September 08, 2015

Seattle Times Glacier Disaster

The headline in this morning's Seattle Times had a lot of shock value.  Using huge type, the word DISASTROUS boomed a serious warning.   It about the Northwest glaciers.  Terrible things were happening to them and terrible things would happen to us, from lack of water to dead fish.

Now I probably should just ignore this story.  The Seattle Times has a reputation for hyped environmental stories and irresponsible headlines, from ocean acidification killing shellfish (not true, oyster harvests have been fine and clams have been abundant) to pollution causing a change in storm intensity (again, not substantiated by either observations or models).

But I can't help note that this article did not tell the whole story and gave such a myopic view that wrong conclusions could easily be inferred.  Let me give you the perspective lacking in the article .

The story deals with glacier loss in the North Cascades, and featured the work of Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist at a small (1000 student)  eastern U.S college (Nichols).  Dr. Pelto has been coming out to the North Cascades since the mid-1980s to survey some of its glaciers and has described a loss of glacier ice mass for the past few decades, with a particularly large loss this year.  He has been blogging about "disastrous" losses of glacial ice, and several newspapers, including the Seattle Times have picked it up, with the ST going full out with a huge headline.

So is there a disaster going on?   To evaluate this, let's make sure we know how to recognize a disaster by checking the dictionary.

So a disaster should be a sudden event that causes great damage.  Are the changes in the glaciers a recent change?  Can this be connected with a sudden surge of global warming caused by mankind?
Will the impacts be significant?  Let's find out.

The respected International Program on Climate Change (IPCC) has examined the retreat of glaciers across the planet.    As shown by a figure from one of their reports, the lengths of glaciers across the world have been generally shrinking since the late 1800s.

As described by the IPCC and in other work, the explanation is clear.  The earth started warming in the late 1800s as it came out of the multi-century Little Ice Age.     This warming is thought to be natural since mankind's impacts (e.g., from emissions of carbon dioxide) were small then.   The glaciers starting melting due to increasing global temperatures.  And with some variability, the warming has continued since that time.

But what about Northwest glaciers?  As with their global cousins, most have been melting since the late 1800s.   This is easy to demonstrate.

One of the most respected experts on such matters, Professor Steve Porter of the UW Quaternary Center, has this plot of the boundaries of Rainier's Nisqually glacier on his website.  A steady retreat since the mid-1800s.

Or to see all of Rainier's glaciers, here is a graphic of the glaciers on the entire mountain in various years:

Big retreat between 1898 and 1913, which continued to 1971. This retreat would have been of a natural origin.

 Kristina Thorneycroft of Portland State University has studied the glacial trend over the North Cascades (see figure), with her results showing that either for the North Cascades Park as a whole or the South Cascades glacier area in particular, the downward trend  f glacial mass has been going on for more tha a century.

I can show you a dozen more of these kinds of figures from other scientists, but the bottom line is clear:  the retreat of glaciers have been going on for more than a century.  It started before mankind could have been the cause.

We can secure more detail about the North Cascade glaciers based on the research completed by the National Park Service.   Here is a summary plot showing the cumulative changes in the amount of ice in some north Cascade glaciers from 1993 to 2011.  Very little change from 1993 to 2001, a decline during the warm years of 2001 to 2007, and then little change during subsequent cool years.  I am sure that their update of this plot in the future will show a big melt this year.

Until roughly 1970, the retreat of NW glaciers was mainly natural in origin (because the radiative effects of mankinds greenhouse gas emissions were small until that time).   During the past few decades, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have undoubtedly made a contribution to the trend. This year we have had very little snowpack and with record warm temperatures, there has been melting of the glaciers.  But one year does not make a trend.  And as I have demonstrated in my previous blogs (with references), there is little reason to expect that next year will be similar or that humans are the cause of the extreme warm anomalies this year.

So the first part of the definition of a disaster....that it be clearly busted. Glacial melting has been going on a long time and humans have not been the main cause of the glacial retreat for most of the time.

According to the definition of disaster, there should be great damage or loss of life.  Well, I don't think anyone is claiming there is loss of life from glacial melt.  But what about damage?   The main thing folks are talking about is stream flow and water resources..

Nearly all of the water used in the Northwest is NOT from glacier melt, but rather from winter  rainfall and snowpack melting during the summer.

A peer-reviewed paper by Schaner et al, (2012) looked at this issue.  Here is a map with their results for our area, showing the largest percentage of glacier melt to water supply in rivers for at least one month.  Grey (less than 5%), green (at least 5%), yellow (at least 10%), orange (at least 25%), red (at least 50%).    Most of Northwest is less than 10%.  And this is generally only for one or two months during the summer.  The rest of the year glaciers provide little water.

The North Cascades have the most glacier area of any place around here and NC Park did a study for the percentage of glacier runoff for the summer period (see below).  The numbers are a bit high because they also include the melting of seasonal snow accumulation on the glaciers. For Ross Lake (important for power generation), we are talking about roughly 5% during the warm season.  Stehekin  River, perhaps 8%.  Baker River roughly 12%, and only for the small Thunder Creek are we up to about 25% for the warm season.

