It was a sunny day in the North Cascades above Highway 20 on March 18. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

It was a sunny day in the North Cascades above Highway 20 on March 18. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

Glaciers ‘deflating’ with Cascades snowpack 28% below normal

Despite historic February snow, it was quite warm in the mountains, and glaciers continue to recede.

INDEX — Glaciers in the North Cascades could shrink for the seventh year in a row.

That’s because snowpack, which acts as a shield against hot summer days, has been lower than normal this winter, according to recent measurements taken at six sites in the region.

The pattern continued despite an extra-chilly February that brought historic amounts of snow to the lowlands.

Snowpack is currently 28 percent below normal, the fifth-lowest measurement since record keeping began in 1984 and the lowest since 2015. And there’s little time left for more snow to make up the deficit.

“It’s substantially below typical,” said Mauri Pelto, an environmental science professor with Nichols College in Massachusetts. He’s monitored the area going on 36 years and wrote his analysis of this winter in his blog, “From A Glacier’s Perspective.”

Snowpack is important for the state’s water supply and for hydroelectricity generation during hot, dry months. It’s stored rainfall.

February’s snowfall may have led people into a false sense of security, Pelto said. The month brought the Seattle area the most recorded snow in one month, the National Weather Service reported at the time. So it’s hard not to think that means big gains up high, Pelto said. “You think the mountains are getting buried with winter,” he said, when in fact that wasn’t the reality.

It was a strange winter overall, he said. On average in January, you would have to climb up above 5,000 feet in elevation to feel freezing temperatures. February saw average freezing temperatures at record-breaking low elevations, down to about 1,200 feet. Then, things warmed up dramatically in March. So much so that the National Weather Service that month reported the hottest winter days measured in the region.

If glaciers are going to make it through the year without shrinking more, summer temperatures will have to be much cooler than normal, Pelto said.

It was a sunny day in the North Cascades above Highway 20 on March 18. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

It was a sunny day in the North Cascades above Highway 20 on March 18. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

“The odds of that aren’t real good,” he said. “Even a little bit cool would not be enough.”

Pelto, who makes annual treks to Washington to monitor climate changes, has seen firsthand how glaciers have shrunk.

The formations feeding into the Skykomish River Basin are disappearing in slow motion. Take for example Columbia Glacier, nestled above Blanca Lake in the Monte Cristo region. It’s thinning faster than it’s retreating, Pelto said, losing 17 meters in thickness since 1984. It’s lost 22 percent of its mass during that time.

“Columbia Glacier is just deflating,” Pelto said. “It’s overall volume is dissipating so quickly. If you can’t have a persistent snowpack, you can’t survive as a glacier.”

The loss could translate into challenges downstream. Summer stream flows aren’t what they once were, Pelto said, having decreased 26 percent. Sensitive aquatic species, like salmon, will struggle.

Decades from now, Columbia will cease to exist altogether, and Blanca Lake’s bright-green water, the result of glacial runoff, will turn azure, according to scientific projections.

“There’s no hope of saving it,” Pelto said. “Even if we don’t get any future warming, it can’t survive this climate.”

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

Washington State Department of Transportation
                                Crews dig out a snow cave to take measurements of the snow on the North Cascades Highway on March 17.
                                Crews dig out a snow cave to take measurements along, Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway, on March 17. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

Washington State Department of Transportation Crews dig out a snow cave to take measurements of the snow on the North Cascades Highway on March 17. Crews dig out a snow cave to take measurements along, Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway, on March 17. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

More in News & Comment

Cliff Edwards, 65, the sexton at Edmonds Memorial Cemetery & Columbarium, picks up and carries memorial flowers on his mower as he cuts the grass around headstones on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019 in Edmonds, Wash. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
GRAVDGR: Edmonds cemetery sexton has deadpan sense of humor

Cliff Edwards has spent 46 years taking care of the final resting places of our loved ones.

A crew member works to setup a ride Wednesday afternoon at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Evergreen fair: come for giant squash, stay for lumberjacks

Find classic fair favorites and some new additions at the Evergreen State Fair through Sept. 2.

Inslee’s bid for third term derails plans for other Democrats

He tells supporters he wants to ensure Washington remains a “progressive beacon” for the nation.

After trees fall, Lynnwood light rail construction looms

Watch for major work along I-5 after Sound Transit approved $1.5 billion in construction contracts.

Redmond’s Neelam Chahlia crowned as Mrs. Washington America and competing for the national Mrs. America title on Aug. 26. Photo courtesy of Neelam Chahlia
Redmond’s Chahlia to compete for Mrs. America 2020 title

Mrs. Washington America winner says her journey embodies the ‘American Dream.’

Renton Police Officer Tanuj Soni has been charged with fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation and abuse of office. Photo courtesy of City of Renton
Court documents reveal details of alleged assault by a Renton police officer

Deputy Chief says RPD is performing an internal investigation

Chronicling the last years of a dying North Cascades glacier

For nearly four decades, scientist Mauri Pelto has journeyed to measure the melting Columbia Glacier.

What can otters tell us about watershed pollution?

An Oregon professor spent a year on Whidbey studying river otters for insight into the environment.

Lying, spying and destroying evidence spur guardian reforms

Judges say court-appointed guardians broke the law to keep a child away from her troubled parents.

Most Read