June 18, 2023

The Real Story About a "Melting" Mount Rainier

As many readers of the blog know, I often provide a reality check for over-the-top and often inaccurate Seattle Times articles dealing with climate change. 

It is unfortunate that the Seattle Times has moved to an advocacy role on the issue of climate change, often exaggerating the effects of global warming.  They often fail to provide reliable information to their readers on this important topic.

In yesterday's online paper, they had a front-page story written by their columnist, Danny Westneat:  Mount Rainier is melting.  Can anything be done to stop it?

As you can imagine, they are talking about the glaciers on Mt. Rainier.  The story references a new "piercing" National Park Service report and talks about the substantial reduction in glacier ice volume. 

The message in the article is clear:  Rainier's glaciers are now rapidly retreating and that human CO2 emissions are the cause.   We need to act now.

"It’s climate change before your eyes." 

"We’ve really got to focus on how we emit carbon into the air.”

This is a very deceptive article designed to convince us that a signature aspect of our region is being lost due to human carbon emissions.

The truth is that Rainier's glacial melt has been predominantly natural, with human carbon emissions a small part of the story.

Although the story was supposedly motivated by a new report by Scott Beason and associates of the National Park Service (a very nice piece of work, I might add), this article NEVER mentions that most of the glacial loss on Rainier has little to do with human-caused climate change produced by increasing CO2, and the proof of this statement is found in the report itself.   

Consider Figure 6 of the report, which shows the change in glacial ice area on Mount Rainier since 1895 (below).  The glacial area has been reduced from around 130 km2 to around 75.   Note that most of the loss was between 1895 and 1970, a period when there was very little human-caused global warming.

Ice Volume shows the same story (see below)


Viewing the ice volume of Rainier's largest glacier (Emmons) shows that nearly ALL of the loss occurred during the 1895-1915 period.


There is, a large literature demonstrating the impacts of human greenhouse gas emissions is only significant after approximately 1980. Thus, the majority of the loss of Rainier's glacial ice had to be natural.

In fact, we have a good idea of what happened.  From roughly 1350 to 1850 AD, a large portion of the Northern Hemisphere was in the Little Ice Age, a period of cold temperatures and enhanced snowfall.  There are a variety of proposed mechanisms, including changes in solar radiation and shifts in ocean circulation, all caused by natural processes.  Starting during the late 1800s, the world and our region started to warm, and glaciers began to melt and retreat...as shown in the figure above.

Don't get me wrong:  global warming due to our emissions of greenhouse gases is slowly warming the planet and such warming would contribute to glacial melt during the past few decades.  But that contribution has been quite modest compared to natural variability, something that is not mentioned in the article.

But there is more.

The amount of warming that has occurred over Rainier (and our region in general) has been relatively small due to the presence of the Pacific Ocean, which has slowed regional warming considerably.  And this is particularly true of the windward (western) side of the Cascades, of which Rainier is a part.

We can show this explicitly using observations at Paradise on Mt. Rainier, located at roughly 5000 ft ASL.  Below is a plot of annual temperatures at Paradise from 1917 to 2022, covering the period following the end of the Little Ice Age.  

There is NO WARMING.  In fact, the trend line shows slight cooling.   This hardly suggests a major warming that would cause massive glacial melt.  There are periods of slightly warmer and cooler temperatures, but no overall trend.

I should note that there was little change in precipitation over the entire period at this location.


But let's take this one step further.  Glaciers are controlled by additions during the winter and melting during the summer, so let's look at the trend of summer (June, July, August) temperatures at the Paradise Ranger Station (below).   There is a small upward trend of roughly 1°F.   Less ocean influence during the summer.


The long-term perspective is critical for looking at such climatological data.  Imagine I plotted only the last 30 years of Rainier summer temperatures (see below).  

YIKES. Now the temperatures have warmed by 4F!    Folks would start to panic.


The Bottom Line

  A detailed look at the excellent National Park Service report and long-term glacial and meteorological data suggests the following story.

There has been a substantial loss of glacial area and mass on Mount Rainier during the past 130 years. 

Most of the loss has been natural and occurred before human-forced global warming could have been significant.

