What the Great Melt of the Northwestern Glaciers Means for the Indigenous “Salmon People”
Up and down I-5 hallway, people noticed something strange when they looked east this summer: bare rock where the snow and ice should be.
From Mount Adams in the south to Mount Baker near the Canadian border, the summer of 2021 has left its mark on the Washington high country.
âFor longtime residents of Washington state, it is shocking to see Mount Rainier snowless at its top,â Representative Marilyn Strickland told the US House of Representatives in September.
“In just four days this summer, four days at the end of June, the peak of the heat dome, the mountain has lost 30% of its total snow cover,” she said, standing in front of photos before and after highs state summits. Peak. âIt’s a visual demonstration that climate change is real. “
âI have lived here for almost 38 years and have never seen the bare mountains like they were this year,â said Abby Yates of Everson.
In Whatcom County, where Yates lives, the dominant feature of the skyline is the 10,781-foot snow cone of Mount Baker, the third highest peak in the state.
âWhen I looked at the mountain and it was just gray, honestly it made me want to cry,â Yates said. “I think I probably cried.”
The large melt was just one effect of the extreme summer temperatures in the Northwest. The heat has ruined crops and killed at least 138 people, thousands of salmon and millions of shellfish in Washington state.
The great melt hit some people harder than others.
For Yates and other members of the Nooksack and Lummi tribes, the snows of Mount Baker aren’t just a backdrop – they’re vital.
This is the first part of a 2-part series on the Mount Baker glaciers.
he glacier-covered peaks of Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker in the North Cascades form the sources of the Nooksack River.
âGrowing up, I knew the importance that not only Baker, but glaciers and other snow runoff played to the Nooksack River,â said Ross Cline Jr., Nooksack Tribe member and planner. âAs a child, I remember Mount Baker always looked like it had a huge pack of snow. “
The Cline and Yates tribe has a deep connection to the river of the same name and the white-peaked mountains that feed it.
âThe place where my family has lived and lived since time immemorial is so precious to me,â said Yates, whose backyard ends at a canal in the Nooksack River.
âWhen I have my feet in the water, that’s when I feel most grounded,â she said. “Living near water, being able to hear it every night when I fall asleep is just a very important part of my life.”
One in four families on the Nooksack lands live in poverty. Median income is less than two-thirds of that in Washington state, according to the US Census Bureau.
Yates said she grew up very poor, her parents fishing in the evenings after working all day.
âSo I understood from an early age how important the river was to our family for providing food,â she said. âWe ate a lot of salmon growing up.â
Like Aboriginal groups in much of the Northwest, the tribes of the Nooksack Basin identify themselves as salmon.
âI am Lummi. I am one with the orca. I’m one with salmon, âJay Julius, former president of the Lummi tribe, told a University of Washington lecture. âI no longer exist without salmon, period. I am no longer. I am a lost soul. I’m a lost mind, and I don’t know how to put it in English either.
âI grew up eating salmon, sometimes three times a day,â Nooksack Tribe President Ross Cline Sr. said in an email. âThis year I only had one coho for the whole year. Over the years my diet has changed, leading to health issues unknown to my Nooksack ancestors.
âWe are losing our identity because of our salmon,â said Lisa Wilson, member of the Lummi Tribal Council. âThe salmon are sick, and so are our people. “
Salmon in the Nooksack Basin depend on the snows of Mount Baker.
“How do we keep the land nourished if the rivers aren’t flowing?” Ross Cline Jr. asked. “How do you brown the salmon if the water is too shallow and too hot for it to come back?” “
To answer these questions, the Nooksack Tribe sends researchers to Mount Baker every summer.
OGrah liver was standing in a stream less than a foot deep, but he couldn’t see his feet. The water was so thick with sediment that it might as well have stood in chocolate milk.
“It’s cold!” said Grah, who manages the water resources of the Nooksack tribe. “It’s probably 32.5 degrees Fahrenheit.”
