Conservation Currents | Smoky Summers and Shorter Ski Seasons

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we explore the future of the Northwest in the face of the climate crisis and how we, as outdoor enthusiasts, can make a difference.
Betsy Robblee Betsy Robblee
Conservation & Advocacy Director
July 19, 2021

Few have directly witnessed the insidious change that our warming climate has wrought on the Pacific Northwest. Those who have seen the impacts are often outdoorspeople who have been intimately connected with the land for decades, watching as it slowly morphs under the pressure of a changing climate. Pat O’Brien is one of those people.

An alpine climbing instructor for the Washington Alpine Club since the 1980s, Pat has seen the change most readily in mountaineers’ bread and butter: glacier travel. “One of the most glaring things I’ve watched over the years is the receding of the Coleman Glacier,” said Pat, who has been teaching an ice climbing course on the Lower Coleman for more than 30 years. He remarked that you used to be able to hike to the glacier overlook and descend on a trail directly onto the glacier. “I was once able to carry a student up it,” he joked. Where there was once a trail is now an abrupt cliff into the glacial moraine, and “where there used to be a large mass of ice, there is only broken rock.”

Whether you talk to a longtime climber like Pat or look at photos from an old Mountaineers book, shrinking glaciers are one of the more obvious impacts of climate change in our wild places. A warming climate will also change our outdoor adventures in other ways, from smokier summer hikes to shorter, drizzlier ski seasons. While we can’t predict with certainty exactly what the future holds, scientists are in agreement that the changes we’ve begun to see in recent years are only projected to get worse. What does the global climate crisis mean for the future of our outdoor adventures? And how can outdoor enthusiasts make a difference?

Smokier summers

In the Pacific Northwest, many of us patiently endure gray, wet winters for the promise of glorious summers. Unfortunately, recent summers have been cruelly shortened by late summer wildfires, resulting in forest closures and unhealthy smoke that obstructs our views and impacts our health. Warmer temperatures mean drier summers and more severe wildfires. According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, our region has warmed about two degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, and this trend is expected to continue and potentially worsen. Shorter, warmer winters result in a smaller snowpack, which dries out our forests more quickly and makes them more susceptible to wildfire. Unfortunately, the larger and more frequent wildfires we’ve seen in recent years will only become more severe - and closer to home.

Shorter ski seasons

A warming climate will cause ski seasons to become shorter and more unpredictable. University of Washington studies show that the average length of snow seasons in the Northwest will decrease by up to 46 percent by the 2040s. Those same studies emphasize that our winters will continue to be variable, but the general trend is towards warming and more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow. One can imagine a day when skiing at Meany Lodge is a thing of the past. Shallower snowpacks have greater consequences than just fewer powder days. Snowpack in the Cascades provides drinking water for many communities, irrigation for agriculture, and cold water salmon need to survive, impacting Native tribes. A warming climate will drastically affect our region’s economy, quality of life, and cultural heritage.

Access challenges

As we see more extreme weather events due to the climate crisis we may see more intense storms, like those that caused major flooding in Mount Rainier National Park and the Glacier Peak Wilderness. These storms washed away entire campgrounds, bridges, and sections of road. It can take years and millions of dollars in scarce government funding to repair this damage, and in some cases, such as the Carbon River entrance to Mount Rainier, access simply isn’t restored. Impaired access to public lands doesn’t just impact recreationists, it reduces the ability of land managers to care for our natural landscapes.

More dangerous conditions

Traveling in the mountains could also become more perilous as our planet warms. According to the University of Washington, glaciers in the Pacific Northwest have shrunk by 27-56% over the past century, and they are increasingly fractured and treacherous to navigate. Mountaineers climb leaders are seeing the changes wrought from melting ice firsthand. The period in which glaciated peaks like Mount Rainier are climbable is shrinking, and later season trips often must navigate widening crevasses, circuitous and quickly-shifting routes, and loose rock. Melting ice also increases the danger of rockfall in mountain environments. Cooler temperatures allow ice to essentially cement parts of the mountain together, and when summer temperatures inch up, rocks can unexpectedly come loose. Rockfall is always a hazard with climbing and scrambling, but climate change could raise the risk substantially. Warmer days in the alpine and more variable weather conditions could also mean a higher likelihood of avalanches.

Human impacts

Changes to our outdoor adventures pale in comparison to the far greater impacts on human health and vulnerable populations across the world. The communities on the front lines of climate change - Indigenous peoples, the economically disadvantaged, and communities of color - experience the first, and often the worst effects. Native tribes in particular rely heavily on the natural environment for their culture, heritage, and livelihoods.

What can you do?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and dispirited when faced with the realities of climate change. The climate crisis is a global, systemic, and complex problem and no one organization or individual is going to solve it. But we can all pitch in and do our part. At the individual level, small changes like biking and carpooling, composting, and flying a little less can make a difference. Even just discussing climate change with family, friends, and fellow Mountaineers can help. As Jason Vogel, Deputy Director of the UW Climate Impacts Group said, “Making the commitment to speak loudly and often for the importance of protecting our natural wonders from climate change can go a long way toward normalizing the conversation and making people comfortable moving from ‘Is it happening?’ to ‘What can I do about it?’” Mountaineers and outdoor recreationists have a powerful story to tell about the impacts of climate change on wild places and our outdoor adventures, and we can be part of the groundswell of support motivating lawmakers to act. We’re not climate experts, and we don’t think you need to be, either. But we can use the power of our community to make this a top priority for lawmakers. By speaking up and being part of the change we wish to see, we make it more likely that future generations of Mountaineers will be able to learn how to ice climb and experience the wonders of wild places. While their experience will inevitably be different, our actions today will shape their future - and the spectacular landscapes we cherish.

WAYS YOU CAN MOVE THE NEEDLE

Although any one individual or organization can’t stop the climate crisis, we can resolve to work together to enact change. Below are a few actions you can take:

  • Reduce your carbon footprint through individual actions like biking to work, composting, decreasing air travel, and purchasing fewer consumer items.
  • Speak with friends and family about the climate crisis.
  • Advocate for conservation and climate solutions by contacting your legislators.
  • Donate to organizations that advocate for climate friendly policies.

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our  magazine archive.

Lead photo of Climbers on the Coleman Glacier. Photo by Emma Agosta.


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