Story by Rob Carson | Photos & Video by Dean J. Koepfler
If the scientists are right, the end is near for a Northwest treasure — at least as we know it.
Global warming is melting Mount Rainier’s glaciers at six times the historic rate.
For years now, the melting has sent floods of water and rock pounding down the mountain, filling up rivers, killing old-growth forests and endangering historic national park buildings.
The glacial outbursts also are tearing up the roads that provide access to the park’s wonders, testing the National Park Service mission to keep the great outdoors open to all.
Researchers are flocking to Mount Rainier to study the effects of climate change that they predict will destroy habitat for plant and animal species up and down the mountain.
As global warming intensifies, we’ll need to decide: Do we spend the millions of dollars required every year to repair park roads? Do we move endangered plants and animals to places they can survive?
What in the park is most worth saving? And how hard does it make sense to try?
Case study of change
At the foot of the Nisqually Glacier, the roar of rushing water and grinding rock is so loud you have to shout to be heard.
Water bursts from an ice cave the size of an aircraft hangar, its arched roof dripping in the sun. Flurries of stones clatter down canyon walls.
Paul Kennard, a National Park Service geomorphologist here with a team of researchers using laser scanners to locate the volume and sources of rock coming off the glacier, wears a helmet for protection against stones streaking like hot grounders from the glacier’s upper slopes.
As the scientists calibrate their equipment, they take turns as lookout, shouting “Rock!” whenever a volley looks as if it might strike.
While they work, two chunks of ice the size of refrigerators break away from the glacier and crunch onto the rocks below.
For anyone familiar with the effects of climate change, it comes as no surprise that Mount Rainier’s glaciers are melting.
The Nisqually Glacier, the one of Rainier’s 28 named glaciers most accessible to visitors, has been receding rapidly since 1983. It’s at a historic minimum, and this summer it shrank toward the mountain’s summit at unprecedented speed: more than 3 feet every 10 days.
REPAIRS CAN’T KEEP UP
Sediment from the glaciers is filling the park’s river beds and wiping out roads faster than the park can repair them, raising the distinct possibility that, before long, visiting the park by private automobile might no longer be possible.
“Basically, the whole mountain wants to fall down,” Kennard said. “We have a tremendous amount of sediment coming off our glaciers, and it’s literally filling up our rivers and choking them.”
Scientists say the speed at which Mount Rainier’s glaciers are melting is clear evidence of climate change — more convincing than any computer model of the effects of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
In 2006, Gordon Grant, professor of geosciences at Oregon State University, called floods and debris flows at Mount Rainier “the most dramatic catastrophic effects of climate change in the United States.”
Park biologists say rising temperatures could change the current mix of plant and animal species in the park from top to bottom in this century.
The magnitude of possible consequences at Mount Rainier is so great that the park has become a magnet for climate-change researchers from around the country.
With its melting glaciers and vertically stacked life zones, the mountain is a living laboratory for climate change, they say. It’s a microcosm of changes that scientists warn will reshape ecosystems around the planet during the next several decades.
However, if Mount Rainier is a microcosm of climate change, it’s also a microcosm of the difficulty of proving the climate-change case to skeptics and for figuring out what — if anything — to do about it.
CAUSES CLEAR TO SCIENTISTS
In the National Park Service, scientists and managers long ago left behind discussions of whether climate change exists and whether it’s caused by humans.
“Climate change is clearly human caused,” Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said in an interview with The News Tribune. “It is happening now. We can see the impacts, and we need to step up to the facts and take actions.”
It’s also a fact that it’s impossible to say precisely what the effects of climate change have been or will be in the park.
The park’s weather varies so widely year to year and decade to decade, it obscures long-term changes.
The first weather station in the park wasn’t installed until 1909, so there’s not enough historic data on temperature or snowfall — especially at high altitudes — to establish trends with those numbers.
With rare exceptions, baseline data and monitoring of plant and animal species hasn’t been adequate to establish climate-caused changes.
LIMITATIONS OF MODELS
Geologists and biologists are making predictions based on global climate models, but those models were designed for predicting changes on broad, ecosystem-size regions and don’t work well for predicting specific changes on an area as small and unusual as Mount Rainier.
That makes it difficult for park officials to communicate their sense of urgency to skeptics in Congress, some of whom still profess to believe that the whole idea of global warming is fiction.
U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., is a staunch critic of climate science and in line to become one of America’s most powerful voices on environmental policies.
Inhofe is expected to chair the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works in the new Republican-controlled Congress. He bases his objection in part on his Christian faith.
Without congressional support, it’s impossible for park officials to do the two things they think are most important. First, cut back on greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and completely as possible. And second, fund research so it’s possible to recognize climate-caused changes and come up with management solutions.
Glacial melt causes worries
On a geologic scale, there’s nothing unusual about receding glaciers on Mount Rainier. Over the past 12,000 years, they’ve risen and fallen like the tides.
What is unusual now, scientists say, is how fast it’s happening. Geologic changes that normally take centuries are flitting past like time-lapse photography.
In the past decade, the rate of melting has been six times the historical rate. Geological surveys indicate that the total volume of ice and perennial snow on the mountain decreased as much as 18 percent between 2003 and 2009. The total net loss of water from Mount Rainier’s glaciers since 2003 has been estimated at 200 billion gallons.
“The problem is the rate of change in a short period of time,” Kennard said. “If you look at it on a graph, it’s like a pingpong ball just fell off the edge of the table.”
Temperatures across the Pacific Northwest are averaging about 1.4 degrees warmer now than they were in 1895. The rise sounds minor, but in a natural system as delicately balanced as Mount Rainier, scientists say, the likely consequences of continued warming are enormous.
According to the latest National Climate Assessment report, released this year, temperatures in Washington will continue to rise through the 21st century, increasing somewhere between 3.3 and 9.7 degrees, depending mostly on the rate at which humans continue to produce greenhouse gases.
The Pacific Northwest may get wetter as well as warmer, according to climate models, and precipitation will shift away from snow and toward rain.
Evidence suggests, but is not conclusive, that rain increasingly will arrive in sudden, violent bursts, similar to the “pineapple express” downpours in November 2006, when 18 inches of rain fell on the park in 36 hours.
