Sunday, July 21, 2013

Phelps Creek, Day 2: Spider Glacier

Since it’s been more than 30 years since I last set foot on Spider Glacier (above), I was curious to see how much the ice field had receded from the early 80s. With more glaciers than any state in the lower 48, the Cascades in Washington remain the bellwether for global warming, and the signs are not encouraging.

During last year’s sojourn to Buck Creek Pass, the consensus among our group was that Chocolate Glacier and the others on Glacier Peak had significantly diminished over the last three decades. Statistics appear to confirm our admittedly anecdotal observations.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution some 150 years ago, glaciers in the North Cascades have collectively shrunk by 40 percent, and the pace is accelerating, according to the U.S. Geological Service.

Glaciers are affected by two climactic conditions: snowfall, which adds to their mass in the winter, and warm temperatures, which spur melting in the summer. USGS scientists say the amount of snow in the Northwest is declining, while temperatures are rising. Despite some heavy snowfall in the 1990s, the overall trend is negative.

That said, walking on Spider Glacier was as relatively straightforward as I remember.

Along the way, we witnessed stunning views of the Entiat Mountains and Phelps Ridge, including Seven-Fingered Jack and Mt. Maude (above).

At Spider Gap (right), the narrow pass at the top of the glacier, we peered over the rim to see the Upper Lyman Lakes as they were beginning to thaw.

As we proceeded down Spider Glacier, it was clear that any visual evaluation of the effect of global warming would need to wait for another day. Winter snows stubbornly clung to the narrow basin, making it difficult to assess the true size of the glacier.

The “watermelon snow” was pervasive as usual; also known as “snow algae,” “red snow” or most appropriately, “blood snow,” this species of green algae contains a secondary red pigment in addition to chlorophyll and thrives in freezing water.

Near the bottom of the glacier, Phelps Creek emerges briefly before disappearing again beneath the ice (above). On the way back down, we saw an actual spider (below) making its long and arduous journey across Spider Glacier. How apropos.

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