Tidewater Review - December 2013

The Melting World: A Journey Across America's Vanishing Glaciers

as reviewed by

Anne Stinson

The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers by Christopher White. St. Martin’s Press. 288 pp. $26.99.

Most of us have seen photographs of the alarming disappearance of Polar ice maps. The impact on Polar bears in the Arctic and penguins in Antarctica have been news stories in recent years. Global warming still has its deniers who attribute the phenomenon to freaks of weather. They should read this book by Christopher White, a mountain climber and writer who has seen melting glaciers all over the world and brings the story close to home. In chilling descriptions of the beauty and the danger of his treks on Glacier National Park, Montana, in the Rocky Mountains, he brings an ominous account of the reality of change right here in our country.
Evidence gathered by scientists who climb sheer rock walls, wade through snow and dodge gaping crevasses are facts, not just impressions or guesswork: “The awesome results of global warming have reduced the number of glaciers in the Park from 150 in 1850 to its present number of 25. Projections by scientists say the remaining glaciers will probably be gone by 2020 with catastrophic effects downstream... Worldwide, alpine ice and snowpack provide nearly 50 percent of freshwater drinking and irrigation supplies. Their loss seriously impacts civilization.
“Recent fires, in part prompted by less melting ice and snow, incinerated over 10 percent of the park in a single season. Fighting wildfires now costs over one billion dollars annually across the U.S. Without glacier melt water the mountainsides become tinder dry,”
Those are some of the statistics summed up from the records. They apply not only to Glacier National Park, but the Alps, the Andes, Nepal in the Himalayas, Africa’s Kilimanjaro, Central America, and wherever mountains jut into the sky.
White’s book covers the parts of five years he spent with government scientist Dan Fagre and his team in late summer as they recorded the Montana glaciers’ changes from year to year.
Why always late summer? Winter conditions are too perilous for human climbing and measuring. Winds and temperatures are killers: Unstable snowdrifts pile up as high as buildings. Crevasses with appalling depth become traps for the unwary ~ or unlucky. In winter, the mountains at glacier height are too dangerous to traverse. Actually, summer access is no picnic.
Special instruments and cameras are the main messengers that send data to the station below the high peaks far above the tree line. The safest hands-on survey is during the month of August for the climbers with their instruments and note-keeping.
Climbing is like having “balcony seats to an era,” White writes of the terrain on the mountain tops in the Park. “Snow compressed by its weight re-freezes in two or three years and turns into ice.”
That’s how glaciers are born. It takes severe weather over long periods for them to grow. Warming winters can gnaw away at the thick frozen rivers in spite of their depth, and that’s what has melted so many of the glaciers in Montana, most of which have vanished in the 20th century.
The Ice Age set the stage for what’s left at the Park. “About twelve thousand years ago, with a change of climate ~ a warming trend that drew the most recent glaciation to a close (perhaps astronomical in its cause again) ~ the glaciers began to melt. As the ice trickled away, the artistry of their shrinking slowly revealed horn-shaped peaks, bowls and hanging valleys, knife-edged walls, and moraine {crushed rock} encircled lakes.” White writes, “The sculpture was on a colossal scale, and the unveiling took centuries.”
Melting had sent water down the sides of bare rock peaks, freezing again. What’s more, interglacial periods continued to pile more snow and ice on the mountain crests. The current glaciers at the Park may have formed in about 7,000 B.C. The Little Ice Age came in Medieval times, starting in 1300 and ending in 1850 A.D. adding another 550 years for glaciers to advance.
At first, warming climate melted them slowly. Then rapidly, as we are seeing now. But how quickly? That’s what White and his cohorts are measuring.
This day is to check out Sperry glacier, a spot that is monitored every fall. The scenario is set: Sperry faces north, shaded from the sun. White paints the scene, “Fagre and his team of two, Kevin Jacks and Erich Peitzsch, arrive with impressive bags of gear ~ impressive not so much for their bulk as for the lethal accessories tied on top; ice axes, crampons, ice screws, and ropes. It is a tight squeeze through the Staircase,” {a narrow split in solid rock en route to the top} “... like threading the eye of a needle.” Inside the packs are tools for their work.