That’s bad news for Mount Rainier’s glaciers, Kennard says.
The rate of glacial thinning is not directly proportional to rising temperatures, he said. In some cases, it can build exponentially.
“Once it starts, it’s like a feedback mechanism,” Kennard said. Running water beneath the glaciers creates space for warm air, which increases the rate of melting. As the glaciers shrink, they uncover loose material that hasn’t been exposed for thousands of years. Rock walls formerly held in place by ice collapse downward, covering the ice with dark rock that absorbs heat rather than reflecting it.
Aside from the melting caused by increasing temperatures, glacial ice could in some cases disappear faster because of a thinner layer of protective snow on its surface, Kennard said.
Heavier rains would mean an increased likelihood of avalanches, bursts of liquefied mud slurries, and sudden outbursts of trapped water from beneath the glaciers — potentially devastating events called jökulhlaups.
Outburst floods occur without warning, and there’s growing concern at the park that water suddenly released from the Nisqually Glacier could race like a tidal wave through the historic settlement of Longmire, heavily populated by park visitors in summer months.
The more predictable effect of the melting glaciers, though, is the steady accumulation of sediment in the park’s riverbeds, a process called “aggradation.”
“Glaciers act like giant conveyor belts for sediment,” said Scott Beason, a Park Service geologist who works with Kennard at Mount Rainier.
More rocks and gravel in riverbeds means less space for water.
“You can imagine the riverbeds as big bathtubs,” Beason said. “You can fill a bathtub up to a certain level, but when you take a couple of buckets of dirt and dump them into that bathtub, you can’t expect it to carry the same amount of water.”
Sediment from the melting glaciers is filling Mount Rainier’s river drainages at an unprecedented rate, Beason said, up to 3 feet per decade on average.
When riverbeds fill, water finds the next path of least resistance. Lately, that’s been taking it through park roads, campgrounds and trails, causing millions of dollars in damage.
Flooding in 2006 alone cost $36 million in damages.
Roads built in the park in the early 20th century were designed to provide visitors with a stimulating driving experience, not to withstand flooding.
Most were built along old river and stream channels, which now are being filled as glacial meltwater seeks new routes downhill.
Since 2001, Beason said, there have been at least six debris flows in three watersheds where there have not been such flows since the park was founded in 1899.
“Atmospheric river” flooding in 2005 and 2006 set off 10 debris flows in two days, resulting in such extensive damage that the entire park was closed to the public for six months. All of those debris flows began in areas that had been recently exposed by melting glaciers.
“In 2006 after the floods it was like an A-bomb went off there,” Kennard said. “The public is getting kind of squeezed in terms of where they can go.”
The park is spending $26 million to repair the 17.6-mile Nisqually-Paradise Road, which carries half of the 1.7 million park visitors each year.
In November, the first rainstorm of the winter season flooded the road, forcing park officials to shut down the Nisqually entrance and evacuate staff and guests from the National Park Inn at Longmire.
The Carbon River Road, in the northwest corner of the park, was washed out in the 2006 flood and now is closed to vehicles at the park boundary.
The Westside Road, which has the highest concentration of hiking trailheads in the park, is directly in the path of debris flows from the South Tahoma Glacier and has been closed to the public more often than not since the 1980s.
In May of this year, heavy rain sent a barrage of boulders down onto the Westside Road, smashing a pickup truck and leaving several craters, one of them 10 feet across and 3 feet deep.
On the other side of the park, increased sedimentation has raised the elevation of the White River 14 feet above heavily traveled state Route 410 for a distance of 3 miles. In 2006, a portion of the White jumped its banks and inundated the highway for several miles. A larger shift could send the entire mainstem of the river flowing down Route 410, said Roger Andrascik, the park’s Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Once a river finds a road, it loves it,” he said.
Historic park buildings are also at risk, most notably at Longmire, the collection of 1920s era buildings along the Nisqually that are collectively protected as a National Historic Landmark District.
The cascade of rock tumbling down the Nisqually valley has filled the river channel to a point where the riverbed is now perched more than 30 feet above the buildings.
Most of Longmire’s 57 buildings are below the level of the river, including the park’s emergency operations center. Park managers consider the danger of flooding at Longmire so high that in 2002 they moved most administrative offices and permanent employee residences out of Longmire and onto safer ground outside the park.
The scale of some of the possible consequences of global warming is so large at Mount Rainier, it’s forcing a reexamination of traditional park policies and values once held nearly sacred.
More than a cubic mile of snow and ice remains on top of Mount Rainier, high above sea level, and as climate change intensifies it will continue to come down, scientists say, occasionally with extreme force.
“At some point, there may come a time when you just can’t do any more,” Andrascik said “But at what point do you stop trying?”
Facing the unpredictable
Global climate models agree that temperatures will rise in the Pacific Northwest through the 21st century.
But making specific and accurate predictions for an area as small and unusual as Mount Rainier National Park is beyond the scope of current climate knowledge and computing power.
The park is essentially a square that measures about 20 miles on a side, with a mountain in the middle. Global climate models — mathematical representations expressed in computer code — are broad overviews that offer projections on scales many times that size and don’t address such local aberrations.
Climate scientists are refining global models to smaller scales, but the complexities in Washington are enormous. Mountain ranges complicate things, and so do the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound.
Washington’s weather varies widely by year — and even by decade — because of the influence of heat circulation patterns in and above the Pacific Ocean, which are not fully understood.
Temperature and precipitation patterns flip back and forth on a fairly regular basis because of natural sea-surface temperature shifts called the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.
Making predictions for Mount Rainier is especially difficult because of its great height. At 14,411 feet, the mountain creates its own weather.
Climbing from the bottom of the mountain to the top is the climate equivalent of traveling from Washington to the Arctic Circle.
LIMITS TO MODELS
So far at least, models can’t resolve the park’s topography with enough detail to predict how the climate of different places within it might change.
Rainfall and temperatures on the mountain vary widely from top to bottom and even from one valley to the next, depending on terrain and sun exposure.
Paradise, at an elevation of 5,400 feet, gets an average of 126 inches of rain a year. Longmire at 2,761 feet, gets just 87 inches.
