September 27, 2023
Written by Ben Pelto, Jill Pelto and Mauri Pelto
Field Sketch of Ice Worm Glacier from Aug. 13, 2023 on photograph of glacier. (Jill Pelto)
It was July 5, 1981 and Juneau meteorologist Brad Coleman had just informed us that Juneau had experienced one of its warmest least snowy winter ever. I was with the Juneau Icefield Research Program and we were headed up to the icefield the next day, it would be my first visit to a glacier. I was looking forward to plentiful summer skiing and now was concerned there would be limited snow. This worry proved unfounded, as once on the icefield, we stayed above 1000 m, and it was all snow, allowing me to ski 500 km in the next several weeks. From that summer through 2000, I continued to spend the majority of my time working on glaciers every August skiing whether in Alaska or in the North Cascade Range, Washington. Alpine glaciers need to maintain at 55%+ snowcover right to the end of the summer to maintain equilibrium. Hence, skiing should be plentiful. However, in 2003 I gave up skiing on glaciers during our August North Cascade field seasons, the snow had become too limited and patchy. During the last decade the percentage of snowcover has been consistently low, with the 2021-2023 period setting the record for persistent snowcover deficits in the North Cascacdes, but also throughout the Pacific Northwest from Mount Robson, BC to Mount Shasta CA. This sequence of difficult years for glaciers had led to the end for quite a few. -Mauri Pelto
I have spent 15 years with the NCGCP most years snow remains only at higher elevations or in large avalanche fans, with a couple of years having deep snowpack and lack of heat waves has led to a good year for the glaciers. And now years like 2015, 2021 and 2023 where there is so little snow that walking on the glaciers is almost a different landscape. Every feature is exposed, debris cover is piled up, and new or changed water features like melt channels or ponds emerge. In August 2023 it was most starkly seen on Mt. Daniel, on the eastern, drier side of the North Cascades. It was my first year seeing the loss of a glacier: the Iceworm Glacier. A remnant ice patch remains, but there are no longer any active features such as crevasses. It was also my first time seeing the very steep Daniel Glacier with essentially no snow. Navigating across bare ice on a 35+ degree slope for very few measurements had our whole team questioning how long it would be worth our effort. Some of my favorite moments of my 14 other seasons are glissading (or skiing with your hiking boots) down the steep slopes of Daniels. You can carve turns and do quick stops, and you can get down the glacier in about a quarter of the time you climb up. It’s always an exhilarating and rewarding way to end the season. This year the descent was difficult one firm crampon step at a time. I clung onto one fun glissade on the adjacent Lynch Glacier. In that moment I needed to enjoy what I could, and after the season I needed to feel the loss of a place that has defined a piece of my life.
Here we focus on this lack of snowcover we observed in the field and in satellite images from Mount Hood, OR to Mount Robson BC in August and Septemeber 2023. This combined with 2021-2023 has redefined many glaciers, making it clear how many cannot survive even current climate. We developed a forecast model of alpine glacier survival, published in 2010 that indicated significant accumulation zone thinning and/or lack of consistent accumulation zone are indicators of a glacier that cannot survive. The glaciers below on some of the highest peaks in OR, WA and BC are failing this metric in 2023.
At the end of August 2023 on the north side of Mount Hood, OR; Sandy Glacier and Ladd Glacier are so dirty looking in this Sentinel image that it is hard to discern that they are glaciers, both have limited patches of retained snow from the winter of 2023. Coe Glacier has three pockets of snow remaining from last winter covering close to 30% of the glacier.
Across the Columbia River on Mount Adams, WA Wilson and Rusk Glacier are both over 90% bare firn and ice, with some snow on the upper margin above 2800 m where avalanche deposits endured.
On the south slope of Mount Rainier, WA South Tahoma Glacier and Success Glacier lost all of their snowcover. There are a few pathces of snow left on Kautz Glacier. The snowcover becomes more consistent at 3500 m, higher than can sustain most of the glaciers.
Halfway between Mount Rainier and Glacier Peak is the Mount Daniel/Hinman area where glaciers are in rapid collapse. This includes Ice Worm Glacier on the east slope of Mount Daniel, which lost all of its snowcover in 203 (above) and Daniels Glacier that only has 5% snowcover in mid-August 2023 (below)
Foss Glacier on the northeast slope of Mount Hinman looks like a bug that splats on your windishield with wings/limbs in all directions, this will lead to rapid fragmentation.
Closer to Glacier Peak is Columbia Glacier, below Kyes, Monte Cristo and Columbia Peak. The view down the accumulation zone indicates a lack of snow or firn where there should be 2+ m of snowpack in early August.
Kololo Peak is on a ridge extending south from Glacier Peak and is host to several large glaciers. In September 2023 Whitechuck, Suiattle and White River Glacier lost all their snowpack, while the top of Honeycomb Glacier has a small area of snow left. Yellow arrows indicate where we observed the terminus of these glaciers 40 years ago.
On Glacier Peak Ptarmigan Glacier has separated into and east and west part and had no retained snow. Kennedy, Vista and Ermine Glacier had 10-20% retained snowcover on 9-15-2023 mostly in a band at 2500 m. Yellow arrows indicate terminus locations when I first visited these glaciers 40 years ago.
Easton Glacier is on the south/southwest side of Mt. Baker. The upper part of the glacier is a patchwork of ice, firn and snow, with new rock areas emerging even high on the glacier in August 2023. The difference with 2022 is evident. Two new waterfalls appeared in 2023 due to the extensive thinning and retreat at the terminus., yellow arrows. These are also depicted in the field sketch by Jill Pelto below.
Near Whistler, BC, the Garibaldi Neve (Icefield) showed little remaining snow in mid-September. Snow only clings high on Mount Garibaldi above 2200 m or 7200 ft.
Small glaciers across the region are losing all traces of seasonal and multi-year snow and are transitioning from active glaciers to remnant ice patches. The Stadium Glacier near Squamish British Columbia is one example of this. Photo by Ben Pelto.
The Conrad Glacier on the boundary of Bugaboo Provincial Park in British Columbia showing extensive bare ice and limited snow cover. The dark grey areas surrounding the white snow is firn, or multi-year snow, now exposed. The area covered by firn is important to glacier health. Firn that remains on a glacier becomes glacier ice and can retain meltwater. Areas of bare ice behave like a parking lot, nearly all water that reaches glacier ice leaves the glacier as runoff. The area of glaciers covered by firn is dramatically decreasing in the region. Pelto et al. (2019) found that 58% of the Conrad Glacier was covered by multi-year firn, a quick visual scan here shows that that number has declined to roughly 30-40%.
Wildfire smoke darkens the sky and ice as Alexandre Bevington, Jacob Bailey and Margot Pelto stand on the Conrad Glacier in August 2018. Photo by Ben Pelto.
Coleman Glacier is on the east flank of Mount Robson. In 2018 the terminus is in a small lake with the snow covering 25% of the glacier. By 2023 the glacier has retreated 400 increasing the lake size. The snowcovered area is less than 10% of the entire glacier and is restricted to regions above 2500 m.
The above images of snow free and nearly snow free glaciers is a sight that has until the last decade been very rare. It is now becoming a typical event. The glacier response has been rapid, profoundly changing most and leading to the end of some.