Mount Rainier, downstream of the slow-to-warm Pacific Ocean, has experienced very little warming over the entire year since the early part of the 20th century.   Summer warming has been weak over the past century, but there has been some short-term warming during the past decades.  

I believe a reasonable conclusion of all this is that most of the glacial loss on Rainier during the past century has been natural, but that human-caused warming could be making a modest contribution to glacial loss during the past few decades.

I wish Seattle Times reporters such as Danny Westneat would take the time to provide their readers a scientifically accurate, nuanced understanding of what is occurring.   And no, I don't think his idea of putting tarps or glass beads on the glacier is a good idea.

Finally, let me note that it SNOWED at Paradise this morning.  Mother Nature is telling us something.




























35 comments:

  1. I'm not sure your graphs support your point -- you mention that human-caused warming really only has taken effect since 1980, but then dismiss the significant temperature increase of Rainier summer temperatures over the last 30 years in your last graph. It's true that it's (somewhat) returning to a longer-term baseline, but it still seems at least potentially worrisome?

    Also, your first two graphs look like they show an increasing rate of ice loss over that same period, do they not?

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  2. Chris.... I am not dismissing the temperature increase over the last 30 years...that is why I showed it. This warming...the sum of human caused and natural forcing... is contributing to the loss of glaciers during the past 30 years. That said, most of the glacial ice lost occurred before humans could have been the cause. The key point is although human contributions are not trivial, they are not the main story in the observed losses. ..cliff

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  3. To me, the most impactful part of the graph showing the ice loss from 1895 to the present, is the accelerating loss after about 1990. The steep drop from 1895 to about 1920 may be due to natural causes as you state, but this may have been the result of the rapid melting of glaciers built up by cold, heavy snow years prior to 1895. The accelerated drop after 1990 seems to coincide with the recent warming trend, which likely has ties to man-caused factors.

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  4. My non-scientific observation:
    looking at photos my father in law took in 1959 showed the Nisqually glacier near the bridge on the road to Paradise. Photos 10 years later show a large retreat. Now, the glacier is not visible from the road at all. It seems like the retreat has been going for 60+ years. Again, I'm not a scientist, just a nature lover.

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  5. The next time someone tell you that the Climate Doomsayers aren't a cult, just show them one of literally thousands of articles exactly like this one:

    https://twitter.com/jordanbpeterson/status/1670455025485721602

    Anti - human, bitter dead - enders, the lot of 'em. Once upon a time I was a stalwart member of groups like the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society, etc. But that was a long time ago, before they became Climate Cultists in hopes of enriching their top officials via donations from the general public. Their campaign of hysteria continues unabated.

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    1. Calling people who you disagree with "cultists" and "anti-human" doesn't really seem helpful. Referencing Jordan Peterson is equally useless in a climate discussion.

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    2. Booger, I'll strike that as non - responsive, since you apparently didn't read the article that was referenced. It had nothing to do with Jordan Peterson, and your ignoring that fact only proved my point.

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  6. Thanks for posting this. It's good to hear the whole story.

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  7. The report you are citing (from the NPS) disagrees with your analysis by noting that the rate of glacial loss is increasing and it's due to climate change.

    "Our data shows a continuation of gradual yet accelerating loss of glacial ice at Mount Rainier, resulting in significant changes in regional ice volume over the last century. The long-term impacts of this loss will be widespread and impact many facets of the Park ecosystem. Additionally, rapidly retreating south-facing glaciers are exposing large areas of loose sediment that can be mobilized to proglacial rivers during rainstorms, outburst floods, and debris flows. Regional climate change is affecting all glaciers at Mount Rainier, but especially those smaller cirque glaciers and discontinuous glaciers on the south side of the volcano. If the regional climate trend continues, further loss in glacial area and volume parkwide is anticipated, as well as the complete loss of small glaciers at lower elevations with surface areas less than 0.2 km 2 (0.08 mi2 ) in the next few decades.