No major urban or agricultural area in our state is dependent on glacier melt.   And even north Cascades areas only get a few percent of their annual water from it.  Bellingham, the nearest major city to the North Cascades area featured in the Seattle Times story has no water issues this year and has not even had metering for its residential users (they are finally putting meters on now because of State law).

So the bottom line is that the impacts of reduced glacial melt are generally small, with only a few exceptions.

So the second part of the definition of disaster is not met.  There is little impact.

Based on the above, I will let all of you decide whether the Seattle Times was being accurate and responsible in their Disastrous title.  You can guess how I feel.  No where in the article were readers given the long-term perspective.  Not one mention of the little ice age.  That the glacial melt has been going on for a long time. No where were the minor impacts of loss of some glacial melt noted.  It was painted as a crisis.  And that is simply not true.

And there is something else...although lower elevation glaciers are melting, higher level glaciers are stable and are expected to grow under global warming, which is predicted to bring more water to our region.

This year was an amazingly anomalous year, with record summer temperatures.  Melting is greater this year.   But folks need to be very careful about assuming it represents any kind of trend or serves as an indicator of what we will experience during the next few decades.  By the end of the century, anthropogenic global warming will be large over our region and there will be a serious loss of lower-elevation glaciers.  Summer glacial melt will be greatly reduced.   It won't be good.   Fish will suffer.  Water supplies will tighten in a few locations.  But it won't be a disaster or crisis.

Thunder Creek


What to do something to deal with global warming?

    If you are interested in learning about and helping the Washington State revenue-neutral carbon tax initiative, check out the CarbonWashington web site.  The need signatures for the initiative and financial support.    I strongly support this bipartisan effort.


  1. You mean we're not all gonna die from lack of water?

    I've read of similar DISASTERS in the Himalayas and the major rivers that originate there. Are those stories likewise inaccurate?

  2. Gordy,
    The situation is far more serious there because they get a far higher percentage of their water from glacial melt. You are right, we are all not going to die from this....cliff

  3. But please note the recent acceleration of NW glacier loss in the two graphs, as well as the Nisqually Glacier map. This looks like an anthropogenic effect, albeit perhaps not a "disaster."

  4. Cliff,
    I occasionally find myself debating global warming with some friends who consider it a big hoax.

    So it sounds like glacial retreat can't be used as evidence towards global warming. Nor the Blob nor El Nino.

    So my question is - what things are we seeing presently that are definitely due to global warming?


  5. Cliff,
    I love your blog, but perhaps humans need a public-relations jolt now and then to get them to look at a long-range problem.

    Some argued as early as 1933 that the situation in Europe would be a lethal disaster for European Jews. Their warnings were hyperbolic relative to the limited and fragmentary evidence of the time. So they were dismissed as Cassandra's.

    Sometimes hyperbole correctly informs action. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason, that is not a bad thing.

    Abe Jacobson

  6. can also do wrong things for the wrong reasons. Like invade Iraq. I believe scientists and the media need to give society the full truth and let society decide. Otherwise, we--unelected folks--are essentially making societal decision. Democracy demands truthful information, not exaggeration, hype, and falsehoods...cliff

  7. This planet has always gone through climatic changes and always will. Right now we are actually entering a period of global cooling. Hence all of the crazy weather around the globe.

  8. Cliff Mass, your blog on this glacier article is a dangerous disservice.

    You show graph 4.13 of IPCC AR4 but fail to reference graphs 4.14 or 4.15 or the text. Graphs 4.14 and 4.15 clearly show a marked loss of glacier mass balance from 1995 onward. The text says “… Around 1970, mass balances were close to zero or slightly positive in most regions (Figure 4.15) and close to zero in the global mean (Figure 4.14), indicating near-equilibration with climate after the strong earlier mass loss. This gives confidence that the glacier wastage in the late 20th century is essentially a response to post-1970 global warming…”
    Another major limitation of your post is that you only reference this 2007 IPCC report and thus miss the most recent data of the past 8 years. This 2015 reference shows an accelerating glacier ice loss during 2001-2015 versus 1950-2000.

    “The globally observed mass loss rates of the early 21st century that are revealed via the glaciological and geodetic methods are unmatched in the time period of observational records, or even of recorded history. The observed rate from the glaciological mass balances is significantly more negative than the average for the second half of the 20th century (–0.54 m w.e. a–1 vs –0.33 m w.e. a–1).”

    The graph of Pelto data in the Doughton Seattle Times article shows a similar acceleration of glacier mass balance loss -12.5 from 2001-2015 versus -5.0 from 1984 to 2000. And quoting Pelto “This [2015] is the single biggest volume loss in the last 50 years … ”.

    Thus, it seems appropriate for the Seattle Times to quote Pelto on the glacier melt of 2015 as “Disastrous” … by the dictionary definition “a great misfortune” or “something that has a very bad effect”. This is a clear indication of accelerating global warming impact on the Washington state “… where glacial-fed streams and rivers provide drinking water, hydropower and a cooling flow for salmon …”

    You conclude “ By the end of the century, anthropogenic global warming will be large over our region and there will be a serious loss of lower-elevation glaciers.  Summer glacial melt will be greatly reduced.   It won't be good.   Fish will suffer.  Water supplies will tighten in a few locations.  But it won't be a disaster or crisis.” You’re downplaying the dangers of global warming over this next century is highly irresponsible and totally contrary to IPCC climate experts who say we must act “immediately and decisively” to reduce our carbon emissions.

