Glaciers will disappear from mainland U.S. in our lifetime, scientists say

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View from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park, Montana on Aug. 24, 2011. Photo by Matt Mills McKnight/Reuters

Of the estimated 150 glaciers that existed when Glacier National Park was created in Montana back in 1910, only 26 remain. That’s according to a study released Wednesday by the U.S. Geological Survey and Portland State University.

The researchers warn  the formations are disappearing so quickly that the lower 48 states will have no more glaciers before the turn of the century. The average glacier shrank 39 percent in a 50 year period, with some shrinking as much as 85 percent.

Of the estimated 150 glaciers that existed when Glacier National Park was created in Montana back in 1910, only 26 remain.

Daniel Fagre, the leading U.S. Geological Survey research scientist on the project, said in addition to shrinking in area, the glaciers are also losing depth. That means the real losses in glacier mass are likely much larger than reported.

The study, which compared data from topographic maps, aerial photos, satellite imagery and site visits from the past several decades, defines glaciers as moving bodies of snow or ice that take up an area of at least 25 acres. By that measure, several of the 37 “glaciers” in the park are technically no longer glaciers and are deemed “inactive.”

Fagre said estimates on when the glaciers will disappear completely vary widely, from 2030 to 2080, depending on winter weather.

“[T]hese glaciers have been around for 7,000 years,” he said. “What is important is that it will happen in our lifetime.”

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A 2014 study published in the journal Science concluded that human activity sped up the melting of glaciers in the last 20 years.

Researchers note the shrinking glaciers can have a negative effect on tourism in the park, and smaller ice melts could damage ecosystems that rely on water runoff.

Fagre said the shrinking glaciers are also a stark visual reminder of a larger threat.

“All the living organisms and vegetation and the fish and the wildlife are all equally impacted by climate change, but it’s much harder to see it,” Fagre said.

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