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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.

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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).

 

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"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

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The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

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"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.