September 14, 2009

Columbia Glacier year by year

Posted by Mauri Pelto

The following pictures give a year by year view of Columbia Glacier within one day of August 1. The best year was 1999, the worst, 2005.The snowy peaks of the Monte Cristo region can be seen from the Everett area. With 30 glaciers many at low altitudes, this region may receive more snow than any other region in the North Cascades. The largest and lowest is Columbia Glacier occupying a deep cirque above Blanca Lake and ranging in altitude from 4600 to 5700 feet. Kyes, Monte Cristo and Columbia Peak surround the glacier with summits over 2000 feet above the glacier. The Monte Cristo range is the first major rise that weather systems coming off the ocean encounter on the way east to the Cascade Crest. As a result precipitation is heavy. During the summer if it is raining anywhere in the North Cascades it will be in the Monte Cristo region. The glacier is the beneficiary of heavy orographic lifting over the surrounding peaks, and heavy avalanching off the same peaks. We measure the mass balance of this glacier each year and report the data to the World Glacier Monitoring Service. The location is gorgeous as seen in this painting by Jill Pelto Despite the advantages of snow accumulation the glaciers mass balance since 1984 has average -0.5 m a year for a cumulative loss of 13 m. For a glacier that averages 60 m in thickness this is over 20% of its volume. Details of the mass balance research and methods are at

Columbia Glacier has retreated 134 m since 1984. Lateral reduction in glacier width of 95 m in the lower section of the glacier and the reduction in glacier thickness are even more substantial as a percentage. The major issue is that the glacier is thinning as appreciably in the accumulation zone in the upper cirque basin as at the terminus. This indicates a glaciers that is in disequilibrium with current climate and will melt away with a continuation of the current warm conditions. The glacier has lost 17 m in thickness since 1984, but still remains a thick glacier, over 75 meters in the upper basin and will not disappear quickly.

A lateral moraine deposited during the Little Ice Age, is visible at the western edge of the glacier, descending below the glacier to 4250 feet. This moraine has little vegetation on the inside, but is vegetated on the outside. Just in front of the terminus are two terminal moraines deposited during retreat in the last 20 years. Facing southeast Columbia Glacier is protected from any afternoon sun except during the summer. During the winters storm winds sweep from the west across Monte Cristo Pass dropping snow in the lee on Columbia Glacier. Avalanches spilling from the mountains above descend onto and spread across Columbia Glacier. The avalanche fans created by the settled avalanche snows are 20 feet deep even late in the summer. Nearly a third of the glacier is covered by avalanche fans, but no summer avalanches have been observed. Avalanches, shading from the sum provided by the high peaks, and wind drift snow deposition permits Columbia Glacier to exist at such a low altitude.