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    1. Fred...no, this is totally consistent with what I am saying. Humans are now starting to contribute some warming that will cause some glacial melt, but most of the loss since the late 1800s is natural..cliff

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    2. If anyone's interested in what the article actually says about this issue of natural caused vs. human-caused, instead of Cliff's wrong statement that it is never mentioned, here it is:

      "The rates of retreat have accelerated — up 26% in the past seven years, compared to the historical average, the paper says. Lately Rainier has been shedding 1 square mile of glacial ice every five years.
      "Beason is not a climatologist, so his paper doesn’t tease out how much of the melt was natural, and how much may have been due to an emissions-fueled warming climate. As a geologist, he says he tends to look backward. But others have used these rates of ice loss to model Rainier’s possible future.
      “There’s no model I’ve seen that shows zero ice,” he said. “But any glacier below 10,000 feet is really in a lot of trouble. The ones higher than that will still have ice, but they’ll be a lot smaller.”

      Obviously from this, the scientists were talking about the future, not the past, to discuss how a warming climate might affect the mountain going ahead. The paper didn't study the issue of what caused melting in the past -- as the article says.

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    3. Danny
      I very much appreciate your willingness to engage on this issue: few Seattle Times writers have done so in recent years. It says something very positive about your caring to the get the story right.
      But your comment is not correct, and is in fact, internally consistent. You are particularly incorrect that I have written a “wrong statement that is never mentioned.”

      For example, in your last sentence you state “ Obviously from this, the scientists were talking about the future, not the past”. Yet the quote your provide in the paragraph above directly contradicts this claim ( talking about the last seven years compared to the historical average).

      I think you are being a big disingenuous regarding the impacts of global warming. It is all over this article of yours. And nowhere do you put the loss in historical context, noting that global warming is not the whole story, but a recent contributor. It leaves the reader with the impression that most of the glacial loss is from human-caused climate change…and that is simply not true.

      If you ever want a constructive engagement let me know. The Seattle Times (and particularly your colleague David Horsey) has been highly irresponsible in exaggerating the impacts of greenhouse gas increases. Greenhouse warming is a real problem, but a modest, manageable one…And no, I would not spread the glass beads of yours…cliff

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    4. Cliff -- more mischaracterization. Yes, the paper discussed the rising rate of melt during the past seven years, as well as during the past 125, but it did not attempt to parse out how much of that was due to natural or human-induced causes. Nowhere does the article say that melting from 100 years ago was due to human causes. The only time the scientists remarked on the possible influence of fossil-fuel emissions was in relation to present or future warming. The article literally states: "the paper doesn’t tease out how much of the melt was natural, and how much may have been due to an emissions-fueled warming climate." Yet you are slagging me for supposedly not mentioning this issue. The scientists involved didn't study it.
      Also: The giant tarps and the glass beads are not my idea -- they are things people are doing in other parts of the world to try to slow glacier melt.
      Finally: You close with a note about how it snowed at Mt. Rainier yesterday and that this is "mother nature telling us something." This is like a senator bringing a snowball onto the floor of Congress as proof that climate change isn't happening. Expected for a politician, kind of cringey for a scientist -- especially one who is trying to argue that the newspaper is being unscientific.

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    5. Danny.... I don't think I mischaracterized anything. To prove that, look at the end of your story, after you noted the ridiculous tarp/bead strawman.

      “It’s a very large area of ice to protect up here,” Beason echoed. “There isn’t going to be a practical way to intervene. We’ve really got to focus on how we emit carbon into the air.”

      You bring it back to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. You know what you are doing. You know the false impression your are leaving in people's minds.

      And I had to laugh at your reaction to my mentioning the cold and snow---just the kind of approach the Seattle Times is famous for. You are right...it has nothing to do with global warming...one event never does. You might remind your colleague David Horsey about that. Or your editors when they reach grant conclusions about one event. The cold wave is a warning though. Don't assume the NW summers have changed so profoundly that we can't get cold and precipitation during summer.

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    6. Cliff - yes, it's true that the majority of ice loss on Rainier occurred before 1980. But that's a strawman. The real concern is that the rate of glacial melting is accelerating. And Danny's article quotes the scientists he spoke to as saying the same:

      “The pace is quickening, and the number of glaciers experiencing a disequilibrium response is skyrocketing.” - Mauri Pelto
      "The rates of retreat have accelerated — up 26% in the past seven years, compared to the historical average, the paper says."
      “Lately we’ve had some glaciers retreating 3 to 6 feet per day in the summertime,” Beason said. “You can definitely see that. It’s climate change before your eyes.”

