Dr. Charlie Love on Glaciers in the Wind River Range

The Wind River Range of Wyoming is one of the great unknown regions on the map of wolverines in the West. We know that there are gulos in these mountains, which extend southeast from the bulk of the Absarokas to form a high altitude peninsula pushing into the sea of sagebrush steppe, but no one has ever formally surveyed for gulos in the Winds. M56, the famous wolverine who traveled from Wyoming to Colorado, went down the Winds before jumping off into the hills and traveling down into Rocky Mountain National Park. So this region is important for wolverines.

Dr. Charlie Love has spent the past 25 years – in between hanging out with cannibals in Papua New Guinea and helping figure out how the famous Maoi statues of Easter Island were raised – studying the glaciers in the Winds. Most people know that glaciers around the world are melting back, and we can easily infer that the meltback derives from increased temperatures and/or decreased precipitation, but precisely why these things are happening involves an incredible amount of detail and variation at the local level. At one time, the major glacier in the Wind River Range was 75 miles long and 3500 ft deep; that was tens of thousands of years ago. The glaciers that currently adorn the high peaks are between 5000 and 6000 years old, and in the past several decades, these glaciers have begun to retreat at a rapid rate. The Wind River glaciers are melting by two vertical meters per year’ the Knifepoint Glacier, the focus of Dr. love’s work, has melted back by 800 ft since 1985 – a loss of 7000 acre feet of mass.. Since the 1920’s, timber line in the Winds has climbed about 100 ft, and a number of glacial lakes have drained due to weakened ice dams. The trend is clear. Why this happening is more nuanced.

Oxygen isotopes from ice cores from the Fremont glacier suggest that for most of the history of the current Wind River glaciers, the snow feeding the ice came primarily from the Gulf of Mexico. Within the glaciers themselves, distinct lines mark the summer melt; like tree rings, these demarcate annual snow accumulation. The orientation of these rings show the direction from which the snow was arriving. Sometime between 1780 and 1840, the direction from which the snow was coming shifted, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest. These storms, says Dr. Love, bore less moisture than the storms from the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in less annual accumulation. And the loss of annual accumulation began to ‘starve’ the glaciers, resulting in the meltback that we are currently observing. Essentially, in the Winds, Dr. Love asserts, we are reacting to climate change already accomplished, rather than dealing with current climate change.

Does this mean anthropogenic climate change isn’t happening? Dr. Love deftly avoided addressing this question, sticking like a limpet to his own data, which suggest that whatever is happening in the Winds has to do with changes in prevailing weather patterns about two centuries ago.

Whatever is going on, the loss of ice at high elevations in the Winds will probably have consequences for wolverines, although before we can figure out what these will be, we need to do some formal surveys in the range.

Most striking to me, however, were the potential effects of the loss of Wind River glaciers on the Wind and Upper Green rivers. The Wind River is already at the center of a clash over water rights between the Shoshone and Arapaho on the Wind River Reservation, and surrounding non-native agricultural communities. This argument, on a very technical level, focuses on in-stream flow, which, Dr. Love says, is already far below the estimates. This means that the Wind River Reservation is fighting a battle over a resource that is even sparser than they thought. This stands to exacerbate existing social conflict, which is a very local example of how the loss of ice stands to effect human communities in real and alarming ways.

(Author Gretel Ehrlich is now speaking about the effects of climate change on the Arctic, emphasizing that the changes that are occurring in the climate are far wider-reaching than a single range, and that these effects will have a profound impact on human and wildlife communities at the most remote corners of the globe.)

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