Sierra Nevada Heating Up; Muir’s Glacier Gone

The Sacramento Bee is starting a major new series coodinated by
veteran writer Tom Knudson on the effects of global warming on the
Sierras.  They are putting very serious resources into this (and
getting a flood of naysayer comments, which sound more and more
pathetic but are a reminder of where a significant portion of the
public still are on the issue).  There is a multi-part series coming
out in print with today’s article as the first, plus a web log and other
useful resources online at



Sierra warming: Climate change puts heat on high country

By Tom Knudson –

Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, August 3, 2008

Standing atop Yosemite’s tallest peak in August 1950, Hal
Klieforth looked out across the Lyell glacier and marveled at how
solid and unyielding it appeared.

“It was like Grand Canyon or the Sierra itself,” the 81-year-old
meteorologist said recently. “It had been there for many years and
probably would be there for many more.”

Today, as the boulder-strewn sheet of ice recedes in the summer
sun, Klieforth is no longer so confident. “Now I guess there might
be more people making a pilgrimage to these glaciers before they
go,” he said.

No longer is climate change a distant drama of shrinking polar ice
caps. As year-round ice fades from the saw-toothed summits of the
Sierra Nevada, as Klieforth and others watch a world change in
their lifetimes, it’s clear an unwelcome reality is at our
doorstep: Global warming is local warming.

Just as rising worldwide temperatures are sowing problems in the
far north and parts of Antarctica, so, too, are they bringing big
changes to our own northern exposure in the Sierra and other
mountain regions.

You can see it in the dead rust-red pines west of Yosemite
National Park, the fading easel of wildflowers near Carson Pass
south of Lake Tahoe and the parched bare banks of lakes and
reservoirs. You can smell it in the acrid ash-gray smoke from a
siege of early-season wildfires that has choked much of the region
for weeks on end.

You can hear it in the quiet murmur of small streams that once
rushed noisily downhill in July; in the whoosh of cars over Tioga
Pass after Thanksgiving – a time when the white-knuckle road
crossing, the highest in California, was always closed by snow
prior to 1975; and in the voices and observations of scientists,
resource managers and mountain residents.

Behind the counter at Sorensen’s Resort, along Highway 88 in
Alpine County, John Brissenden greets visitors with a walrus
mustache and a Santa Claus smile. Ask about global warming,
though, and his tone turns less jovial.

“My fan budget has gone through the roof,” said Brissenden, co-
owner of the rustic facility which advertises on a postcard that
its air-conditioning is “aspen-powered.”

“We just can’t count on the aspens anymore,” Brissenden said. “We
have to have a fan in every cabin.”

Ten years ago, S.P. Parker routinely guided climbers up an ice-
filled chute in the high Sierra called the Mendel couloir. Now
that icy staircase has turned to rock and dirt.

“Everything’s melting more,” said Parker, co-owner of the Sierra
Mountain Center in Bishop. “It’s kind of depressing to watch it

Even underground, ice is not safe.

In his office near the Oregon border, David Larson keeps a picture
of Merrill ice cave – located on the Modoc plateau north of the
Sierra. The photo, taken in 1990, shows a giant punch bowl of ice
in the cave’s lower chamber, several feet thick, hard as a hockey
rink. In the early 20th century, people ice-skated on it.

One afternoon this spring, Larson walked down a steep series of
steps into the cave and directed the amber beam of his head lamp
toward the cave floor. The ice had vanished, leaving behind a
jagged jumble of rock.

“It’s kind of shocking,” said Larson, chief of resources at Lava
Beds National Monument. “Ice is almost like a species that is
going extinct.”

Sierra’s plight reflected across West

What’s happening here is one ember in a larger fire. Higher
elevation landscapes across western North America and the world
are warming faster than the rest of the globe – and suffering the

In British Columbia, mountain pine beetles have devastated a swath
of forest one-third the size of California, in part because
winters are no longer cold enough to keep the pests in check. In
Montana, Glacier National Park is expected to be glacier-free in
25 years.

“It’s the far north and the higher elevations that are seeing the
impacts first,” said Joan Clayburgh, director of the Sierra Nevada
Alliance in South Lake Tahoe. “And when it comes to California, it
doesn’t get any higher than the Sierra.”

Starting today, The Bee will begin to chronicle this warming
world, to explore an environmental meltdown scientists say is more
far-reaching than any in recorded history.

In print and online at www.sacbee. com/sierrawarming, we will take
you from the foothills to the timberline and beyond to reveal a
landscape where the imprint of climate change is being detected in
a surprising number of ways, from the growing rampage of unruly
and destructive wildfires to the scamper of chipmunks and other
species upslope toward cooler weather.

“When I started doing climate change research in the Sierra Nevada
around 1990, it seemed like an abstraction,” said Nathan
Stephenson, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey
in Three Rivers near Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

Now, it’s in sharp focus. “Over the last five years, the canary in
the coal mine died,” said Stephenson, whose research has tied a
rise in tree mortality in the Sierra to rising temperatures. “It’s
almost a shock to find out how many things are changing and how
rapidly they are changing.”

