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2014 course offerings that will apply toward a Climate Change Studies minor

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College of Forestry and Conservation

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Taking the Long View

By Isaac Miller, Resource Conservation major
Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My first night in Glacier was spent with a full view of the stars above and a small foam pad below.  Little sleep was gained that night due to anticipation for the following day, but that did not seem to matter after breakfast, coffee, and another realization that today would be the day I finally get to experience and momentarily be a part of one of the most beautiful and ecologically important parts of the world.  For me, being able to experience this place in our point in time made me feel uniquely privileged because our time is one that is undergoing immense changes.  The whole Park represents a sculpture of the geologic past, and the sculptor responsible for its dramatic landscapes is climate change, with glaciers being the sculpting tool.  As would become especially clear to all of us in the next few hours of our day, the sculpture is being chipped away rapidly, changing into something that will be fundamentally different within our lifetime.  The following words and pictures chronicle the events of our day in the Park and present my explanations of some of the underlying drivers of the Park’s changes.

Our first stop was The Glacier Institute to pick up Paul Rappaport (Glacier Institute Program Manager), John (Instructor for Glacier Institute), and Tony Prato (Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Missouri), our guides for and interpreters of our ten-mile hike over Siyeh pass.  Upon our arrival, Paul said “it’s another day in Montana.”  Easy for him to say, but for me, it was my first time in the Park, and one not to be forgotten.  Afterwards we loaded packs and people and headed north and east on Going to the Sun Road.  Glacier Institute’s Paul Rappaport pointing out the glacial sculpting of the Park.Our first stop was along the eastern side of Lake McDonald, where Paul blasted us with the first of many climate change related facts.  He described the view; a moraine hillside that was left behind when the glacier that formed the lake retreated, leaving behind a giant jambalaya of unsorted rocks.  This seemingly inconspicuous view provided a look into the past.  We were looking at the results of past climate changes not unlike those of today.

While driving between the Lake and Logan Pass, we had a great discussion on Milankovich Cycles and their influence on climate change.  Currently our planet’s axial tilt is 23.5 degrees and declining.  With the decline in the degree of tilt, the planet will be exposed to less and less radiation in the summer and more and more in the winter.  The expected result of this trend would be a cooler average yearly temperature for the planet and a buildup of snowpack due to less melt-off in the summers.  But, as is apparent in the park and the instrumental temperature records of the past century, the actual results are in the opposite direction than is to be expected, with warming temperatures and less snow-pack within the past century.  To me, this is some of the strongest evidence for the hypothesis that attributes Anthropogenic Greenhouse gas emissions to the recent warming we have been experiencing.

Paul Rappaport pointing out the forest encroachment into sub-alpine meadows.After some construction delays and bathroom breaks we finally reached the trailhead.  Paul’s extensive knowledge of the landscape starts to show when he points out many features, the first of which are Stromatolites.  I became giddy with excitement upon seeing these ancient structures that were formed over billions of years by Cyanobacteria.  The range of topics Paul introduced to us was overwhelming and could have filled the pages of many Master’s theses, but what stuck out to me most was when he described encroachment: how woody plants, namely Sub-Alpine Firs, are starting to outcompete herbaceous plant communities due in part to climate related factors.  For instance, longer summers or shorter winters, combined with decreases in snowpack, set the conditions for a longer growing season for these trees, allowing them to photosynthesize and reproduce at higher rates, as well as move higher in elevation.  The implications for wildlife can be serious.

Higher into the Park, the more sparse trees became and the more abundant high alpine flowers became.  Beautiful clusters of Yellow Columbine, Pasque Flowers, and Shooting Stars dotted the landscape as we ascended the first couple switchbacks to the pass.  With heavy breaths and blood pumping, we reach the top and find a rocky spot to shelter us from the wind.  After a few binocular scans, Paul says to us “How about two minutes of silence?” and we take in our view:

View from Siyeh Pass, Glacier National Park.

At this point, we have reached our climactic (or climatic) moment with Sexton Glacier in full view, juxtaposed with many former glaciers nearby.  The influence these glaciers have had in the Park over the past 2.5 million years is truly remarkable, and the end result is spectacular beauty.  We now know that there are 25 official glaciers in the Park leftover from the Little Ice Age (1550-1850 A.D.), when there were 150 of them.  Due to a steady rise in temperatures, and declines in snow accumulation, the remaining glaciers are expected to be gone by 2030 (see link). The departure of the last glacier will likely make international headlines, and will likely call attention to the extent of our influence on our natural treasures.  Arguing whether or not we as humans have the collective capacity to influence our natural treasures (like glaciers) through our greenhouse emissions can be divisive and fruitless.  Instead, we should focus on the question of how we can respond to the changes that we observe and adapt to the likely effects they will have on our communities.  In the meantime, we should enjoy the view.

View of Sexton Glacier, Glacier National Park.