Sperry has a steep headwall. It’s called a hanging glacier because the ice field perches over a cliff, “draping... precariously over the rock wall” as White describes it. The glacier area is covered with snow, hiding its crevasses under a white blanket.
The team is prepared for danger. They have put on climbing harnesses and have tied up to a 50 meter rope made of blue and green perlon. They attach crampons on their boots and carry ice axes. If one of them falls into a crevasse, he has ascenders that he can climb back up the rope. Distance between the men is critical. If they’re too close on the rope, the next man will be pulled down the slash in the earth behind the first. If the rope’s properly divided, the second man will drive his axe into the ice and the rope will stay taut for the rescue.
All is ready for the job of recording changes in Sperry since last year. Kevin and Erich begin to walk around the target to send their reports to the station. Modern technology has made the job simpler ~ not only is data quickly captured, the men send it by Global Positioning System (GPS) to a passing satellite that bounces it back to the station way below the mountain top.
While Kevin and Erich are concentrated on the job, and since wind has blown snow off large patches of the glaciers, the bare spots will be calculated as part of the size. The trick to it is a tough one. “This is akin to measuring the net surface of a block of Swiss cheese,” White notes. Erich works steadily, sending hundreds of readings that he’ll plot back in the lab. Kevin is minding the rope, keeping its tension correct in case Erich gets into trouble.
The situation reminds White of one of his own experiences early in his climbing years, this on Mt. Rainier with strangers in trouble. All three of the neophites had their ropes attached at too short lengths, When the first one fell, both of the others were jerked into a huge crevasse. They landed on three separate shelves on separate levels about 120 feet down. A doctor, his wife and his friend were still alive but injured.
“Their rope, their only means of escape lay draped over their bodies like a fallen curtain,” White remembered.
“It was extraordinary the we happened upon the accident in the first hour of the emergency,” he writes. “They were stranded, and hypothermia was setting in. Three of us in the sunshine, and three of them freezing in the hole. We had to act fast.”
They rigged a pulley system with their ice axes as anchors and carabiners as pulleys. Each of the three rescuers would go down and bring up one victim. White went first and found the doctor in a stupor. He attached the rope and his two partners on top pulled the man up. They threw the rope back down and White climbed up to help the other two victims’ rescue, as raising an injured person was muscle-numbing. As his friend went down for the next victim, White bundled the doctor in a sleeping bag. The man was shaking uncontrollably. His pulse was racing and his breathing was fast and shallow. His face and arms were red and purple with cuts and bruises.
As it happened, a mountaineering guide had seen the fall from the next ridge and came to help with the rescue, while a colleague radioed news of the accident. With his help, the other two victims were brought up easily. A helicopter arrived to complete the episode.
White was 18 years old at the time of the event. He learned a valuable lesson, he says. “Follow the rules on a glacier. She will not forgive a mistake.”
At the base of the trail is Avalanche Lake, formed by the meltwater falling from Sperry glacier. The spectacular waterfall has a 3,000 foot descent. Because Sperry is smaller than it used to be, the waterfall is usually a trickle ~ a mere outdoor shower. This August day has a reading of 80 degrees on the thermometer. The descent is gushing.
White writes about the difficult problems that will arise in the near future when the Park glaciers melt and disappear. The West is mostly dry country. States are already elbowing for water from their neighboring states’ rivers. Agriculture will suffer, cities will do the same. Will water be rationed?
Fish also are endangered by the changes in the water supply. There’s a big recreational economy at stake with anglers who have an almost spiritual attachment to fly-fishing for rainbow trout in cold mountain streams. Managers have added cutthroat trout to the streams but the mixture has produced even fewer pure rainbows and more hybrids that can tolerate warmer waters. And so it goes.
As he writes in the introduction to the book, “What happened to all that ice that had been in these mountains when I was a boy? What are the implications for the climate?”
His answers should scare us all.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.