  9. I agree that the headline was a bit sensational, but that is hardly unusual for the media. And while we might wish that they would give a full description of how post-Little Ice Age melt has transitioned into AGW, this is the popular media we are talking about.

    But it seems unlikely that the few peaks high enough to get glacial gains under global warming will make up for the many more numerous glaciers that are lower altitude. Even those upper glaciers are going to possibly shorten even if they are thicker up higher. I guess that depends on how fast they slide.

  10. Cliff, then why aren't you addressing major points?

    From the times website comments:
    Another major limitation of your post is that you only reference this 2007 IPCC report and thus miss the most recent data of the past 8 years. This 2015 reference shows an accelerating glacier ice loss during 2001-2015 versus 1950-2000.

  11. Thanks for taking a long term perspective and using data to provide an understanding of how glaciers are changing. There is one thing I cannot reconcile with the warming trend since the 80's and accelerated glacier retreat, and that is the data you showed earlier this summer (or was it last summer?) about the average melt-out day at Paradise. You had pretty convincing data showing that at several locations in the 5,000-6,000 ft. altitude range the average calendar day that the current year snow pack melted out was been about constant. Is there something going on the region between the meadows and the lower glaciers that explains that?

  12. This may not qualify as a disaster from a purely-anthropocentric perspective, but there ARE impacts to the natural world that we will only fully grasp 5-7 years from now.

    Low stream-flow leads to much warmer stream temperatures, which significantly impacts reproduction for local salmon-bearing waters. The eggs hatching this year are at risk of developmental abnormalities, and the depths/temperatures may impact older salmon returning to spawn that cannot find favorable habitat as a result. Since salmon are a keystone species in Pacific Northwestern ecosystems, this will have repercussions throughout the food web.

    Lives will be lost in numbers higher than average mortality rates among species. Just because they are not human lives doesn't mean this isn't a potential disaster; perhaps our definition simply needs some modernization.

    -Tom Jenkins
    UW Program on the Environment, Class of 2014

  13. Nobody thinks this is the first year any part of any glacier has melted; half this blog is devoted to killing a straw man.

    The dictionary lists several listings for disaster including:

    * an event or fact that has unfortunate consequences.
    * an occurrence that causes great distress or destruction
    * a thing, project, etc, that fails or has been ruined

    I've seen many glaciers personally across the North and Central Cascades for many years and have no problem calling the loss of ice they've experienced this year "disastrous."

  14. This:

    "I believe scientists and the media need to give society the full truth and let society decide. Otherwise, we--unelected folks--are essentially making societal decision. Democracy demands truthful information, not exaggeration, hype, and falsehoods...cliff"

    An outstanding follow-up on an an outstanding post.

    On a related note, I feel one of the most glaring absences in the scientific community today is the lack of follow-up or accountability on predictions made regarding climate and weather. Why are ultimately incorrect predictions not held accountable, or at least publicly reviewed (if they were publicly published)? If a scientist/meteorologist/climatologist publicly makes a prediction in the media that creates fear (often with timing that coincides with current conditions), and then that prediction does not play out, why is there not an outcry from the ethical members of the scientific community, or at the very least a public review? Cliff, you seem to be one of the only (the only one I am aware of) that calls these things out and/or are transparent in your predicting. Why are there not more?

    I know of a glaring example early in the year, in the midst of the community coming to grips with the low snowpack situation, that predicted a "very dry spring" (based on predictive models that were official and scary) that heavily implied a potential water supply disaster for the region. We then had the opposite, >100% of precip pretty much across the state but particularly here, from Feb-Apr (which finished off filling our reservoirs). Where was the follow-up, the ramifications, the accountability?

    By the time May was here we had SPU asking people to use water. That was a new one. And it was because there was so much fear created that had no bearing, whatsoever, on the reality of our water supply.

    Seriously Cliff, if you were not writing this, is there anyone else out there that would be?

  15. Cliff, I enjoy your blog and share it widely and frequently. However, you lost me on this one. Especially the last paragraph where you proclaim that there will be no climate change related disaster by the end of this century. The basis of your article seems to be a problem of semantics - hyperbole which you believe is so misleading that it must be disproved. However, you have no hesitation to look 80 years ahead and state that: don't worry, no need to change course, no disasters to be had here. Seems pretty reckless.

    I am a salmon biologist working in the northwest and I expect that the majority of our wild salmon populations will be extinct by that time. Large numbers of climate refugees will be moving into the northwest, will our water supply be up to the task? To criticize one author of being fast and loose with the wording and then to turn around and make a blanket prediction decades ahead of time seems pretty contradictory.

    Thanks for considering.

  16. Dear Cliff,

    Thanks for pointing out that the Seattle Times has become an environmental rag without scientific merit.

