For much of the lower 48 states, it’s easy to consider glaciers as distant, sometimes extraordinarily so. Much of my research has focused on closing this distance through first hand encounters and wide angle views of the far reaching influence of ice. Whether realized or not, people around the world (and particularly in North America) rely on ice far more than they might imagine.
In the North Cascades of Washington, this reliance is palpable.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been stationed at the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center. The Learning Center, a small residential campus built to house visiting school groups, retreats, grad students and staff, is located on the shores of Diablo Lake, a glacier fed lake situated in the heart of one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country. The mission of the center is to “is to conserve and restore Northwest environments through education.” In order to do that, the institute facilitates experiential learning opportunities for all ages in the outdoors.
A theme that’s come up frequently throughout this glacier project is access. Access to experience, to unbiased facts, to the bigger picture of climate change, to the places changing fastest. Here in the North Cascades, I’ve experience a level of access I hadn’t anticipated.
Not only does the ELC provide that access through its Mountain School program for 5th graders, its myriad of naturalist-led courses, and its choice location in the midst of North Cascades National Park, but the surrounding environment does as well.
In northwest Washington, ice is not just a distant headline, but an integral component in the landscape, and in the livelihoods of folks who live here.
Take Lake Diablo, for instance. It’s western edge meets Diablo dam, which, along with neighboring Ross and Gorge dams along the Skagit River that provide a 89.9% of the hydroelectricity for Seattle and neighboring areas.
The cherry and apple orchards that characterize the eastern slope of the mountains rely on glacial melt for spring irrigation. Those crops (those famous Washington cherries on sale in grocery stores throughout the country right now) can grow in dry Washington summers thanks to the ice in the high peaks.
And it isn’t just people who rely on glaciers. Bull trout spawn in cold glacial streams and salmon need the cooler water to make their summer runs. In 2015, after a disastrously low snowpack year, hundreds of sockeye salmon died in the Columbia River, the water too warm to sustain their annual journey.
But, something I’ve realized also in my research is that glaciers are more accessible to people all around the country than is often realized. In the Wind Rivers, I encountered a glacier whose run off eventually funnels into the Missouri river system and the Colorado. Throughout the midwest, the fertile soils of America’s agricultural heartland are made of glacial till left behind by the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet 12-13,000 years ago. For thousands of years, glaciers have been molding and shifting the landscapes of North America, just as they continue to do today.
Which is all to say, no matter how distant you think you are from glaciers, with a little time and attention, you’ll find you’re probably a lot closer than you think.