Nestled between the snowy ranges of Mount Rainier and Glacier Peak, a significant glacier in Washington state has disappeared after existing full of ice and snowpack for millennia, according to a researcher who has tracked the glacier for years.
In this swath of mountain range in the Washington Cascades east of Seattle, the climate crisis dealt the final blow to the Hinman Glacier, the largest in the region, according to Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist with Nichols College. It’s not just the Northern Cascades that’s losing ice. Researchers recently found that up to half of the planet’s glaciers could be lost by the end of the century, even if the world’s ambitious global climate targets, including phasing out fossil fuels, are met.
To paint a picture of Hinman’s retreat, experts say an unofficially named “Hinman Lake” has replaced the former glacier, which contains traces of relict ice masses. As the lake filled from glacier melt, it became harder for hikers to traverse this part of the mountain range.
Pelto told CNN he has been visiting and observing Mount Hinman for 40 years. And in the summer of 2022, as temperatures soared and an unrelenting dry spell gripped the Northwest, Pelto led a team up the mountain only to see Hinman’s demise.
“It’s completely disappeared. This was the biggest glacier in this part of the mountain range — it was exceptional,” Pelto told CNN. The glacier could reform, he said, “but as we continue to warm into the future that will be even less hospitable.”
Roughly 50 miles east of Seattle, deep in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Hinman and its neighboring glaciers have been critical to the Pacific Northwest’s salmon population as well as other aquatic species. During the warmest and driest periods, Hinman fed the Skykomish River with a considerable amount of cool glacier runoff. But as the climate crisis advanced, the flow dropped significantly.
This decline in summer streamflow from the glaciers and warming freshwater reduces the not only the salmons’ quality of life but also that of people who rely on the river, experts say. Since the 1950s, the primary glaciers that feed the Skykomish River basin have lost around 55% of their surface area. Last year, Pelto and his team measured that the Columbia Glacier declined in area by 25%, Foss by 70%, Lynch by 40% and Hinman by 95%.
David Shean, professor of civil and environmental engineering who focuses on glaciers at the University of Washington, said he and collaborators with the US Geological Survey have been working to quantify the changes, including direct measurements of ice volume and mass change over time to tell the full story.
As glaciers thin and retreat, he said, they can form stagnant ice patches in alcoves that are less susceptible to extreme temperatures. But these ice patches are often too thin to flow downhill, which is an important criteria for an ice mass to be classified as a “glacier.”
Shean noted that not all of the lingering ice in those alcoves has yet vanished. But he also said “it may no longer technically qualify as a ‘glacier’ because it’s not flowing, and the residual ice will likely disappear completely in the coming decade or more.”
Many glaciers were formed during the last Ice Age. And while glaciologists including Pelto aren’t sure how far back the Hinman Glacier was created, he found strong evidence that Hinman was older than Mount Mazama eruption, which created Oregon’s Crater Lake, 7,000 years ago.
There’s still some hope, Pelto said. For a glacier to form and persist, it needs more average accumulation of snowfall. Hinman would need to see a bounty of above-average snowfall in the coming years for it to reform. But with the rate at which planet-warming pollution is accelerating, these icy landscapes as we know them may no longer be the same.
“The rate of loss in the past few decades is higher than earlier during the 20th century,” Shean said, noting that smaller glaciers are particularly hard hit. “We’ve seen more ice loss in the past 50 to 70 years for the smaller, lower elevation glaciers in the Washington North Cascades, compared to the larger, higher elevation glaciers, like those on Mt. Rainier, for example.”
Since Pelto started noticing the Hinman glacier’s decline in 2005, he decided he wanted to document it beyond science and bring in artists, including his daughter Jill, who can capture the changing landscape through painting.
“I really feel like the loss of [glaciers] from the landscape does tap into people’s emotions, and art does that better than science data,” Pelto said. “And so I’ve tried to bring artists out every summer.”