The eastern side of the mountain is much drier than the western side, making average temperatures for the park as a whole of little use.
Downscaled climate models can be crosschecked for accuracy by using historical records, but Mount Rainier’s records don’t go back very far.
Eleven weather stations gather data in the park, but only the station at Longmire has been operating long enough (since 1909) to show trends that climatologists say are significant.
Data from high elevations is especially scarce.
Generally, though, the evidence indicates Mount Rainier will warm along with the rest of the Northwest, with average warming of between 3 and 6 degrees by the end of the century.
Some models, but not all, indicate that for the Northwest generally, the amount of precipitation is likely to increase and that more of it will fall as rain and less as snow.
That might not be the case for everywhere at Mount Rainier, however.
Cliff Mass, atmospheric science professor at the University of Washington, says that while climate change will push the freezing level higher on Mount Rainier, its upper reaches could very likely get more snow, not less.
“Because of its height, snowfall on the upper slopes could increase since precipitation will increase and those slopes will remain cold enough for snow,” Mass said. “The snow level on its lower slopes will rise, as with the rest of Cascades.”
Some models but, again, not all, predict more “extreme” weather events — heavy downpours and violent storms.
They also predict the number of freeze-free days each year will increase and that less rain will fall in summer months. The number of consecutive days without rain is likely to increase.
All models do agree on this: The amount of change will depend to a large extent on the rate at which humans continue to put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions ended immediately, about half of the carbon dioxide would be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years. The rest will stay for centuries.
Analyzing how Mount Rainier might react to climate change differently than the rest of the Northwest is a mostly unexplored area.
However, according to a draft report prepared this year for the National Park Service by the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, the historical record contains some surprises.
As a whole, the Pacific Northwest warmed by 1.4 degrees between 1920 and 2000. Longmire warmed, too, but only .5 degree.
More surprising, while maximum temperatures climbed at Longmire, minimum cold temperatures fell. That was a big surprise to climate scientists, who expected just the opposite, based on models.
Evidence of a long-term warming trend at Mount Rainier is obscured by recent periods of lower temperatures and higher than usual snowfall.
While Longmire records show a slight warming trend over the past century, records at Paradise show the average temperature dropped — about 1 degree during that time.
The park’s weather stations show no significant trends in either precipitation or snow depth since 1970.
Many of Mount Rainier’s glaciers either stopped retreating or advanced between the early 1950s and the mid-1980s.
In the 1970s, spectacularly high snowfalls on the mountain set two new world records.
Eighty-five feet of snow fell at Paradise in 1971. The next winter set a new record of more than 94 feet. Another spectacular snowfall occurred in 1974, with more than 90 feet.
In 2010 and 2011, when weather at the park was influenced by strong La Nina conditions, the Nisqually and Emmons glaciers grew in volume. In 2011, mountain lakes stayed frozen longer than in the previous six years of record keeping.
Climate scientists say those conditions were short-term aberrations that are part of natural climate variation and do not change long-term warming trends.
Still, they’re enough to provide footholds for those who deny that global warming is a reality.
There’s no denying that Mount Rainier’s glaciers are receding over the long term and that very small changes in the climate have big effects on the ice.
“Ice volume has been declining since the end of the Little Ice Age (about 1850),” said Thomas Sisson, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who has studied Rainier’s glaciers. “But there were periods of stasis or modest advance that appear to correlate with strong cool phases of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.
“The glaciers are getting smaller,” Sisson said, “so it looks like near-average temperature and near-average snowfall are insufficient to maintain ice volume.”
No early warning
One of the most worrisome effects of glacial melting at Mount Rainier is the increased likelihood of outburst floods — sudden releases of water trapped inside or beneath the glaciers.
Large lakes can build up inside glaciers as they melt, and when the water bursts free, the downstream effects can be disastrous.
Big outburst floods often morph into debris flows — liquefied masses of water, rock and mud that travel rapidly downhill, destroying or burying everything in their paths.
Geologists sometimes call outburst floods jökulhlaups, the term for the phenomenon in Iceland, where some of the world’s most spectacular outburst floods have occurred.
An outburst on Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano in 1922 released about 1.7 cubic miles of water — more than the total volume of ice and snow on Mount Rainier — in a gusher 10 times bigger than the average flow of the Columbia River.
FLOODS NOT UNUSUAL
Outburst floods are not unusual at Mount Rainier. They’ve been recorded at four glaciers on the mountain: the Nisqually, Kautz, South Tahoma and the Winthrop.
They often initiate debris flows, and in rare cases where they’ve been witnessed, the sound has been compared to that of a freight train.
The outbursts often are accompanied by strong local wind, thick dust clouds and violent ground shaking, said Carolyn Driedger, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who’s studied Rainier’s glaciers extensively.
The Nisqually, South Tahoma and Kautz glaciers are the most worrisome, because their likely paths are aimed directly at places in the park that are heavily used by visitors.
Floods from the Nisqually have wiped out, damaged or destroyed bridges over the Nisqually River four times since the 1920s. A flood in 1955 swamped the Longmire community.
An outburst flood from the Kautz Glacier in 1947 triggered a debris flow that traveled more than five miles downstream, burying the Nisqually-Longmire Road under 28 feet of mud and debris.
Park managers worry that, as climate change progresses, outburst floods will happen more often, increased by more rapidly melting ice and perhaps heavier rainstorms at especially sensitive times of the year.
Being able to predict when outburst floods will occur is the holy grail of park geologists, who say early warning would potentially save lives.
Unfortunately, there’s been little progress so far.
National Park Service geologists Paul Kennard and Scott Beason are experimenting with several theories, hoping to establish an early warning system at Longmire and farther downstream on the Nisqually River, even if it gives only a few minutes’ notice.
“It might at least give people enough time to start running,” Kennard said.
One theory, Beason said, is that water pressure before an outburst flood is so great that portions of the glacier float. By installing a sensitive GPS device in the right place on the glacier’s surface, he said, the upward movement could be detected and used to trigger alarms.
Another theory is that outburst floods might produce a distinctive seismic signature that’s distinguishable from the run-of-the-mill tremblers that constantly rattle the mountain. Seismometers on the glacier might be able to recognize the signal and relay a warning.