    As to our warm and early summer in the Pacific Northwest this year, that has been a welcome change from the record cold Spring and minimal summer we had a few years ago. Some were worried here in Oregon about our community water supply that comes off of Mt. Hood. Would we have enough water in August with the mountain so bare of snow? The short answer is that we did, just as we always have in the 80 year history of our system. Since that stretches back to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s (a similar period), we have little to worry about - unless we oversell the supply!

    One important thing to point out in a warm dry year is that mountain snow and the glaciers that result therefrom have benefited from the massive snowfalls of recent past winters. Phil Mote's claim of a declining NW snowpack from about 1950 to 1995 DID NOT CONTINUE. Funny how he never likes us to point that out!

    Perhaps you should point out that Mt. Baker had a world record snow accumulation in the 1998-1999 winter of 1140 inches!

    Let me make one important correction to what you say. The UN IPCC is NOT the International Program on Climate Change. It is the INTERGOVERNMENTAL Panel on Climate Change. Their correct title captures the governmental and political nature of that organization.

    Gordon J. Fulks, PhD (Physics)
    Corbett, Oregon USA

  17. sunsnow12

    "Why are ultimately incorrect predictions not held accountable, or at least publicly reviewed (if they were publicly published)?"

    At first I thought you might be referring to claims that we are experiencing global cooling despite 2014 being the hottest year on record and 2015 on track to beat it. The IPCC forecasts are constantly being reviewed and compared with the temperature record and current temps are within the range forecast, though they are in the lower part of that range.

    As far as precipitation goes, where on earth do you live? Washington state was "below average" for precipitation for the period Jan-Apr 2015, and June was the third driest on record. Such predictions are very different than longterm climate forecasts, but I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that we had a wet spring.

  18. You're making too much of a dictionary definition. "Disaster" is often used to describe events that took a long time to unfold. World War Two was a a disaster. People often use it to describe the entire four or eight years of a Presidency. The housing bubble/financial crisis was a disaster for many, and it took many years to unfold.

    I don't know exactly what the article in the paper referred to as being disastrous, but it could be just that. The long-term glacier loss could result in one year's harvest being disastrous.

  19. this summer is easily a disaster for me from a glacier standpoint. if not for those heavy rains a few weeks ago, almost all non-glacially fed streams would be dry right now. with our summers becoming warmer and dryer with less snowpack to begin with, it seems plausible that we will end up with extremely low/no flow situations every summer. heck, in 2012, most everything was dry even in bigger creeks like the south fork of the sauk river. this summer, in the high country, there were almost zero seasonal streams running at the end of june!

    so, if our seasonal snowpack disappears, and all of the glaciers save for ones on baker, rainier, and glacier, disappear, where does the water come from? disaster?

  20. Cliff, Thanks for the extra attention. A few key points the Nisqually Glacier had a robuts advance in the 1955-1975 period, not a steady retreat. We are not guessing at the glacier runoff contribution, we actually measure it, and it is greater than 40% of total discharge in the North Fork Nooksack from July 29-August 17th. This would be true of a longer period, but I do not have the results to confirm. I am the United States Representative to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, because I am the most experienced alpine glacier researcher we have, and love teaching at a small college, instead of a large university. Also why the American Geophysical Union asked me to blog on glacier for them. The amount of loss this year is so large that glacier runoff on top of the 2013 and 2014 losses from glaciers, that it is not going to recover. This is like losing a radar facility, which you often indicate as a disaster. We can still forecast the weather and the rivers still flow, just not as much in summer. Now I look forward to you forecasting some better winter storms.

  21. Cliff, I love reading your blog when you break down Northwest weather. I find your blog endlessly frustrating when, every few months like clockwork, you decide to dismiss any approach to writing about climate change dangers that doesn't fit neatly into your particular perspective. Perhaps instead of attacking the Times, you should engage in a vigorous debate with other experts about what we can and cannot attribute to climate change at this point, and how concerned we in the Northwest should be (or shouldn't) about the changes we can expect in the next 10, 20, and 50 years. I'd much rather read that than this stuff you put up every few months to be sure we know climate change has nothing to do with this event, that event, or any event.

  22. Dean –

    February through April precip in Seattle was as follows (source: Seattle Weather Blog): Normal: 9.93”; actual: 11.77”. Even if May and June are included the entire 5 month period comes in at 94% of normal, hardly “very dry”, and not remotely a statistically significant shortfall. It filled our reservoirs. For the water year, we are currently at 36.45” of precip vs. 36.36” avg. Exactly 100%. Cliff has been sharing these stats consistently all year and has been one of the only voices in our community saying it.

    Does that help you understand “where on earth I live”? Why do you need to make belittling statements like that on a site like this?

    Where is the scientific community (other than Cliff) on truth versus hype? How about accountability and review? All I want from information sources is truth and transparency. And I fully expect it from the scientific community (i.e. scientific method), and particularly those making predictions to the public. Not hype, not agenda. Just truth.

