I follow Glacier National Park on Facebook, and this afternoon they posted this article about the disappearance of the world’s great glaciers. I was sobered by the accompanying photo of Grinnell Glacier, which I visited only eight years ago, during the summer of 2007. The ice was substantially smaller, and the lake significantly larger, than they were when I was there.
This is even more stunning when you consider that in 1970, the year I was born, Upper Grinnell Lake didn’t even exist. It was ice. In the space of my lifetime, we have managed to decimate half the world’s wildlife, and turn these massive glaciers into soup.
I hiked up to Grinnell as part of a seminar offered by the Glacier Institute on climate change and glacial recession. Most people will never stand before one of these imposing ice beasts, and that’s a shame. If they did, perhaps catastrophic climate change would garner more than a shrug of the shoulders and a scroll-by. Sometimes it’s hard for me to accept human nature, and never more so than with our collective indifference to environmental destruction.
A glacier is an animate presence, a seemingly live thing. It starts when you approach the lip of the cirque, and suddenly the 95 degree temperatures you were slogging through drop dramatically, as if someone had turned on the air-conditioning. That ring of refrigeration isn’t biologically meaningless, either; whole ecologies exist in that perpetually cool outer area. A pair of wolverines lived near Grinnell when I was there, though they made themselves scarce during my visit. I wonder if they are there, still. Perhaps they won’t be in another decade.
When you’re out on the glacier, you get up close and personal with the crevasses. Two or three years before I was there, someone had fallen in.
When I stood on the glacier, the ice beneath my feet seemed almost to glow. Rocks were everywhere, and embedded in the ice, and I remembered that this enormous beast is in the business of chewing up mountains.
Standing before one of the world’s great glaciers gave me the same feeling I get when I encounter an alligator or a bear in the wild — the sense that I’ve stepped outside myself to a place where I’m privileged to be and yet matter very little in the larger scheme of things. In other words, a thrill.
My son will never experience that, at least not as an adult. For my grandchildren, glaciers will be experienced only in stories and photos.
If this were the work of nature, a part of the “circle of life,”I might not mourn the loss of the ice quite as much. But the extinction of the glaciers is not the will of nature. It’s the work of humanity.