BIDLACK | Colorado’s glaciers are like canaries in the coal mine for climate change

Author: Hal Bidlack - September 25, 2018 - Updated: September 24, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

You’ve likely heard the term, “moving at a glacial pace.” Usually the term is used to express things that go very slowly, but steadily, like, well, glaciers. This analogy includes things like rule changes being made to major league baseball and your bank getting an error in your account fixed. But do you know what else moves at a glacial pace?

Well, glaciers, at least for a while.

A recent article in the Colorado Springs Gazette, first reported in the Denver Post, made a rather startling statement: our wonderful and wonderous state will likely, within a generation or so, see the last glacier here melt away. And that’s more than just a darn shame.

I recall one of the more spectacular moments on an Alaskan cruise some years ago was watching huge chunks of glacial ice break off – or calve – from the leading edge of a centuries-old glacier. It was spectacular. Our Colorado glaciers are not quite like that – they don’t end at the sea, of course. Indeed, some readers might be surprised to learn that Colorado even has glaciers. Turns out, we do.

The Centennial State hosts, for the moment, 14 glaciers up in the mountains. And like many places in the world, including the Himalayas and the Andes, our glaciers are melting faster than winter snows can refill them. As reported in the story, these glaciers act as canaries in the coal mine of climate change. Over tens of thousands of years, these ice sheets built up in mountain ranges and valleys, and now they are disappearing at a rate beyond that of nature absent climate change. The story reports the Arapaho Glacier, for example, has lost half its mass in the 20thcentury, and may last less than 60 years. Having just turned 60 myself, that does not seem like a very long time – hardly a glacial pace anymore.

I remember many years ago reading a book about climbing Mount Everest. The author reported that when climbing in that cold and rarified air, he had an epiphany that, as he put it, despite his hard work and deep commitment to climbing the mountain, as it turned out, the mountain didn’t care about him one bit. Everest was rock and ice, devoid of emotion or caring. It wasn’t upset when man first stepped onto the summit, and it cares not one bit for those who climb, nor for those who die in the effort.

St. Mary’s Glacier, Colorado. (Wikimedia Common)

Our glaciers are the same. They are nothing more than ice with some rock mixed in. As our climate warms, ice melts. Warmer days in the high country mean more melting. When the last bit of the last of Colorado’s glaciers melts, it will not be a majestic calf of ice breaking off with a loud crack and a big splash into the ocean – it will be a tiny fragment of ice, tucked away in a rocky shadow, returning to a liquid state, unencumbered by emotion or feeling.

But for those who look to our majestic peaks and admire the snow and ice found there, they may soon be looking at a vista only available in the winter months. Our summers may well soon find bare peaks, devoid of ice and snow. And that’s a pity.

The scientific consensus on climate change is both real and compelling. Those who would argue that either it isn’t happening at all (a tough sell given actual scientific data) or that it is all part of a natural pattern with no role by humankind (flat wrong, based on the data also, but this view sounds to some to be a tad more “scientific”) put our nation and our state, to say nothing of the world, at greater risk.

One of the challenges of climate change for Americans is that the most dramatic impacts will be felt elsewhere. Rising sea levels, for example, will trouble places like Bangladesh far more than the US, though the Navy has already started work raising some piers due to rising waters. And in Colorado, if one tries hard enough, one can pretend there are no effects of climate change here, even as we swelter in 90+ degree temps in mid-September. Thus, it is a challenge to get some folks energized to the point of taking real steps to battle climate change.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the stark and dramatic panorama of snow-free mountains in a summer, not too distant in the future, will change hearts and minds. Perhaps…

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.