  23. I too have advanced degrees from major universities,BS,MS in Natural Resource Managemnt,JD in Environmental Law, 30 + years practice in EV Law. I find your'e position on this highly misleading and "popularist.
    There IS a crisis looming. You end your'e blog entry admitting as much. Read the most recent eddition of "Oceanography." You sir, are a weather forecaster, and should leave your'e "opinions" to the weather if you are swimming upstream vs. the majority of experts on climate change and OA.
    We in the PNW are contributing little to the carbon load in the N Pacific, but are seeing rapid, unprecidented changes that are not consistent with your'e "little ice age" hypothesis.
    The migratory fish are ganging up in the Astoria Canyon, where they can find something like normal oceanic pH from the calcium carbonate loads offered by the CR. A refuge for species in crisis. Yes, they got a hot shot of acid from this year's fires and excellerating warming, along with N Pole melt-off and acidicification. Please, stick to the weather if you don't think we need to act. Our beloved glaciers may be no more than a nostlagic memory, but the engine is breaking down.Sorry if I seem hostile, ut I think your'e blanket of comfort is misleading.

  24. Yes I do now. I don't live in Seattle and as I indicated the state (not just where I live) was dry for the period. If you're not finding accountability and review, you're not looking.

  25. The assumption that no warming/glacial retreat since the late 1800's can be attributed to anthropogenic causes is flawed. Humans began burning large, long-term stores of organic carbon (i.e., wood and peat) long before the peak of the Little Ice Age. The trend of glacial retreat since the LIA peak is not purely 'natural' by default just because the LIA was natural; to some extent, the anthropogenic drivers of warming were kept at bay by the LIA, and then unleashed.

  26. I love coming here to gain insight into northwest related weather phenomenon. However, when you delve into topics that are better covered by a geologist (and no, I don't mean Don Easterbrook), I start to loose interest.

    Your rant on labeling something a disaster seems at odds with your previous comments. You once claimed Issaquah had a disaster when it attempted to change math text books...

    It seems like you have an agenda lately and I'm certain your views on glacial loss are at odds with those actually studying glaciers at the UW and elsewhere (not just those from small, eastern colleges).

  27. The fact Cliff merits much of his response to one definition of "disaster" vs. its common usage says a lot.

  28. Cliff, you should know that blogs like this one damage your credibility.

  29. Ben F
    I think you are being unfair. I have talked to glaciologists and hydrologists at the UW and my blog was informed by them and consistent with their thinking. And the math books selected in Issaquah were a disaster. They had an immediate and profoundly negative effect on the math learning of Issaquah student, a degradation confirmed by parents in that district.

    And please...only read the blogs that interest you. If you don't like my climate-related blogs, don't read them. But a substantial part of my research is on NW climate and I plan on continuing to talk about this important issue, including noting when the media gets it wrong.


  30. It seems like several people here believe to no end that nearly every weather pattern change is related to human-induced climate change and are not willing to hear any other viewpoint. It's like they worry that "Oh no, this viewpoint is dangerous because it could make people skeptical and thus less people will try to save Earth!" I don't think that's realistic.

    Cliff believes human-induced climate change is occurring. I find it refreshing that he is approaching these current climate situations in a logical manner and sometimes with a different viewpoint than what is "popular". In terms of the Earth's climate, we can't just look at a small window of time. You have to look at the bigger picture and from multiple angles.

    Some are attacking him for even suggesting this viewpoint. If no one debated anything, then society would make a bunch of uninformed, incorrect, and reactionary decisions. You have to look at things from multiple angles.

  31. As many non-glaciologists say glaciers have been retreating continuously since the Little Ice Age. Of course this is not true in most areas or in the North Cascades. UW glaciologist Richard Hubley pointed this out in the 1950's that many North Cascade glaciers were advancing.

    Since the maximum advance of the Little Ice Age (LIA) there have been three climate changes in the North Cascades sufficient to substantially alter glacier terminus behavior.

    This first substantial climate change was a progressive temperature rise from the 1880’s to the 1940’s. The warming led to ubiquitous rapid retreat of North Cascade Range alpine glaciers from 1890 to 1944 (Long, 1955; Hubley, 1956). Average retreat of glaciers on Mt. Baker was 1440 m from LIAM to 1950, and of 38 North Cascade glaciers monitored across the range, 1215 m (Pelto and Hedlund, 2001).

    The second substantial change in climate began in 1944 when conditions became cooler and precipitation increased (Hubley, 1956). Many North Cascade glaciers began to advance in the early 1950s, after 30 years of rapid retreat. All 11 Mount Baker glaciers advanced during this period (Hubley, 1956; Harper, 1993). All the major glaciers on Glacier Peak did too.

    The third change began with warmer and drier conditions in 1977 (Ebbesmeyer et al., 1991). By 1984, all the Mount Baker glaciers, which were advancing in 1975, were again retreating and the (Pelto, 1993) with an average retreat of 400 m by 2014. By 1992 all 47 glaciers termini observed by NCGCP were retreating (Pelto, 1993). This retreat has continued with four of the 47 glaciers disappearing.

  32. Professor Mass provides us with a reasoned and rational approach to climate change. He is in favor of sensible mitigation efforts if they are based on real data which as yet is sorely lacking. Climate change as a societal issue has become a political tool instead of an educated response to a likely real phenomenon. His credentials speak loudly and as a voice of reason we should be thankful for him and hope more join his ranks.