Evidence suggests some outburst flooding might be caused when a glacier’s terminus, or “snout,” stops moving and is cut off from the ice above – a condition geologists call “stagnant ice.”
Kennard and Beason know the lower portion of the Nisqually Glacier is moving more slowly than the upper portions, and they say it is stagnant.
Careful monitoring of the movement of the glacier could provide some warning.
“We do know that stagnant ice and, specifically, slowing ice on the lower glacier combined with faster ice on the upper glacier, has been associated with these events in the past,” Kennard said.
Also, Kennard and Beason are carefully watching a “kinematic wave” on the Nisqually Glacier, a bulge of heavy ice working its way down from the summit. They think that when the bulge reaches the bottom, it might trigger an outburst flood.
Andrew Fountain, a glaciologist and Portland State University professor who has studied and written about Mount Rainier’s glaciers, said he doesn’t think kinematic waves and outburst floods are related.
“I suppose it’s possible,” he said, “but I don’t see how.”
Fountain said he thinks finding as way to predict outburst flooding at Rainier could well be a lost cause.
Predictions are especially difficult at Rainier, he said, because the high altitude and steep slopes make analysis so difficult.
“Glaciers on Rainier are tough,” Fountain said. “They’re hard to measure, and there’s a lot of rock on top of a lot of them.”
“A lot of stuff is going on on Rainier,” he said, “but it’s very complex and difficult to draw conclusions.”
Even in the most structurally simple glaciers, Fountain said, where it’s possible to determine where hidden water is located, there’s still no way of telling what will trigger a release.
“At Mount Rainier, things get more difficult from there,” he said. “Water accumulates, but we don’t know where and we don’t know how much. It suddenly comes out, and it surprises everybody.”
“Why today, and not yesterday or tomorrow?” he asked. “We don’t know.”
Habitat zones on the move
There’s a reason they call it Paradise.
The wildflowers on Mount Rainier’s upper meadows are heavenly. Butterflies drift from bloom to bloom, and shy little rabbit relatives called pikas play hide-and-seek among the rocks.
In the distance, mountain ridges fade to the horizon in ever paler shades of blue, making it easy to imagine you’re looking down on all creation.
Elli Theobald spends a lot of time in Paradise, lying in perfumed beds of flowers, counting blooms and using tiny pipettes to extract nectar.
For the past five years, she’s spent every summer there, from the time the snow melts in the spring until it arrives again in the fall.
Theobald is a University of Washington biologist doing research on the effects of climate change. She monitors changes in pink heather, lupine, phlox, avalanche lilies and 45 other meadow plants in 75 research plots on the mountain.
Her mother and father brought her to Paradise as a child, Theobald said, and they were the ones who first got her interested in the flowers. Now she’s building her career on them.
“In many ways it’s a dream job,” she said. “I’m in the lucky position to be able to call documenting these changes ‘work.’”
The bad part of the job, she says, is that she’s almost certainly documenting the meadows’ demise.
Theobald expects the data that she’s recording to become a baseline for climate changes that, in the next several decades, will force the meadows out of existence.
Research indicates that higher temperatures are drawing trees upward into the meadows. When the forests shade the meadows out, the flowers and butterflies and pikas will have nowhere to go but up, where there’s not enough soil for them to survive.
“By the end of the century, I picture this being more like some California landscapes that are brown in the summer,” Theobald said. “The snow will probably melt a month and a half earlier, and it will be hotter and dryer — mostly rock with little vegetation.”
Alpine and subalpine meadows are among the habitats in Mount Rainier National Park that are most vulnerable to climate change, according to Theobald and other researchers.
But if temperatures continue to rise as predicted, scientists say, life on the mountain will change from top to bottom.
The predicted temperature increases don’t sound like much — just 3.8 degrees by the 2040s and 6.8 degrees by the 2080s.
But researchers say even such small changes will upset the delicate timing on which plants and animals depend, leading to extinctions, invasions of non-native species and disease outbreaks.
Temperature effects as subtle as changing a bird’s breeding schedule could have consequences that ripple through the ecosystem, they say.
As the timing of winter freezes and spring thaws shifts, some plants and animals evolved for specific climatic niches on the mountain could face extinction.
Mount Rainier’s high meadows support seven of the 12 imperiled or rare plants in the park.
Gerald Rehfeldt, an ecological geneticist with the U.S. Forest Service, concluded in 2006 that because of climate change, most of the park will have a different mix of plants and animals by 2090, a conclusion accepted by a panel of scientists studying likely consequences of climate change at Mount Rainier.
The report, titled the Mount Rainier National Park Natural Resource Condition Assessment, calls Rehfeldt’s conclusion “general enough to be accurate.”
“The point is that the changes that are coming with the rates of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere will have a profound effect on the native vegetation,” Rehfeldt said. “In most cases this means that the communities will shift greatly.”
As the mix of plants changes, the animals that depend on them will have to change, too.
“It’s all about habitat,” said Mason Reid, a wildlife ecologist at the park who retired this year. “For most terrestrial animals, it won’t be the case that they are unable to withstand a few degrees of change one way or another, but that the habitat they depend on will change.”
The commonly held idea that animals will be able to simply pack up and move to more suitable habitat elsewhere on the mountain is not realistic for many species, he said.
“In many cases, there’s nowhere for them to go,” Reid said.
Because of its great height, he said, Mount Rainier is essentially a habitat island in the Pacific Northwest. As elevation on the mountain increases, temperatures fall, which creates rings of different life zones encircling the mountain.
Reid says climate change will push the rings higher on the mountain.
“At the upper end, as the snow and ice retreats, you don’t have soil, basically,” he said. “The advance of trees will probably outpace the soil-formation process.”
In the Arctic, the polar bear is the poster child for global warming. On Mount Rainer, the pika is a good candidate for the role.
Pikas are warm and fuzzy fur balls about the size of guinea pigs. They’ve evolved to thrive at high altitudes and are highly sensitive to air temperature. Exposure to unusual heat for just a few hours can cause them mortal stress.
“They depend on vegetation in the high meadows,” Reid said. “If that changes, it will reduce their food supply.”
