the warming will overtake the glaciers,” Fountain said.
When asked if glacier melt is cause for alarm, both Tulaczyk and Fountain say no, but add that the melt is cause for concern.
“There are two issues here,” Fountain said. “One is glaciers are the tangible evidence of climate change. … It’s a physical manifestation of climate change.” The second concern, Fountain says: “As these glaciers melt and shrink, that’s putting new water into the ocean and that’s contributing—significantly—to sea level rise.”
If all of the alpine glaciers in the world melted, sea level would rise by some 3 feet, Fountain said. If Greenland melted, add another 30 feet. “You don’t want to know about Antarctica,” he said, “because it would be closer to 240 feet.”
A 3-foot rise would increase a hurricane’s inland reach and, potentially, engulf a number of islands. On top of that, increased temperatures will fatten water molecules, which will swell the sea—and its sloshing potential—even more.
“This thing sort of just keeps cascading on itself,” Fountain said.
Eventually, Mount Shasta’s glaciers are projected to retreat—at least if global temperatures continue to rise, scientists say.
Now is a good time to see them. With the summertime smoke settled and October ushering in fall, the next few weeks represent the last chance to get a glimpse of the snow-capped peak before winter storms pelt the mountain.
Bill Guyton, a retired Chico State University geology professor who wrote Glaciers of California, remembers his 7-mile hike up 7,000 feet of Mount Shasta as an exhaustive experience—but worth braving the whipping wind and frozen landscape to experience.
“It was a great view and you could see forever all over northern California,” Guyton said.
Before heading out, plan ahead. Nick Meyers—a seventh-year climbing ranger for the U.S. Forest Service who spends his days zipping up and down the mountain’s trails—suggests checking climbing conditions, gathering gear and, most importantly, getting in shape for the trek. Shastaavalanche.org, a Web site maintained by the Forest Service and climbing rangers, shows climbing conditions, weather information, route information, photos and more.
While some climbers make it up and back in a day, rangers and those who have done it suggest taking two or three days to make the climb. That gives a climber time to acclimate to the elevation and time to enjoy the scenery.
“For most folks, the altitude kills them,” Meyers said. “There are some people coming off the mountain looking pretty darned tired.”
On the what-we-can-do-about-global-warming front, Tulaczyk offers the following: Aim for a sustainable relationship with the environment with prudent use of resources, including oil. Get educated about sustainability and elect officials who care about long-term sustainability.
“The number of humans on Earth is large and growing,” he said, “but the planet is not getting any bigger.”