  33. Cliff, what you seem to be missing is that the loss of glacial ice was fairly extreme this year, and of a greater extent has been seen previously. You don't include this past year on your plots. Given the current trends, it doesn't appear that the PacNW glaciers are going to recover that ice, and years like this will only hasten their demise.

    So maybe this year in and of itself doesn't rate your definition of "disaster", I think you're being a bit too blase about the way things are heading for the glaciers, and the potential impact on natural and societal systems.

  34. A case in point; "World War Two was a a disaster" - or was WW II a decided victory over what would have been a disaster of terrible global consequence. If we are going to sacrifice resources and potentially lives to abate this warming trend, or mitigate its effects then let us listen to all voices who have a reasonable view.

  35. glacierchange (Mauri Pelto) is certainly correct to note that the glaciers have not continuously declined or grown of the past century or so. I certainly am not claiming that. We have the general warming coming out of the Little Ice Age. We have natural variability (like El Nino/La Nina, PDO, the NPM that produced the warming this year). And we have anthropogenic warming, which will rev up during this century. But the key point is that we need to be VERY careful about claiming too much based on the anomalous situation this year. I can guarantee you that next year will be MUCH better..cliff

  36. Great piece Cliff. This is what the Alarmists do not get. The doomsday prophecies of the IPCC, lead by the very poor performing GCMs, all fortell of ominous scenarios. Twenty years ago, those were forecast for today, but it turns out that Alarmism requires actual circumstances that would cause Alarm. The 20 foot sea level rise that Hansen predicted would cover the West Side Highway in Manhattan would definitely be cause for Alarm. But vague and largely unsubstantiated reports of a few degrees rise by 2100 are not cause for Alarm. Adpatation maybe? Cautious research in coming years, of course. But world economy changing Alarm? Hell no. And the past doomsdar stories have not materialized. Thus the more cautious observer who compares the GCM predictions over the past 20 years to observed results wonders if maybe the models are wrong?? So why trust them for the future?

    And the public is wise to the Chicken Littles. It is always the same story. And that's why the Seattle Times is championing the Alarmism. The IPCC is gearing up for the big Scare Party in Paris don't cha know? So best to send the President to Alaska to inspect glaciers and make anecdotal and entirely unscientific observations to help gin up the scare engine. And why wouldn't a bunch of good Media Stooges like the Seattle Times follow right along? One if gets eyeballs to look at their seldom read stories. And two, it helps sell the message of the President whom they adore.

  37. Cliff: At the beginning of your post you stated "Now I probably should just ignore this story". Your concern "that wrong conclusions could easily be inferred" from the article I suppose is valid, but I have to say comparing the article with your post I would say that the Times article did a far better job and indeed covered many of the same areas you covered. One would have to read your post very carefully to not come to the wrong conclusions due to the style of your writing.
    In my view you over hyped the glacial ice retreat post little ice age in a manner that inferred (even if that was not your intent) that the was main reason for the retreat of ice. Your use of the Nisqually Glacier retreat image as an example of steady retreat is bringing a very high elevation glacier from outside the study area (North Cascades) and also was not accurate in that the Nisqually did have standstills and advances during the 1950s and 1960s - the retreat of the very well studied Nisqually has not been steady at all.
    You write excellent posts at a remarkable pace; however, you go a bit sideways whenever you riff off a media article.
    That said, you could add a lot by adding to the article. For example, the article was clear (to me) that significant retreat has taken place since the 1970s. Global climate change likely has played a role. But I suspect you might be able to add to that what role the PDO has played or look at relationships between negative ice balance years and non global warming climate contribution. Dr. Pelto as well as the smaller study by Riedel and Larrabee have added a remarkable data set that could be utilized by climate scientists from the big school (UW).

  38. @JeffB

    Many esteemed institutions agree with IPPC.

    "The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society." American Association for the Advancement of Science

    "Human‐induced climate change requires urgent action. Humanity is the major influence on the global climate change observed over the past 50 years. Rapid societal responses can significantly lessen negative outcomes." American Geophysical Union

    “The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking steps to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere." U.S. National Academy of Sciences

    "Climate change will affect the Department of Defense's ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security." Department of Defense’s "Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap” 2014

    Is there some important information that you and Cliff Mass can share with these institutions to dissuade them from the need to act urgently on global warming?

  39. To those who say that blog posts like this reduce Cliff's credibility, I say the opposite. This is exactly the kind of dialog we should be having and which is rarely (if ever) seen in the media.

    We have Chicken Littles and Deniers. Both are doing the American public a huge disservice and are both working to drive a political issue that will only lead to the usual gridlock and assurance that little will get done. We have very large problems to solve due to AGW, and properly educating the public and making informed, rational public policy is essential to make any real progress.

    To do that we need responsible information sources, working to hold media and then politicians accountable for meaningful change. And that means guiding them to work on the real problems, defined rationally by scientists and addressed by engineers.

    One thing the we Americans have become good at since Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. is detecting the smell of hype. Overselling is worse than underselling because people tune you out permanently. Bravo to Cliff for keeping us tuned in.

