Integral Ice

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.

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Mount Baker is home to 12 glaciers, second only to fellow volcano Mount Rainier, which has 25. The two peaks are the most glaciated in the lower 48.

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.

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Lake Diablo is one of two reservoirs along the Skagit River. This reservoir is fed by glaciers in the high peaks of the North Cascades and is a vital hydroelectricity source for Seattle. The water turns milky emerald in summer when glacial melt carries rock flour from ground-up bedrock beneath the ice.

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.

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The Skagit River winds through fertile country en route to Puget Sound.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Integral Ice

  1. Thanks for the post and lovely photos!! I believe you are opening a very important conversation- about access as well as conservation. It is such a balancing act, isn’t it, the need to keep certain areas totally off limits in order to preserve them and avoid fast degradation due to overuse, versus the need for greater access so that more people can interact and connect with wild places (especially glaciers that are so vital to us but seem so foreign and far away for many) and therefore be motivated to protect them.
    As we were riding horseback across remote areas of Patagonia we saw so much of this dynamic, the impact of poorly managed access versus well managed access, as well as experiencing very remote areas very rarely seen by anyone other than a random gaucho moving animals through the pass.
    We spent some time with an old gaucho (he was 78) who lived all alone in a very remote area- he lived with no running water or electricity, and the nearest town or dirt road was a four day ride across the rivers and mountains on horseback. He told us that when people pass through the region, they often ask him if he believes in climate change, if he’s witnessed the affects of climate change on the countless glaciers and wild places surrounding his humble campo. He said something really interesting. He said he didn’t know if the glaciers were melting faster because of humans, he didn’t know anything about climate change really, but he believed absolutely that when a person visits a pristine place, such as a glacier, and they put their foot on that place- when they touch it, that is when he sees things change more rapidly. That is when he believes they come apart faster.
    One could spend a lifetime contemplating what he means by that (I think), but ultimately I think it does come down to the way access is managed, the responsibility that comes with it, and an acknowledgement of our inevitable impact (both from the small scale of touch to the grand scale of our emissions and huge output of greenhouse gasses).

    1. Super valuable insights, Gret. It’s totally true, attention to the kind of access is hugely important. I think what’s most difficult with ice is that in order to get people to engage with it, they need to feel connected somehow. It’s a dichotomy of melting ice I think: how to get people to care about these landscapes without causing more harm? And maybe that’s ultimately the challenge of all kinds of conservation, particularly as the population grows and the need for the connectedness to wild/natural/integral spaces grows with it.

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