Warming picks up speed

Climatic shifts have swept across the globe for millions of years,
of course. But this warming pattern is more troubling, scientists
say, because temperatures are climbing faster than in previous
post-ice age warming spells.

“It’s doing this not in tens of thousands of years but in
decades,” said Kelly Redmond, deputy director of the Western
Climate Research Center. “We are going into new territory that has
not been seen in a long, long time.”

Redmond’s Reno office is filled with snowdrifts of studies and
data so deep he jokes about drilling into them like a glacier. In
those piles of paper – and on his climate center’s Web page – are
nuggets that show the warming pattern already is under way.

For nine years in a row, the mean annual temperature in the Sierra
has exceeded the historical mean of 51.6, the longest warm spell
in recorded history. Over the past 35 years, average temperatures
in the Sierra have risen 1.3 degrees – slightly above the global

It could, of course, turn colder tomorrow. But the direction of
that seemingly modest change led climate scientists to form a new
organization to focus exclusively on the problem: the Consortium
for Integrated Climate Research in Western Mountains.

The group, based partly in California, said in a 2006 report:
“Despite their imposing grandeur and apparent fortitude, mountains
contain highly sensitive environments that support delicately
balanced physical and natural systems. A warming of only a few
degrees has major implications.”

At higher elevations, no temperature is more critical than 32
degrees – the freezing point. Across the Sierra, freezing weather
is a must. It fuels the economy, recharges the spirit, kills
insect pests and turns the splash of rain into the miracle of snow
– a kind of high-country investment account that drips out its
dividends as water all summer long.

“Huge things happen at the freezing point,” said Redmond. “It’s
like throwing a switch. You get water or you get ice.”

Now, though, global warming is messing with the switch. A century
ago, the average daily temperature in Tahoe City dipped below
freezing about 80 days a year; today it reaches that mark only
about 50 days a year. In 1969-70, the average winter low in
Yosemite National Park was 28.1. In 1999-2000, it was 32.1. Such
trends make many uneasy.

“This winter, there were a number of storms in Yosemite Valley
where it was just kind of spitting snow, but it never really got
cold enough to snow,” said Greg Stock, a geologist with Yosemite
National Park. “And I thought: Maybe this is the future.”

It’s not just the freezing point that matters either.

“A few degrees makes a fair amount of difference when sap starts
rising, plants begin to grow and insects become active,” said
Redmond, whose data also show the average yearly nighttime low in
the Sierra has climbed two degrees over the past 35 years.

Forests could shrink, ski season vanish

Resource managers don’t know what to expect, in part because
global warming is so new. But it’s likely to make their jobs much

Imagine Tuolumne Meadows minus the meadow, or the shore of Lake
Tahoe with foothill oaks intermingling with evergreens. It could
happen, scientists say, as global warming reshuffles the complex
layer cake of ecosystems found in the Sierra. Even the giant
sequoia – the largest living thing on Earth and a symbol of the
Sierra – may be in danger.

“It could very well be that giant sequoias become relics that
survive for centuries where they are, as they gradually die off
and are not replaced,” said David Graber, chief scientist for the
National Park Service in California.

“We are looking through a glass darkly,” Graber added. “There is
going to be a great deal of nail biting. There are going to be
constant surprises for everyone.”

Recently, the California Climate Change Center – the state’s
global warming clearinghouse – asked scientists for a global
warming forecast for the state. Their projections were stark and

By 2100, alpine and sub-alpine forests could diminish 50 to 70
percent. The ski season could shrink to a few weeks – or not open
at all. “Minimum snow conditions … might never occur,” one study
says. “Resorts would be forced to rely entirely on snowmaking or
move their operations.”

Hydropower production is expected to decline; weeds, to run wild.
The risk of large wildfires could increase 55 percent. And with
more snow already falling as rain and melting earlier in the year,
the Sierra snowpack – source of more than half of the state’s
freshwater – could shrink as much as 90 percent.

“This could impact 85 percent of California’s population,” says a
paper published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

Flowers fade – but weeds thrive

For many, that tomorrow is taking shape today. Talk to Michelle
Tracey, office manager at Sierra Mountaineering International in
Bishop. “When I was a kid, I used to spend close to nine months a
year in my ski boots,” she said. “Now you’re lucky if you get
three or four.”

Just ask Kimball Chatfield who over the past two decades has
watched heat and drought drain color from one of the Sierra
Nevada’s showiest pageants: its spring and summer wildflower

Fifteen years ago, the floor of Hope Valley near Carson Pass was a
canvas of soft purple, sulfur yellow and misty blue. Now large
daubs of color are missing as horsemint, lilies and other water-
loving plants are snuffed out by heat and drought.