  40. I read the referenced Seattle Times article. I could agree that it is overly dramatic, but I found no errors in the science. I viewed the word "disastrous" as mainly referring to the mass loss of PNW glaciers in general; not just to water supply or fisheries effects. I do believe that "disastrous" is a fair word to use regarding the glacier loss. For example Marzien et al (2014) give evidence that 69 percent (plus or minus 24 percent) of the global ice mass loss from 1991 to 2010 is due to anthropogenic global warming, which is a huge increase over the longer term (1851-2010) average of 25 percent of mass loss being due to AGW. We can expect that the portion of glacial mass loss due to AGW will continue to increase in the future.
    I would also like to point out that the majority of glacial area is at lower elevations (since there is relatively little land area at higher elevations), so a loss of lower elevation ice has a proportionally greater effect on ice volume loss.

  41. The Balise Family,
    The Marzien etl al paper is totally modeling with a lot of assumptions, some of which I think are questionable. It does not including realistic natural variability. More importantly, it does not consider our region--which is a very special case. Because of the eastern Pacific we have not warmed as much as many fact, the eastern Pacific has cooled the last several decades. Our snowpack has not declined. So there is little reason to expect our glaciers would decline like other places...cliff

  42. Cliff:

    While the snowpack data suggests that "there is little reason to expect our glaciers would decline", nearly all glaciers in the North Cascades have shown a clear trend of loss of ice volume throughout that same period. This is also true in the Olympics. A good question for atmospheric/climate scientists to try figure out. There is a data set out there from the work in the North Cascades and to a lesser extent but also important in the Olympics that could use some attentions by some clever atmospheric scientists. The use of snowpack trends fails as a predictor of glacial ice volume stability - other factors are taking place.

  43. Cliff: This is slightly off topic, but not really. I wonder if you could work on a blog post about the concept of "Fat Tail of Climate Change Risk." Michael Mann just had an article in Huffington Post ( about it. As I Google around, I see that the Fat Tail idea (skewed risk resulting from tipping point mechanisms, making prediction based on past behaviors uncertain) is buzzing around in lots of places. One article by Weitzman appeared in the Review of Environmental and Economics Policy ( I value your perspective and opinions and hearing from you on this topic would be helpful.

  44. Dan McShane,
    Actually many glaciers have shown no change over the past 60 years. Compare the glaciers in the early 50s to say last year. You will be shocked. Virtually the same...cliff

  45. I am shocked - by your definition of virtually the same. Perhaps its your definition of many glaciers. There are some that have not changed much - mostly small high elevation glaciers.

    To name more than a few:

    Hinman Glacier on Mount Hinman was once the largest glacier between Mount Rainier and Glacier Peak. In 1958 it covered an area of 1.3 square kilometers. It has since essentially disappeared entirely with no ice movement and an area of ice of less than o.2 Km2.

    Foss Glacier located on the northeast side of Mount Hinman, retreated 86 m from 1950-1979, 112 m from 1979-1997 and -290 m from 1997-2005. The glacier has lost half of its area since 1992 (Pelto).

    Lynch Glacier on the north side of Mount Daniels retreated 390 m from 1950-1979. This was likely enhanced by the fact its end was a lake. However, it has since retreated from the lake shore an additional 123 m and is now actually two glaciers.

    The Columbia Glacier on Monte Cristo is one that has not changed much in area since 1950. The terminus retreated 15 meters from 1950 to 1979 and then 94 meters between 1979 and 2005. This glacier is relatively low in elevation and faces south so it might better match the snowpack trends than others. It is fairly far west and likely has extra orthographic lift and maybe gets some enhanced precipitation via convergence zones.

    The Inspiration Glacier had a lobe of ice extending into the valley below in 1960. That lobe is now gone and the mass of ice has greatly pulled back.

    South Cascade Glacier is well known to have shrunk a great deal and continues to do so.

    Borealis Glacier has nearly reduced in half by area and even more so by volume since 1960. I hiked across the lower half every day for 5 days back in 1990. That hike would now require a swim as the glacier is gone and replaced by a lake.

    The Forbidden Glacier has nearly disappeared since 1960.

    The McAllister Glacier was formerly a long valley glacier has retreated up the valley over 1,500 meters since 1990 and will soon be a hanging glacier with no presence in the valley.

    North Cascades has several glacier images from the 1950s or early 1960s to 2005 including some of and others mentioned above

    Take some time to play around with the interactive map of glaciers in the Olympics One of those glaciers - Anderson has completely disappeared. Others have shown dramatic ice loss.

    Yes, some glaciers have remained the same size, but all the glaciers selected for study by Pelto and North Cascades NP have lost ice since those studies began. Most of the others mentioned above are not part of those studies but aerial imagery back to the 1950s or early 1960s show retreat. Glaciers on the Washington Cascade volcanoes have also declined in ice volume since 1950 with additional decline being the general trend. Google-earth or a little internet research will show those retreats.

    How much is AGW or natural variability is up to climate people to figure out. Maybe it is not an answerable question. But the ice coverage and volume has been declining since the 1950s and 1960s as best we can tell via old aerials and more recent studies.