Another animal that depends on mountaintop conditions is the white-tailed ptarmigan, a chicken-size bird that changes color with the seasons. Ptarmigans camouflage themselves by turning white in winter to blend with snow and gray in the summer to blend with rocks.
Scientist believe Mount Rainier’s ptarmigan might be a distinct subspecies, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering adding them to the threatened species list.
The Cascade red fox, a candidate for the state’s endangered list, is at risk as well.
Mount Rainier has its own subspecies of red fox and its existence is tenuous. Scientists believe higher temperatures will bring a competitor — lowland red foxes — into their range and also coyotes, which are fox predators.
“If their range changes and there are interactions between the two,” Reid said, “the foxes are going to lose.”
Lower on the mountain, warmer weather and changes in the timing of rainfall will disrupt life in ponds, wetlands and rivers, researchers say.
Climate models suggest that by mid-century, snow in the park will melt three to four weeks earlier than now, and that the amount of water in rivers and streams will be substantially lower.
“That’s likely to cause earlier drawdown and reduced water level, which would cause loss of habitat for some amphibian and wetland plant species,” said the park’s plant ecologist, Lou Whiteaker.
Birds rely on wetlands for food and nesting habitat, as do beavers, muskrat, skunks, minks, river otters and shrews.
“The climate change they’re predicting, along with storms of bigger intensity and precipitation at different levels, are all going to affect aquatic species — including fish and invertebrates — because of changes in water quality, temperature and sediment loading,” Reid said.
More sediment in streams, caused by debris flows or heavier rains, will interfere with fish breeding.
Changes in freezing and thawing patterns will change the mix of algae, bacteria and other tiny organisms in lakes, Reid said.
“We’ll see a changing distribution of nutrients in lakes, which will also affect anything that’s dependent on these nutrients,” he said.
Mount Rainier is home to eight species of native fish, two of which — Chinook salmon and bull trout — are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Another two — coho salmon and coastal cutthroat trout — have been proposed for listing.
FOREST AND FIRE
Mount Rainier’s iconic forests also are at risk, according to plant ecologists. Higher temperatures and longer dry seasons will increase insect infestations and disease and create longer and more intense fire seasons.
Warmer winters will allow more insects to survive the cold season.
Forest fires, currently rare at Mount Rainier, could become much more common.
Studies at the University of Washington indicate that by the 2080s, the area of forest burned in the Northwest each year will quadruple from the average of 2 million acres burned each year over the past century.
On Mount Rainier, whitebark pine trees, a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, are especially at risk.
As temperatures rise, stands of white bark pine on Mount Rainier are increasingly being infected by blister rust, an invasive species to which they have little resistance.
Also, mountain pine beetles, previously restricted by temperature to lower elevations, have begun infecting trees higher on the mountain. Researchers worry that warmer weather will let the beetles produce two generations in the same growing season, a situation already occurring in Canada.
“When hit twice in a season, more trees would die,” Reid said. “The combination of rust and the beetle would put more stress on a species that’s now a candidate for Endangered Species Act.”
The effects wouldn’t stop there, Reid said.
Unlike most conifers, whitebark pine seeds don’t spread by floating through the air. Instead, they depend on animals to disperse them.
If the trees disappear, so will the birds and squirrels that depend on them for high-energy food.
“Clark’s nutcracker are totally dependent on white bark pine,” he said. “If we lose the whitebark pine, then we lose the Clark’s nutcracker. It’s all interrelated.”
The issue with global warming is not change, said park biologist Barbara Samora. Mount Rainier is a dynamic environment and change is constant.
What has researchers concerned, she said, is that this episode of climate change is not natural and that it’s happening at an unnaturally high speed — too fast for normal adaptive processes.
“With climate change, theoretically, changes will be accelerated,” she said. “Native species won’t have time to evolve quickly enough to adapt.”
That makes it difficult to watch, even for scientists trained to maintain a detached perspective.
“It would be a different thing if you could say, ‘This is natural. This happens. It gets warm and it gets cool,’” said Theobald, the flower researcher. “But the rate at which it’s warming now, there’s no way it’s naturally caused.”
“I try to keep a scientific distance,” she said, “but sometimes I get kind of a panicky feeling and wonder, ‘What are we doing to this earth?’”
“I can’t help feeling bad that my baby’s kids won’t be able to experience this.”
‘War of the Woods’
The rush of rock and gravel cascading down from Mount Rainier’s melting glaciers is making a mess of man-made infrastructure in the park.
Roads, trails, bridges and buildings are costing millions to repair, and they’re expected to cost many million more as climate change intensifies.
But the large volume of sediment coming down the mountain also is upsetting the equilibrium between rivers and the park’s oldest living species — giant Western red cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock trees that have helped keep the rivers in their banks for thousands of years.
In some river drainages, most notably the Carbon River in Mount Rainier National Park’s northwestern corner, the riverbed is so loaded with sediment the entire mainstem of the river is flip-flopping across the valley, seeking new routes well away from its historical territory.
In places, the Carbon has inundated acres of old growth trees, leaving them standing dead in what National Park Service geomorphologist Paul Kennard calls “ghost forests.”
“The river beds are building up, and in the Carbon it’s happening at an alarming rate,” Kennard said. “It gets to be where the bed of the river is much higher than the surrounding forest.”
For centuries, the roots of the big trees and their giant fallen trunks created effective barriers to the water, he said, forcing the rivers to turn aside and find easier paths.
“That’s beginning to unravel here at the Carbon,” Kennard said. “We’re beginning to think that, where for centuries there’s been a balance between the river and the forest, now the river is winning. And the forests are being decimated by the river.”
Kennard characterizes the longstanding struggle as “The War of the Woods.”
He and a group of other geologists, summer interns and graduate students he’s recruited from across the country have turned the upper Carbon River valley into an outdoor laboratory, where they’re working to better understand the balance between the erosive forces of a river and the ability of a forest to hold it in place.
Kennard and his band, who sometimes call themselves “river rats,” hope their findings will help them understand the mechanics of how forests control sudden river-channel shifting, or “avulsions,” erosion, debris flows and flooding — not only on the Carbon but throughout the park and elsewhere.