      I'd like to see references to papers by any noted climate scientists who agree that the acceleration in ice melt (on Rainier or any other glaciers) isn't largely due to climate change. Can't find them in my searches.

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  8. As I have been reading the Cliff Mass Weather Blog for a number of years, I have the impression that Climate Change due to human factors is not at the critical mass that we are lead to believe. I'm interested in public transportation as a more effective investment to have a positive environmental impact then for example providing $7500 tax credits to individuals who purchase electric cars. Thinking outside of emissions alone, we could consider how resources might be utilized through a shared means. This might be well outside the focus of a weather blog. But I am trying to determine how one might make environmental arguments for public transportation that aren't overreaching.

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    1. The transportation problem is very complicated. I would love to buy an electric car but I can't afford one, they don't quite have the range I need to get to remote mountain trailheads and I don't think the power grid can handle millions of cars plugged in at night the government needs to build more clean power plants. My commute is so bad that I have started living in a gas guzzling Van during the workweek and coming back to my house on the weekend. Even though the Van has poor fuel economy I drive way less miles when only make the big commute once a week and I'm saving on gas. If the price of housing doesn't drop alot then I will need a Van and last I checked there were no electric Vans. To truly solve the transportation problem we need alot more than just a electric vehicle tax credit, we need the government to upgrade its infrastructure and we need to make housing more affordable.

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  9. I hike to Cascade glaciers alot each summer and I have noticed major shrinkage in recent years. Just last year I was shocked at how bad the Mowitch Glacier on the NW face of Rainier looked, it mostly bare ice hardly any snow cover, the appearance of rocky outcroppings showed even the upper part of the glacier at 9,000 to 10,000 feet was thinning. Also the the steep rock face above the glacier was almost completly bare in past years this face was a mix of snow and rock. The Easton Glacier on Mt Baker is particularly well studied and it has retreated alot in the last decade or two. The really big glaciers on Mt Rainier will take a long time probably a few hundred years to melt but they are melting. There are also way more forest fires then I remember from my childhood and the increase in fires has to be at least partly caused by rising temperatures. I hate to say it Cliff but I'm starting to feel like you are biased against global warming, you're data doesn't fit what we are seeing in our everyday lives.

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    1. Storm... I am not "biased" against global warming...it is real. But one needs perspective on its importance and significance compared to natural variability. That important subtlety is missing in many media reports, such as this one. Forest fires is another good example where other forcings that global warming are more important...cliff

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    2. Cliff, you have stated several times that the increase in forest fires recently is due to other forcings that are more important than warming temperatures but I have yet to see any proof from you that this is so. Can you include an article on this sometime?

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    3. I have blogged about exactly this issue on many occasions. I have noted the huge change in our forests, increased human ignitions, extension of flammable invasive grasses, and more. Please do a search on my blog and check them out.

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  10. Over the past 30 years, How much of the warming is natural forcing? And What is the cause of the natural forcing? Most of the high elevation glaciers in the Cascades (Rainier's glaciers are in that category) appear to have reached a stable area and volume by the 1950s with the big, long down valley portions (Emmons is a good example) still diminishing on the lower portions to the 1960s and even 1970s. There was then an approximate 20 year static period as well as some glacial expansion. Was there a natural cooling forcing during that period?
    What is evident is that ice volume, even for the high elevation glaciers, is very sensitive to small changes in temperature. For lower elevation glaciers the change in volume is more dramatic with some glaciers in the North Cascades and Olympics completely disappearing.

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    1. Dan...you are very much correct, glaciers can respond to shorter term variations. And there was a cooling period in the middle of the 20th century, that stopped the glacial repeat temporarily, even with some advance...cliff

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  11. I attended Middle School in the Mendenhall Valley north of Juneau, Alaska, which had been largely covered by ice in the 19th Century, I think. By the 70s, signs warning people against being crushed by ice were still placed at now-incredible distances from the face of the glacier, and one could follow the growth of new vegetation up valley, from bare rock to mosses to little pink flowers to willows and alders and cottonwood, then finally spruce with hemlock out towards the airport. It is sad to see the beautiful glacier retreat. (Though teh sockeye salmon and their big furry carnivores don't seem to mind.) But it certainly did begin -- and not just on the West Coast -- long before Humvees hit the ground.