  46. Dan,
    I am going to do a blog showing that the glacier loss is far less than some folks think..and I am talking about from roughly 1950 to now. Look at the USGS maps...many of the glacier boundaries are very similar across 60 years....cliff

  47. The National Park Service website contains this unambiguous statement:

    "Four glaciers in NOCA have had a negative mass balance over seven consecutive years (2003-2009) (Riedel and Larrabee 2011), showing clear evidence of global warming which translates to changes in stream flows and increased challenges for aquatic life and ecosystems."

    Perhaps this statement will have to be revised after your upcoming post on glacier loss.

  48. John... that may be true, but that is too short a period to mean anything. There are plenty of periods of such negative mass balance....including some in the early part of the 20th century....cliff

  49. I won't be supporting some "bipartisan revenue neutral carbon tax." Here's why:

    1. Even if CO2 emissions are a problem globally, this tax would have negligible impact. It's therefore just one more item in a long series of typical meaningless Seattle "progressive" symbolism. We have way, way too much of that here already.

    2. It's a back-door income tax, because of the way the money is "returned."

    3. It violates the WA State constitution's requirement that gasoline taxes be used for roads.

    4. When it comes to ANY taxes, this state's politicians have repeatedly shown themselves to be dishonest and untrustworthy.

  50. Re Cascade glaciers not shrinking much from the 1950's to now. Here is a link to pictures of one of the best monitored glaciers in the Cascades from 1958 to 2003

  51. John Reinke wrote..."The National Park Service website contains this unambiguous statement..."

    The NPS website also contains another unambiguous claim:
    "A recent survey of climatologists reveals that 97% of those scientists think that global climate change is occurring presently and that human activity is the primary cause..."
    "The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which conducted the survey above..."

    Did an IPCC survey reveal that 97% of climatologists think that global climate change is occurring presently and that human activity is the primary cause?

    Such blatant disinformation raises doubts about the veracity of other NPS claims.

  52. Cliff Mass wrote that people living around the Himalayas get a far higher percentage of their water from glacial melt than people living in Washington state.

    If the climate turns cold and Himalayan glaciers stop melting, a lot of people are going to get mighty thirsty.

  53. Jim Little,

    Try this for graph for starters.

    Carl Mears Study

    Anyone can plainly see that the models overstate and over predict. And that has been going on for 20 years and more. Any prudent and reasonably scientific person would ask themselves why? Why are the models so inaccurate. And if they are inaccurate now, why is everyone so certain that they know what is to come in 2100? Dr. Mears speculates that the missing heat has mysteriously subducted in to the Pacific. But that is also conjecture, and not science. We do not have enough data to know with any accuracy what is going on at all sea levels within the entire Pacific, and even if we did, it would be the same largely chaotic and difficult to model Earth sized system as the atmosphere.

    It reminds me of doctors in the current pharmaceutical era. Why the certainty in magic pills that will fix all ills? Anyone can read the long list of side effects and questionable efficacy of the trials.

    Humility and much more science is in order and that is the opposite of Alarmism.

  54. JeffB,

    Two things:

    1. The heat in the oceans is not conjecture, it has been reliably measured by the thousands of ARGO floats that go down thousands of meters below the surface. Nor is it mysterious. The process that pulls it down has been described.

    2. The green envelope in Mears graph is what is mysterious to me. Graphs of the slowdown in surface temperatures usually show it to be well within the range forecast by models. I emphasize the word range because the temperature does fall below the central forecast line, but well within the uncertainty range. I would post one of those here if images were allowed.

  55. Dean,

    1. This is false. There are about 4000 Argo buoys. They float. So they don't always take readings in the same place. The number of data points for 100 km x 100 km x 2000 ft deep grid cells of ocean is very small. In some cases only a handful of data points for 10,000 sq km. That's not any kind of accuracy for prediction. Some locations in the ocean get only a few data points per year. And 8% of the oceans have never even been sampled at all. There is simply nowhere near enough floats or data to form any kind of timely forecast. These are not daily and immediate readings like that of a thermometer at an airport. These are floats that roam the oceans and take readings every 10 days, slowly rising from the depths and recording as they go. Only vague generalizations can be made, not accurate forecasts. We know there is generally more heat off the Eastern Equatorial Pacific this year that we call El Nino, but we cannot say with any real accuracy what this foretells about even the rest of this year. And if you look at the ocean system overall, we see something on the order of .02 or .03 degrees Celsius per decade of warming over all ARGO data readings. The system is remarkably stable. And one would expect just that as water, and especially a lot of it like 2/3s of the earth's area, has a lot of thermal mass.

    Science is and has always mostly been about boring cautious and in many cases decades or centuries of admitting we don't yet know. Sensational Alarmist claims are definitely not science.

  56. Jeff - You really have no idea what you're talking about. If you want to wait till there are millions of Argos instead of thousands, you can do that. But the point of the Argos wad not forecasts, but that they have clearly measured the heat stored there, as you previously denied. 4000 floats is more than adequate to confirm this.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

New Podcast: Showers, Warm Up and Winds on the Eastern Cascades Slopes

  Cold, moist unstable air has been moving into the region on Saturday, with the showers obvious on the high-resolution visible satellite im...