In many areas of the park, Kennard said, river bottoms are higher than the surrounding forest, and the presence of large trees at the river’s edge is all that prevents catastrophic flooding.
That’s a big threat to roads, trails and bridges, but it also threatens forest habitat that supports endangered species, including spotted owls and marbled murrelets, and salmon and bull trout.
Mount Rainier’s forests have never been commercially logged, and some stands are estimated to be as much as 1,000 years old.
More than two-thirds of the old-growth forests in Washington have been cut since the 1930s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which makes the park’s stands increasingly valuable as ecological refuges.
The work of Kennard and his river rats already has shown results. Thanks in part to their findings, park managers are better able to figure out where wandering rivers pose the biggest threats and how to design more effective flood protection structures.
Taking cues from the old-growth trees, they’ve found that in many cases, natural timber does a better job than concrete or rock in keeping rivers in their channels.
Another plus for the cash-strapped park: Wood flood-control structures generally are cheaper.
On the Carbon, four massive engineered log jams not only provide flood protection but also are fish friendly. Like icebergs, most of the structures are below the surface, with logs buried 15 feet or more below river bottoms.
As climate change intensifies, more effective, environmentally sensitive ways of controlling rivers are of increasing interest beyond park borders.
On the Nisqually and White rivers particularly, Pierce County and downstream towns are concerned about the increasing amount of sediment leaving the park and clogging the downstream rivers, increasing flooding risks.
In the upper Carbon valley, the river is winning the war of the woods.
“This forest, which took centuries to create, was destroyed in just years,” Kennard said. “Now there’s going to be a tremendous lag.
“We’re going to be in this intermediate area where we don’t get the benefit of a robust forest,” he said. “The river’s going to be extremely dynamic, and it’s going to take centuries to get the trees back here.”
Pikas and ptarmigans inspire more public sympathy, but frogs might have an even tougher time with climate change.
As summers get longer and hotter in the next few decades, scientists say some of Mount Rainier’s smaller ponds and wetlands will dry up.
That means amphibian species such as the Cascades frog — already threatened — could be squeezed out of their breeding sites.
The Cascades frog has coloring that roughly resembles an overripe banana. They measure about 2 1/2 inches in length and can live for as long as seven years. Male Cascades frogs are distinctive for the low chuckling sounds they make during mating season.
Cascades frogs are found in only three states — Washington, Oregon and California — and they are narrowly adapted to high, subalpine conditions.
Because their larvae can’t survive through the winter, they’re restricted to developing in a single summer season.
“They are one of the most sensitive resources we have,” Mount Rainier National Park biologist Barbara Samora said. “They’re dependent on surface water bodies for breeding areas. If they don’t have them, their populations will decline.”
If Cascades frogs go extinct, that would be a great loss, Samora said. But their significance goes far beyond that.
BAROMETERS OF HEALTH
Because frogs and other amphibians live both in the water and on land and because they are super-sensitive to changes in environmental conditions, they make excellent barometers of an ecosystem’s overall health.
Though they keep a low profile, amphibians make up a major portion of animal biomass in many habitats. In some forested areas, amphibians exceed the combined weight of all other vertebrates.
Their population declines have an outsize effect on the larger ecosystem because not only are they a food source for many other animals, they also eat algae and countless insects, which helps keep aquatic habitats in balance.
Cascades frogs already are squeezed because of a well-meaning mistake fishing enthusiasts made more than 100 years ago.
Thinking they were doing a good deed, fishermen carried nonnative trout to Rainier’s high lakes in canvas bags filled with water beginning in the 1890s. Wildlife managers continued the practice, stocking Mount Rainier’s lakes and others throughout the Cascade range with nonnative trout that happened to be voracious feeders that gobbled up all the frog larvae and drove them to smaller, marginal ponds.
Already hurting for suitable habitat, the frogs might be pushed to extinction by the increased stress of climate change, said researcher Amanda Kissel at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C.
Kissel and colleagues, including Maureen Ryan from the University of Washington, are working at Mount Rainier to predict what might happen to specific wetlands under various climate change scenarios so managers will better understand how to deal with the problem.
Their work includes tagging frogs with transponders and using remote sensors to track temperature and water content in soil.
They also are using new computer modeling techniques that analyze digital imagery to identify wetlands and classify them by characteristics.
Their work could have broader usefulness.
“This is an important test case for assessing the potential for climate mitigation strategies,” Kissel said.
Among the options for the frogs: Remove the nonnative fish in lakes and try to make the ponds more amphibian friendly.
Removing the fish would be labor intensive, expensive and controversial. Gill netting is a possibility, but studies in Sequoia National Park and North Cascades National Park indicate it would require netting once a year for as long as eight years.
Killing the fish with poisons, such as rotenone, which occurs naturally in the seeds and stems of some plants, is another option. But rotenone also is toxic to immature amphibians and has negative effects that can last years.
Such drastic measures horrify many environmentalists and national park managers, who traditionally have tried to keep a hands-off approach when dealing with natural processes.
“Taking proactive action is scary,” Samora said. “But if you don’t take any action, it could be just as scary.”
“It’s baby steps right now — as it should be,” she said, “because we don’t want to make mistakes.”
If you’ve ever driven into Mount Rainier National Park through the Nisqually entrance, you might know the feeling.
As you pass beneath the massive log arch and begin easing your car through tree-lined curves, there’s a sense of entering another reality.
Susan Dolan says she always feels it.
“Every time I drive through that entrance, I feel touched by the legacy,” said Dolan, who manages the Cultural Landscapes Program for the National Park Service from her office in Seattle.
The feeling is no accident, according to Dolan. It was orchestrated by early Park Service visionaries.
The park’s entrances, its roads with their stone masonry guard walls, the buildings that look as if they might have sprung from the earth — the entire visitor experience — was choreographed to convey presence in a special and maybe even hallowed place.
“It was almost like a Victorian playground of a park,” Dolan said. “The experience was all laid out for you.”
HONOR AND BURDEN
The Mount Rainier style helped set the tone for all the American national parks, Dolan said, and eventually parks all over the world.
That, and the fact that Mount Rainier was the first park to conform so completely to a master plan, led to the establishment in 1997 of the Mount Rainier National Historic Landmark District.
