Rocky Mountain Climate Watch: Who wants to visit the cryosphere?

Gore Range Colorado summer snow

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]T would be hard to do a climate change journey without visiting the cryosphere, that part of the Earth’s surface which is frozen at any given time. The biggest slices, of course, are at the poles, but the rest is in the high mountains of the world, where glaciers linger for now, and snow coats the ground for half the year.

Most of the world’s population lives far removed from the Greenland Ice Sheet or the collapsing ice shelves of Antarctica, so the connection between what’s happening and our continued production of greenhouse gases may seem tenuous. But if you’re a regular visitor to the Rockies or the European Alps, you can watch the global meltdown proceed at an astonishing and alarming rate. Glaciers are shrinking and vanishing fast — a clear sign of our planet’s fever.

Summer snow Gore Range ColoradoBig drifts along a remote northern section of the Gore Range show that snow is an important part of Rocky Mountain ecosystems year-round.

But even then, it can be abstract. So what if glaciers disappear. What does it matter? I’ve been reporting on these issues for almost 20 years and I still ask myself that question, knowing the answer, at least on an intellectual level. When glaciers disappear completely, it fundamentally changes the water cycle in the valleys below. There will be less water available for irrigation, for wildlife, for streamside vegetation, and while the process is under way, there’s a good chance that some places will become susceptible to extreme flooding, as glacial meltwater lakes swell and overflow the natural terrain features that keep them in check.

Even in mid-elevation mountains or at more southerly latitudes, where there aren’t glaciers, global warming is likely to result in profound changes. I had a chance to think about this a few years ago while backpacking with friends in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, not all that far from my Frisco, Colorado, home base.

On the way to our backcountry camp in a remote basin at the far northern end of the Gore Range, we encountered a huge and densely packed snowdrift, so large that we could walk inside a scalloped cave of sorts that had been carved out by water and wind. From deep within, a small trickle of water gathered, exiting toward the sunlight and feeding a verdant hillside of wildflowers below.

summer snow caveWelcome to the cryosphere!

The huge cornice was right in our path, but as we stopped to explore the cave, I began to see the huge snowbank not as an obstacle on our trek, but as an incredible earth system that helps balance and recycle energy by accumulating snow from the brunt of intense winter storms, then releasing the energy slowly in the form of water, all summer long.

Rocky Mountain summer snow caveRingo checks out the top of a snow tunnel that we subsequently explored on hands and knees, going all the way through to the far side. Even into late August and early September, big drifts of snow from the previous winter nurture wildflower meadows and alpine wetlands that are the capillaries of Colorado’s rivers, attenuating the snowmelt and feeding the tiniest headwaters streams with fresh flows until the next snows fall. Global warming may well shift this delicate balance of snow accumulation and melting with as-yet unknown consequences, but if the snow were to disappear much earlier, there clearly would be no late summer wildflower fields like these.

The slowly melting cornice sustains an entire complex of wetlands, meadows, ponds and tarns, some full of fish and frogs, and it was easy to imagine how, if the snow weren’t there, some of those ponds would surely dry up by late August. That’s what they mean when they talk about snow-covered mountains as water towers.

We won’t be visiting the Arctic during our Climate Ranger trek, but we will tell you how Arctic changes will affect the Rockies. We’ll take you along when we visit the more accessible parts of the cryosphere here in the Rocky Mountains, with a stop to check in on the glaciers of Rocky Mountain National Park, and a visit with scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, and, hopefully, a tour of the National Ice Core Laboratory in Lakewood.

We’ll also head into the Peru Creek drainage in Summit County to explore how  melting permafrost may be worsening water quality by exposing more mineralized rocks and mine waste to weathering, and tell you about long-term climate monitoring at a high alpine research station maintained by the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

trioTom and Cathy Castrigno and Leigh Wadden explore the deep, narrowing end of a big summer snow cave in the Gore Range, Summit County, Colorado.

fangs outsideSnow fangs!

ice cave patternLike being inside a giant 10-foot high ear canal made of snow.


Rocky Mountain Climate Watch is part of a two-month crowdfunded journalism project investigating how global warming is changing the Rocky Mountains, from glaciers and Alpine tundra down, to forests, fields and streams. In a series of reporting treks, Bob and Dylan Berwyn will visit with scientists who are monitoring the changes, and talk to ranchers, skiers and mountain town residents who are experiencing the changes. The series appears as the “Rocky Mountain Climate Watch” blog in the right-hand column of the Colorado Independent homepage.

We’re encouraging readers to ask specific questions about global warming in the Rockies, and we’ll make every effort to have the right person answer the question. We’ve also been fostering a social media dialogue via Twitter at the #ClimateRangers hashtag and the @bberwyn feed, and we’d love to see your comments and questions on the Colorado Independent Facebook page.

Meet Bob and see his work at The Colorado Independent’s open house today (Thursday, Aug. 28) 7-9 p.m., 700 Kalamath St., Denver.

[Photos by Bob Berwyn]