High on the slopes of Mount Baker, he and Whatcom Community College geologist Liza Kimberly were measuring the flow of Sholes Creek, one of the milky springs of the North Fork Nooksack River.
Grah has been coming here for 10 years to keep an eye on this glacier and the river it feeds. Frigid meltwater flows from the snout of Mount Baker’s Sholes Glacier.
âTo get a sense of how much the glacier is melting each year, we do it by measuring the outflow from the bottom of the glacier,â Grah said.
The Sholes are one of the easiest glaciers on Mount Baker, although that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to. This is a six mile hike with the last mile being an ankle length off trail run.
As the glacier and nearby snowfields have receded, a mile that once took 20 minutes to walk over packed snow now takes an hour over loose rocks deposited by glaciers of all sizes.
At a half-dozen locations atop the River of Oozing Ice, Grah and his team of crampon athletes are measuring the glacier’s response to a hot summer in a hot decade, after a century of gradual warming.
Whatcom County has warmed by about 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 125 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Mount Baker’s ice covers, which cover about 15 square miles around the top of the volcano, are getting thinner and smaller. The nearly 1.5-mile-long Sholes Glacier has retreated more than 400 feet into the mountain since Grah began studying it in 2012.
At the top of the glacier, the changes can be imperceptible to the untrained eye. Below, it’s more obvious: meltwater gushes out from the dark blue underside of the glacier.
Of course, glacier ice melts every summer. The fresh snow replenishes it in winter. But as the climate has warmed, this annual dance has tilted in favor of melting, and glaciers around the world are melting.
The total ice surface in the North Cascades has declined by more than half since 1900, according to Harriet Morgan of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, and the trend is accelerating.
From California to Canada, the bumper summer of 2021 was a harsh one for glaciers, with many losing at least 5% of their volume in a single summer, according to Mauri Pelto, glacier researcher at Nichols College. It was the worst or second worst year (after 2015) for ice along the West Coast.
Pelto estimates that Mount Baker lost 95 million cubic meters of ice in 2021, the equivalent of razing at least 8 feet of each icy surface of the volcano.
âTo compensate for that, you would need at least 900 inches of snow, which is over 50% above average,â Pelto said in an email. “Is it possible, yes. Is it likely, no.
âThe way things are going, it doesn’t look good for the atmosphere that supports glaciers as we know it today,â Grah said.
Even with careful scientific measurements of something that is disappearing, emotions can kick in.
âIt’s very sad,â Kimberly said. “The whole top of Baker’s, like a brown boulder right now.”
In August, Kimberly returned from Alaska, where she had studied the much larger glaciers of the Juneau Icefield.
âI literally started to cry when I got to Bellingham, just seeing these little alpine glaciers disappearing,â Kimberly said. “I’ve never seen them so small, and I feel like they barely hold up.”
Oliver Grah also saw things this summer that he had never seen before. On the long hike to the glacier, he noticed a small valley of bare rocks and dirt that until recently was a snowfield all year round.
âI have never seen snow in this small pool before,â he said.
Until the summer of 2021, this bare patch of land had probably not seen the light of day for at least 700 years, according to Pelto.
Of course, on a sunny September day, with mountains all around, ptarmigan giggling, peeping pikas, tundra blueberries in their blazing red fall colors, the high country of Mount Baker is always a place to be. breathtaking beauty.
It is also a landscape of irremediable loss.
âI don’t think there is much we can do to change the rate at which glaciers are melting,â Grah said.
Humans could stop polluting the atmosphere and prevent catastrophic losses to the human and natural world. But even that wouldn’t cool the climate enough to keep these glaciers from retreating anytime soon.
As Mount Baker lives less every summer to his name Nooksack Kweq ‘Smanit (White Mountain), the Nooksack Tribe are now focused on adaptation: how to sustain their cold-water lifestyle in a hot 21st century.
Coming Monday: Part 2 about the Nooksack Tribe’s efforts to keep a river, its salmon, and its people healthy in an increasingly hot world.