That gave the park the highest possible protection under the National Historic Preservation Act. The level of protection is on a par with the Statue of Liberty.
The designation was an honor, but in the era of climate change, it can seem at times like a burden.
The 100 miles of roads in the historic district are narrow; they were built through low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding. Their historic status makes it next to impossible for the park to change or move them.
As the planet warms and Mount Rainier’s glaciers melt, the roads constantly must be repaired, at great expense.
Dolan is aware of the irony of the situation.
The basis for the Mount Rainier master plan was the idea that everyone should be able to experience the world through the windshield of their automobile. The exhaust from all those cars turned out to be a major cause of climate change.
Within the Park Service, it’s not difficult to find people who think the roads were a bad idea to begin with.
The park was “dealt a bad hand” with the roads, said Paul Kennard, a Park Service geomorphologist who predicts ongoing disaster as climate change continues to melt Mount Rainier’s glaciers.
With regard to decades of futile effort to keep open the park’s Westside and Carbon River roads, park biologist Barbara Samora put it more bluntly: “How much money do you have to spend before you finally just say, ‘Enough is enough?’”
Dolan takes such skepticism in stride.
“Not everyone coalesces around the same notion of what is good and bad,” she said. “I truly believe people value national parks and want to take a conservative approach to change.”
The Park Service has a legal obligation to protect its cultural resources, Dolan said, and while the National Historic Preservation Act is strict, it is not completely inflexible.
“The idea is not to put these places in a bell jar and keep them entirely unchanged,” she said. “We can’t say that we will be able to manage the Mount Rainier National Historic Landscape in perpetuity. We can say that is our goal.”
“From a preservation standpoint, the roads need to stay where they are,” she said. “Where the debate comes is, ‘How much change is too much?’ It’s a question of degree. They still need to be recognizable as what they were.
“Society as a whole has decided these are significant,” Dolan said. “Which one of us now should be the one to decide, ‘We’re wiping this out?’”
Policy, conscience collide
Warned by geologists that the South Tahoma Glacier is aimed like a fire hose at the main entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, the National Park Service responded this summer with a traditional approach.
Just past the log archway at the park’s Nisqually entrance, where outfall from the glacier crosses the main entrance road, contractors replaced a big culvert with a bigger one.
The new culvert is enormous — tall enough inside for a regulation-height basketball hoop with room left over for dunks.
The park camouflaged the new culvert with 1920s-style stonework to match that used in the rest of the park — right down to using a historically authentic recipe for grout.
As the reality of climate change sinks in, it’s becoming increasingly obvious — to scientists and managers in the park and the public as well — that such traditional approaches no longer are adequate.
Big as it is, the new culvert is miniscule compared with the surges of mud, rock and gravel that geologists say will periodically be released from the South Tahoma Glacier and others during the next several decades.
Even if the next outburst crosses the road at this particular point — which geologists say is far from certain — it easily could wipe out the entire road, culvert and all, with barely a pause.
The scale of problems presented by climate change is so overwhelming, the old ways don’t work any more.
Global warming will change the park from top to bottom, scientists say, forcing managers to choose among the many values they are required to protect, including natural and cultural resources and public access.
The situation is not unique to Mount Rainier. Other national parks are similarly threatened, including some that are in danger of losing the features they were set aside to protect.
If climate change continues as predicted, scientists say Glacier National Park will have no glaciers in about 30 years. Joshua Tree National Park will have no Joshua trees.
Jonathon Jarvis, the former Mount Rainier superintendent who’s now director of the Park Service, calls climate change “the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.”
The situation has led to hand-wringing and head scratching in the parks.
When nature is no longer natural, how far should park managers go in resisting its effects? As entire ecosystems change along with the climate, what is it exactly that the parks are supposed to be protecting?
TRIAGE NOT POSSIBLE
The environmental laws and policies that guide the Park Service were written before climate change became an issue, and now, ironically, they could turn out to be impediments to intervention that could save species and preserve access.
“Some of the obstacles in trying to manage these resources is that current federal law and policy are going to come to loggerheads at some point,” said Roger Andrascik, chief of natural and cultural resources at Mount Rainier.
“Triage isn’t really possible,” he said. “There isn’t one value that’s supreme. You have to balance them all.
“From a policy standpoint, we have to decide: What do our current policies allow us to do? Will those laws and policies keep up with what we have to do?”
At Mount Rainier, the most immediate dilemma, and the most controversial at this point, involve the park’s roads.
A central part of the park’s mission is “providing for public enjoyment,” but the melting glaciers are destroying roads faster than the park can repair them.
Two of the park’s most popular roads, the Carbon River and the Westside, are closed — most likely permanently — because of floods and debris flows. In 2006, flooding shut down the entire park for six months.
In places outside the park, dredging rivers or moving the roads to higher ground would be options, but at Mount Rainier, neither is practical nor permissible.
Except for existing road corridors and building sites, the entire park is designated a National Wilderness Area, which carries heavy restrictions on development.
Building roads outside of existing corridors would literally take an act of Congress and also would put federally protected resources at risk.
“You’ve got old-growth forests, trees several hundred years old to a thousand years old,” Andrascik said. “You’ve got endangered fish species, the northern spotted owl. All the values that we’re trying to protect would be compromised.”
Building elevated roads supported by piers could be an option, but the National Historic Preservation Act prohibits changing the look and feel of current roads.
The Federal Highway Administration, which funds most park road repair, has a policy of “replace-in-kind” after floods. It pays only to replace existing roads, not to design and build new ones.
If the planet continues to warm as scientists say it will, the option of visiting the park by private automobile might go away.
“Access is a value to be protected, but not access at all cost,” said Mark Wenzler, senior vice president of conservation programs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “It’s very clear that’s not the mandate.
“When access becomes not economically viable to maintain, in an era when Congress is not funding the Park Service adequately, park managers are obliged to make those hard calls,” Wenzler said. “Some things can’t be repaired; some things can’t be moved, can’t be rebuilt.”
Park managers try hard not to reduce access because “providing for the public enjoyment” is part of their mission and also because they know it helps build political support.
The more people there are who visit and appreciate national parks, the more likely it is that Congress will fund them.