“I can see it happening – it’s getting warmer,” said Chatfield who
has taught a class on medicinal plants at Lake Tahoe Community
College. “The plants are losing ground.”

But while some flowers are suffering, other vegetation is
expanding, including desert-dwelling sagebrush and Russian
thistle, a noxious, heat-loving weed. “It’s a great time to be a
thistle,” Chatfield said.

Mammals are on the move, too, a change scientists have uncovered
by scouring century-old journals of Sierra naturalist Joseph
Grinnell, who trapped animals across the range in the early 19th
century and meticulously recorded where he caught them.

Today, many of those mammals are AWOL from Grinnell’s carefully
charted camps and trails. They’ve migrated upslope to cooler
locales – a likely sign, scientists say, of a warming climate.

In Yosemite, the shadow chipmunk and piñon mouse have moved up
3,000 feet, more than half a mile, in 90 years. Other species also
are on the move and some could even disappear from the park.

“You can only go up so far before you run out of mountain,” said
Shelton Johnson, a Yosemite ranger. “If you don’t have wings,
you’re out of habitat.”

Fires get worse as snows grow scarce

There are signs of trouble at lower elevations, too. From his deck
near El Portal, west of Yosemite, federal scientist Jan van
Wagtendonk has watched hundreds of ponderosa pine slowly die out,
one by one, over the past 35 years.

Pointing out the most recent victim – a brownish-red, clearly dead
tree, he said: “It’s just a single pine. That’s the insidious
part. Sometimes you don’t notice it because it’s a tree here and a
tree there. But there used to be a lot more there. And today there
are very few.”

Now 68, van Wagtendonk also sees the signature of climate change
in the ever-more-destructive fires sweeping across the Sierra.
“The less snow you have, the more severe the fire becomes,” he
said. “If the snow melts earlier, the fuels are available for a
longer period of time.”

“Global warming is real,” he said. “The evidence is here on the

You also can discover it in the visitor logbooks and spreadsheets
at Lava Beds National Monument on the Modoc Plateau where words
and data dovetail to reveal the end of a little-known subterranean
ice age.

“What a great experience! What a jumble of fascination. Great ice
pool,” one group of visitors wrote after touring the park’s remote
Frozen River ice cave in 1995.

By 2001, the cave was running a fever: 32.9. “First half of ice
river is gone!” wrote a couple from San Rafael.

Two years later – at 33 degrees – Frozen River was frozen no more.
“Pond gone,” a visitor wrote. “Cave too warm.”

This May, park scientist Shane Fryer clambered into the inky
depths of the cave and plopped down on a sofa-size rock that not
long ago was encased in ice. In all, at least nine caves across
the monument have melted out.

“There used to be a massive tongue of ice here,” Fryer said. “The
key thing is all the ice loss is occurring about the same time …
All these caves are being influenced by a common factor which is
more than likely global climate change.”

Glaciers could be gone this century

An estimated 100 glaciers – some large, others small – are wasting
away, too. “On the whole Sierra Nevada glaciers have retreated
roughly 50 percent from a century ago,” said Stock, the Yosemite
geologist. “If those rates continue, we will probably be without
glaciers in something like 50 years.”

Every fall, Pete Devine hikes south out of Tuolumne Meadows to
check on one of the most majestic of them all: the Lyell glacier.
“The glacier of Mount Lyell,” the legendary photographer Ansel
Adams wrote in 1932, “floats as a pale ship on a sea of desolate

Not anymore. “The east lobe is almost invisible. You see a thin
flake of ice like the stuff in a refrigerator that doesn’t
defrost,” said Devine, director of educational programs for the
nonprofit Yosemite Association.

“The west lobe is more healthy, but it has shriveled and shrunken
the way a pumpkin does four weeks after Halloween,” he added. “It
won’t be long until the Lyell glacier is no more – two or three
more decades, maybe.”

No one was more intrigued by the Sierra’s icy eaves than John
Muir, the renowned naturalist and a founder of the Sierra Club,
who discovered the first glacier in 1871 in the rugged back
country east of Yosemite Valley.

At the time, Josiah D. Whitney, a professor of geology at Harvard
University and state geologist of California, dismissed Muir’s
conviction that glaciers had carved Yosemite’s valleys and
sculpted its canyon walls. So as Muir tramped up patches of snow
between Red Peak and Black Mountain one October morning, following
a creek filled with gray glacial silt, he was elated.

“I set out to trace the ancient ice current back to its farthest
recesses,” he wrote in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1875.
Finally, scrambling to the top of a moraine of loose rocks, he
spotted it: “a small but well-characterized glacier swooping down
from the somber precipices of Black Mountain.”

After awed descriptions of sunbeams and serrated ridges, Muir
wrapped up his essay with a sliver of worry. “How much longer this
little glacier will live, of course, depends on climate,” he

Today, Muir’s glacier is gone.


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