Beartooth Glaciers to disappear

Photo by Eleanor Guerrero Extreme glacial shrinkage in the Beartooths over the past few decades is dramatically highlighted in the outline of the Grasshopper Glacier’s former boundary.

Regardless of whether the cause is man-made or the result of a natural cycle, scientists on Wednesday, March 12, told members and attendees of the Carbon County Resource Council (CCRC) meeting that the glaciers of the Beartooth were on their way to extinction soon. "Melting Glaciers in our Watershed" was the focus of a program presented at the CCRC's annual meeting. Tom Lyman, retired professor of geography at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, and Dan Seifert, asst. forest geologist in Custer National Forest, presented the program and slide show.   Both have been involved in studying and tracking the shrinking glaciers in the Beartooth Mountains.   Lyman explained that, “Beginning in 2011, Rocky Mountain College professor Dr. Jennifer Lyman, Tom Lyman (GIS/GPS Specialist for the National Science Foundation) and RMC professor Dr. Luke Ward have been working with Rocky Mountain College students, the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation and the United States Forest Service to gather data about change in mass of ice stored in two glaciers in the Beartooth Mountains: Rearguard Glacier and Grasshopper Glacier.”   The project uses GPS technology to gather high accuracy elevation data for areas on or near glaciers.

The resulting data will be used to improve stereographic imagery-based models for calculating change in glacier mass (loss/gain) over time. The purpose of the CCRC program was to shed light on the local watershed and promote discussion about water issues in Carbon County. Lyman explained that Grasshopper Glacier has a huge lake where 30 years ago there was only ice. “It is up by Cooke City and one of our largest glaciers in the whole Beartooth region.” One local stood up to say he recalled walking up the West Fork to Glacier Lake when ice stood way over the top of a rise. Now, he said, it was a quarter of the way down the slope.

Glacier Lake, at 9700 ft. elevation, is about 19 miles southwest of Red Lodge. “Our glaciers are melting," said Lyman. “Global warming…for sure-it might not be directly, but from global warming (induced) weather patterns.” He explained that global warming causes erratic extremes of weather not just warm weather as many mistakenly understand the concept. “It doesn’t take long for a glacier to melt,” he explained. Although Grasshopper Glacier had 200 feet of ice in areas presently showing bare ground, he said, “All you need are warm temperatures and lack of precipitation. A glacier has to be fed.”

The Beartooth Rearguard Glacier was also studied and also found to be substantially melting. While he said it was not the direct supplier of water to the area below, it was a “buffer” that had always been there to replace any depletion of the watershed being used. The event was well attended and included city and county officials. Someone asked for good news but the scientists could provide little comfort. “You can see when the permanent snow has melted from the year before, because it will be bare ground.” By the next year, he explained, it will have plant growth reclaiming the area. “My advice is to get up there and take pictures because it will all be gone.” PULLOUT: “…get up there and take pictures because it will all be gone,” Tom Lyman former Rocky Mountain College geography professor