“Public access is important for a lot of reasons,” said Sueann Brown, historical architect at Mount Rainier. “The early planners wanted everyone to be able to access the park, not just the elite.
“We want the average Joe to be able to drive in,” Brown said. “It gives a broader segment of the population the ability to experience nature, and you also have a broader segment of the population then understanding the resources and building the political will to support them.”
As climate change intensifies over the next few decades, some species of plants and animals likely will be doomed without human intervention, scientists say. Current park policies — and the personal feelings of many Park Service employees — discourage active intervention.
“It’s really difficult for us in the Park Service because we’ve always had a kind of hands-off perspective,” Samora said. “We think our job is to protect, but in the face of climate change, we don’t know what that means.”
Mount Rainier’s alpine and subalpine areas are huge tourist draws and also home to some of the park’s most threatened plant and animal species.
As climate change squeezes wildflowers and butterflies out of their alpine habitat, should they be artificially helped by removing trees moving into the meadows?
Lower on the mountain, should migrating barred owls be killed to protect habitat for spotted owls?
When wetlands dry up, should endangered frogs and lizards be packed up and moved to wetter parts of the park?
If species from outside the park arrive as expected because of climate change, should they be removed as “invasive?” Or should they be protected?
“What would have gotten here on its own and what’s here because of human causes?” Samora asked. “That’s the big dilemma right now. How do you tease out what’s natural and what’s unnatural?”
POLICY PLAYS ITS PART
The politics of climate change make coming up with a course of action in the parks more difficult.
Despite acceptance by mainstream scientists that the planet is warming and that humans are mainly to blame, there’s powerful political resistance to the idea.
Without congressional acknowledgment that climate change is at least in part due to human causes, it won’t be easy to justify some of the interventions advocated by scientists and wilderness managers.
President Barack Obama’s willingness to regard planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants put them under the regulatory control of the Environmental Protection Agency via the 1970 Clean Air Act.
But the Republican-led majority in Congress is determined to reverse his actions.
The Park Service’s chronic poverty adds another layer of difficulty. At Mount Rainier, researchers can’t afford baseline studies and monitoring that would make it possible to document changes caused by warming.
“Unless we get more data, we can’t document change,” Andrascik said.
Park geologists will have no funding to continue climate change and geologic hazard related studies next year. Despite increasingly apparent threats to natural resources at Mount Rainier, the park’s Natural and Cultural Resources Division was forced to cut spending by $200,000 this year — about 20 percent of its budget.
Senior program managers in the division were offered early retirements or buyouts to further reduce expenses. Three of them — the heads of aquatics, vegetation and wildlife — are leaving.
INFRASTRUCTURE IN DANGER
In the park’s northwestern corner, where the sediment-laden Carbon River has torn out miles of road, Rebecca Rossi steers a tough little all-terrain vehicle up toward the toe of the Carbon Glacier.
She fords streams and lurches across washouts, the ATV’s wheels sending up gouts of mud as she guns the engine on eroded inclines.
Rossi, a graduate student in geology, is in the park to research the effects of climate change.
Over the past two summers, she’s spent weeks camped out along the Carbon, tracking the activity of the river as it carries hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of rock and gravel down from higher elevations.
The way the park has dealt with the Carbon might be a vision of the future.
Access is severely restricted — only hikers and mountain bikers can use the road. Historical resources have been compromised. For example, the Ipsut Creek Cabin, built in 1933 to house back country rangers, was undercut by the river’s rapid course changes in 2006 and was dismantled and reassembled, piece by piece, on higher ground.
Natural resources on the Carbon have been compromised, too.
When the ATV has gone as far as it can, Rossi sets out on foot, leaping from boulder to boulder and clambering over downed trees on the way to a place she calls the Ghost Forest, where the river has cut a new course through an old-growth forest, killing acres of trees that have stood for centuries.
This summer, Rossi prepared a detailed inventory of park infrastructure endangered by climate change. The list includes every public access route into the park, except one, a spine-jarring gravel road to Mowitch Lake. It also includes the entire historic settlement of Longmire, which now houses the park’s maintenance, law enforcement and, unfortunately, its emergency operations center.
AN IDEA FOR ACTION
According to some in the wilderness land management profession, the best way for park managers to deal with climate change is to focus more on what’s happening outside their borders.
“They need to look at what’s happening in the whole landscape,” said Mark Wenzler, senior vice president of Conservation Programs for the National Parks Conservation Association.
While some talk of the parks as “refuges” against climate change, Wenzler doesn’t agree.
“I don’t like that word,” he said. “It sounds like we’re surrendering. Rather than refuges, I prefer to think of parks as anchor tenants within large, connected landscapes. Where it’s necessary, we need to be more deliberate in reconnecting them.”
“We need to change the things we can control — air pollution, for example,” he said. “If you take those kinds of stressors out of the system, you’re providing a lot more opportunities for fish and wildlife to deal with climate change, even as it speeds up the pace of things.”
NATURAL VS. UNNATURAL
Craig Thomas is a professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs, where he specializes in environmental policy and national land management.
Thomas said he sees no point in park managers agonizing over the distinction between what is “natural” and what is “unnatural” as they formulate responses to climate change.
“From my perspective, climate change is human caused, but it’s still natural,” he said. “Humans are a part of nature. Global warming may not be something you like, but we’re part of nature and what we’re seeing is natural change.”
If maintaining biodiversity is the goal, Thomas said, it means ecosystems will require increasing human involvement, and there should be no hesitation to do so.
Choosing to do nothing is itself a form of manipulation, he said. To allow climate change — an accidental human intervention — to proceed without undertaking planned, purposeful intervention makes no sense, he said.
“I personally believe in preserving habitat for as many species as possible,” he said, “and if moving species around helps keep biodiversity, then I’m all for it. Park managers should be doing their best to maintain what’s there.”
Wenzler is more cautious than Thomas with regard to park managers intervening to counteract the effects of climate change.
“Probably in the long run it’s not viable to engineer nature,” Wenzler said. “The best thing we can do is to maintain a healthy, functioning ecosystem — but not with a heavy hand.”
“It becomes an area of ‘best judgment.’ You can’t really legislate or regulate that ahead of time.”