July 12, 2016

Rainbow Glacier Not Fading Away, Glacier National Park

Posted by Mauri Pelto

1990 Google Earth Image of Rainbow Glacier, MT: Orange line 2003 margin, red line 1990 margin.

1990 Google Earth Image of Rainbow Glacier, MT: Orange line 2003 margin, red line 1990 margin.
Picture 1 of 4


Rainbow Glacier is the third largest of the 25 remaining glaciers in Glacier National Park occupying an east facing cirque between 2650 m and 2330 m. The glacier drains into Quartz Lake a key lake for bull trout in GNP, which are threatened by both invasive lake trout and climate change (Jones et al, 2013).  The National Park Serice and USGS have been established a glacier monitoring program that focuses on repeat photography, mass balance observations on Sperry Glacier and area change. GNP has lost the majority of the 150 glaciers that existed. The USGS reports that Rainbow Glacier had an area of 1.28 square kilometers in 1966 declining to 1.16 square kilometers in 2005, a 9.3% reduction. Has this slow rate of retreat continued? Here we examine Google Earth imagery from 1990-2013 and imagery taken by John Scurlock  compiled by Glaciers of the American West at Portland State University,

In the Google Earth images from 1990, 2003 and 2013 the margin of the glacier in 1990 is in red and from 2003 is in orange. The margin of the glacier from 1990 to 2003 indicates modest recession averaging 25-30 m along the glacier front.  This is part of the 9.3 % area loss noted by the USGS.  In 2013 there is too much snowcover to identify the glacier boundary, glacier ice is exposed providing a minimum extent at the green dots.  A comparison of 1990, 2005  and 2009 images, the latter from John Scurlock indicates the two primary terminus lobes.  From 1990 to 2005 the southern lobe retreated 45 m and the northern lobe 25-30 m. There is not a significant change in either lobe from 2005 to 2009. The 2003, 2005 and 2009 imagery does indicate a low percentage of retained snowcover.  This is the accumulation area ratio.  Persistent low values indicate a glacier that cannot survive.  In the case of Rainbow Glacier the accumulation area ratio is sufficient in most years to limit volume losses. In 2015 low snowpack exposed the terminus area,by late August the glacier still had 40% snowcover, indicating a negative mass balance, but not excessively negative.  Glacier area updated to 2015 using the Landsat image the area is now between 1.00 and 1.10 square kilometers an approximately 20% area loss in 50 years. It is evident that this is the only late summer area of snow-ice in the watershed and is particularly crucial to the water budget in late summer and early fall. The slow retreat of the glacier is good for the bull trout in the watershed, Rieman et al (2007) indicated the sensitivity of the trout to stream temperatures.  Glacier both increase flow and reduce stream temperature late in the summer. This is one glacier in the park that will not disappear by 2030 as has been often forecast.  It will join Harrison Glacier in this category, while other glaciers in GNP continue to disappear.

rainbow 1990 t

1990 Google Earth image with two main terminus lobes indicated by red arrows. 

rainbow 2005

2005 Google Earth image of Rainbow Glacier. 

rainbow glacier 2009 scurlock

2009 John Scurlock image of Rainbow Glacier.