Whether or not you believe in global warming, the fact remains that a vast majority of the world's glaciers are shrinking.Photographs by Sean McCormick • Type photographed by Pat Haverfield
At 11,239 feet, Mount Hood measures as the tallest peak in Oregon. Inside the offices of the Timberline Mountain Guides (TMG), Joe Owens and Phil Bowker introduce themselves to our one-day climbing class. Coincidentally, both guides are originally from Ireland, and between the two of them, they have experience scaling summits all over the world. ¶ Our group of 10 sits on benches, decked out in fleece and equipped with crampons and axes. Mountaineering is one of those activities that require a lot of gear. We all look extremely professional.
Early tomorrow morning, we will return to this room and then head up Mount Hood in the dark. There will be one major difference, though: While the rest of the class will attempt to reach the summit, my destination will be the White River Glacier.
White River is one of 11 glaciers on Mount Hood, and according to data compiled by Portland State University (PSU), it has already lost 61 percent of its volume. Whether you believe in global warming or insist that climate change is a figment of Al Gore's fevered imagination, you need only compare aerial photos of just about any glacier - including White River - taken over the years to notice a problem: In the most elemental terms, there's less white than before.
According to PSU geography and geology professor Andrew Fountain, the melting of alpine glaciers in particular is considerably affecting the planet's sea levels. "These guys are melting like crazy," says Fountain, whose research team studies glaciers throughout the American West. "Right now, they're making the most significant contribution to sea-level change, other than thermal expansion of the seawater."
Although at present the planet is growing warmer, studies conducted in Antarctica by Fountain's team have found that glaciers at the bottom of the world are neither growing nor shrinking. "They are in wonderful equilibrium," Fountain says. "[But they're] kind of the exception to the rule."
Those in Antarctica aside, the vast majority of the world's tens of thousands of glaciers are undeniably receding. Here in the United States, glacial melting is an accepted fact. A new study from the National Climatic Data Center indicates that 2006 was the nation's warmest year in history. Glacier National Park in Montana has only 27 glaciers remaining out of approximately 150; it's estimated that by the middle of this century, nearly all the park's glaciers will be gone. Some studies are even predicting that by 2100, ski season in the United States could run only from Christmas to President's Day, with that being the best-case scenario.
Which is why I'm here at White River. It's easy enough to view a glacier from a plane, but some part of me wants to see one up close, within the confines of the Lower 48. I want to feel the cold under my boots and descend down into the belly of an ice mass hundreds of years old - before it disappears into a photo archive.