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  12. I can't square the plots showing the reduction in glacial ice and the ones showing no change in temperatures in the period before 1980. There is also the comment of no change in precipitation. How do you get glacial reduction without an increase in temperature and no change in precipitation?

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    1. eprman.... although there is little overall trend in temperature (and precip) for the entire 130 year period, there are shorter period (up to several decades long) in which there were warmer or cooler temperatures and precipitation modulation. Glaciers appear to be sensitive to the shorter period variations..cliff

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  13. BLI officially set a new daily record low max temp of 56F on 6/19 breaking the previous record of 60F set in 1964 and it looks like a couple of other daily record low max temps were set at Olympia and Everett as well

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  14. Cliff- I enjoy your blogs and often learn something from them. For example the end of the mini ice age in the mid 1800s is very interesting and demonstrates how complicated natural systems are. I enjoy our mountains regularly and hiking across glacial till that was deposited in my lifetime always has an emotional impact, making it difficult not to jump to conclusions. Your prior forest fire blogs present easy to understand science that indicates the weather systems associated with the fires are likely not climate warming related. Have you considered that the small increase in air temperature may have increased insect activity enough to make the forest more susceptible to large fires? Also, the statement "Greenhouse warming is a real problem, but a modest, manageable one", might apply the PNW in a bubble, but sea level rise will have a very large impact on the billions of people living near see level in 3rd world countries.

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  15. As always, I come here for the truth. I do wonder, and have to doubt, if I will ever see a headline about how COLD it is here right now! Nope, not gonna see that. But...if its HOT, oh boy....

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  16. Perhaps in ~ 30 years glaciers will be gone completely and the rate of ice loss will drop to 0, because there will be no more ice to lose left. That would produce a very nice graph showing that the loss of ice has stopped, but wouldn't matter or help anyone :( The loss of glaciers is perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives, not something to be dismissed. It absolutely doesn't matter at all if it is natural or human caused, we humans still have to make a tough decision of what to do about it.

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    1. yes, definitely serious. who are "we"? there are countless animals, like pikas and marmots who depend on living at the edges of glaciers, as glaciers are disappearing, so is their habitat. They actually die, without even having the luxury of the time to complain about real threats. This loss of life is a real threat that is already happening. It is a tragedy and a shame for humanity.

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  17. "...we humans still have to make a tough decision of what to do about it." Herein lies the problem, laid bare. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted because so - called experts screamed about how "we must do something about it." Now those same experts are urging us to eat bugs, give up our cars, go live in Soviet - era apartment buildings, stop having children, and don't forget giving up our gas stoves and heating appliances. The public is fed up with this caterwauling, and comments like this is why.

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  18. did you see the lawsuit over the 2021 heat event by Multnomah County? https://www.koin.com/news/oregon/multnomah-county-goes-after-big-oil-for-heat-dome-deaths-files-lawsuit

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    1. Christine...such a lawsuit is just silly and will inevitably lose. Just a waste of resources...clif

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  19. Hi Cliff,

    Nice name. Long time lurker.

    I've been a local in the cascades skiing, hiking, and camping on and around these glaciers for over a decade. I must admit I've seen first hand ice body changes in the alpine regionally. But I am curious about the modern approach in measuring, tracking, and assessing glacial health today.

    It feels like most of the news focuses on sensationalist story's, pictures, and studies focusing on terminus decay alone. Yet we have good existing methodologies in avail in measuring glacial mass balances where the first focus is not just a glacier's extent.

    Yet it feels like the studies I read focus on the terminus changes alone and there is little discussion of glacial velocity or mass balance higher up on the glacier.

    Are studies are taking a holistic approach at monitoring glacial decay?

    This article summarizes what I thought years ago was a common approach.
    https://www.nps.gov/articles/glacier-monitoring-techniques.htm
    And yet every year I see a news outlet showing pictures of various glacial terminus changes which could have been easily attributed to historical periods of dryness. Any thoughts on this?

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

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