Four decades ago, Dr. Pelto embarked on an ambitious study to monitor the health of glaciers over time. Today, this study reflects climate change effects.
In the past, climate change was just a term used to describe how human activities could affect our climate patterns in the distant future. Even though the effects of climate change are more evident now, they started to happen a long time ago. Many studies have shown how global warming has affected various species and ecosystems over the past years. And the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project1 is one of the most comprehensive studies on this topic.
The NCGCP is a program that studies one of the world’s best climate monitors: glaciers. Today, it is no secret that glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate as a consequence of climate change. But thanks to groundbreaking studies like the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project and its findings2, we can understand the magnitude of climate change effects and what lies ahead for our future if we fail to take action now.
After working on another research project for a few years, Dr. Mauri Pelto decided to start monitoring the behavior of North Cascades glaciers in 1982. Since the North Cascades of Washington comprise an extensive mountain range with hundreds of glaciers, Pelto decided to focus on completing detailed measurements of 10 glaciers over 50 years. His team has continued this study ever since the project began four decades ago.
The North Cascades of Washington have some of the most geologically complex mountains in the United States. While these breathtaking mountains extend from Snoqualmie Pass to the Canadian Border, the NCGCP focuses on the northernmost 100 miles of Washington’s Cascade range. Although this area is known for its extreme weather conditions, Dr. Pelto’s team conducts ground observations3. Unlike other monitoring projects, the NCGCP is carried out on foot instead of relying on helicopters to explore and study this area.
The North Cascade Glacier Climate Project encompasses objectives in the fields of earth science, arts, and communication. As for the scientific goals, the project seeks to conduct detailed measurements on 10 glaciers and evaluate their response to regional climate changes. Regarding the artistic objectives, the aim is to collaborate with multiple artists to share the project's findings and highlight the importance of these glaciers. Lastly, the NCGCP aims to inform people about the impact of climate change on North Cascade glaciers.
This comprehensive monitoring project offers young scientists the chance to participate as research assistants, help collect data, and gain valuable experience. Moreover, the project often includes the participation of underrepresented groups, such as women and international students.
But, why does the NCGCP study these glaciers in particular? Dr. Pelto chose these glaciers because the local population relies on them to meet its water needs. These glaciers release an enormous quantity of water that locals use for generating electricity, drinking water, and growing food. So, it's important to help the local community understand how changes in glacier mass balance could affect them.
According to National Geographic, the North Cascades have lost about 180 glaciers since 19804. Today, only 600 glaciers remain in these mountains. Similarly, Dr. Mauri Pelto reported that many glaciers were healthy when his study began. In fact, some of them were advancing. However, his study confirms that these glaciers are now in retreat. Even though precipitation has increased during the last four decades, Pelto has observed a 30% decrease in the volume of these glaciers. But there’s more bad news, three of the glaciers he had been studying since the start of his research have already vanished.
The extensive scope of the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project proves that the rate of volume loss is similar for each glacier. And, more importantly, it confirms the theory that temperature rises are responsible for the loss of glaciers in the North Cascades.
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