Quantcast

A Last Look at California's Glaciers

Climate

Beyond the world we know, in the shaded recesses of our highest mountains, lies another California. It's a world of rock and ice, of brilliant light, of fearsome snowstorms that over time have formed a stunning collection of magnificent glaciers.

[slideshow_deploy id='346881']

Many people don't realize that glaciers even exist in California. In fact, we have about 130.

Most cling to steep slopes of the Sierra Nevada, but they're disappearing at a rapid rate. Geologist Greg Stock of Yosemite National Park reports that even Lyell Glacier—second-largest in the Sierra—no longer has the mass required for it to creep downhill, which is one condition that defines a glacier.

With a strange but passionate marriage of gusto and sadness, I recently spent a full spring, summer and fall photographing these glaciers. It was one of the most remarkable years of my life. Climbing to mountain heights brought astonishing scenes as the sun edged over the horizon and bathed the ice in morning's golden glow. At campsites I was enchanted by glacier-fed streams that nourished rivers below, including the Tuolumne, later tapped by San Francisco through the Hetch Hetchy system, and the Owens, bound for Los Angeles. The glacial runoff continued long after other waterways had withered in summer's drought.

It was a privilege to see such beauty. It was tragic to know I would not see it again.

Among all the changes wrought by global warming—heat waves, raging floods, rising seas, menacing droughts—the melting of the glaciers is the most immediately visible for anyone who ventures high enough to see them.

One might reason that California's glaciers are already small and of little consequence, but the same forces that are melting them are also reducing the mountains' entire snowpack, which will diminish this century by 30 to 70 percent, according to scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. That snowpack accounts for 60 percent of the water used in California.

How does one respond to such fatal news? New dams are not the answer because we've already built on all the dam sites that made economic and engineering sense, and further ponding of water increases evaporative loss.

Rather, water delivery systems need to be made more efficient to cope with shortages and to leave adequate nourishment in rivers for the greater community of life, including commercial fisheries at sea. Floodplains need to be safeguarded as open space to accommodate higher floods and to recharge groundwater. Certainly we need to reduce the source of the problem—burning fossil fuel—and the state Legislature has taken steps to bring our discharge of global-warming gases down to 1990 levels. But even if those contested efforts succeed, they're not enough. Reductions at the essential scale can hardly be imagined as long as our population is slated to double within a half-century or less. If we can't do the job now, how will we do it then? Our commitment to endless growth needs to be challenged, or the problems stemming from unlimited needs will be unlimited as well.

Take one last, sweet look at these glacial gems of California. It's too late to stop their melting. But perhaps their loss can help inspire us to turn the tide of destructive change and protect the workings of the natural world upon which we all depend.

Tim Palmer's most recent books include his photo collection, California Glaciers (Heyday, 2012) and Field Guide to California Rivers (University of California Press, 2012).

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

With well over a billion cars worldwide, electric vehicles are still only a small percentage. An economist from the University of Michigan Energy Institute says that is likely to change. Maskot / Getty Images

In 2018, there were about 5 million electric cars on the road globally. It sounds like a large number, but with well over a billion cars worldwide, electric vehicles are still only a small percentage.

Read More
Nestlé is accelerating its efforts to bring functional, safe and environmentally friendly packaging solutions to the market and to address the global challenge of plastic packaging waste. Nestlé / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Nestlé, the world's largest food company, said it will invest up to $2 billion to address the plastic waste crisis that it is largely responsible for.

Read More
Sponsored
Determining the effects of media on people's lives requires knowledge of what people are actually seeing and doing on those screens. Vertigo3d / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Byron Reeves, Nilam Ram and Thomas N. Robinson

There's a lot of talk about digital media. Increasing screen time has created worries about media's impacts on democracy, addiction, depression, relationships, learning, health, privacy and much more. The effects are frequently assumed to be huge, even apocalyptic.

Read More
Indigenous people of various ethnic groups protest calling for demarcation of lands during the closing of the 'Red January - Indigenous Blood', in Paulista Avenue, in São Paulo, Brazil, Jan. 31, 2019. Cris Faga / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Rarely has something so precious fallen into such unsafe hands. Since Jair Bolsonaro took the Brazilian presidency in 2019, the Amazon, which makes up 10 percent of our planet's biodiversity and absorbs an estimated 5 percent of global carbon emissions, has been hit with a record number of fires and unprecedented deforestation.

Read More
Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Washington on May 12, 2017. GLENN CHAPMAN / AFP via Getty Images

Microsoft announced ambitious new plans to become carbon negative by 2030 and then go one step further and remove by 2050 all the carbon it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975, according to a company press release.

Read More