Ten years ago, during a brief sabbatical from university life, I visited Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. I had been there twice before, in the mid-1960s, when my family camped our way across the northern plains to escape the southern plains’ summer heat. Home movies shot on 8mm film preserved brief glimpses of glaciers that are now only a memory, of glacial runoff that no longer flows.
Although I don’t recall much from those early childhood adventures, I had always wanted to go back to the “crown of the continent,” a desire that had grown more urgent as I learned more about global warming. I was living in Illinois at the time, so I rode Amtrak halfway across the country hoping to see the last of the park’s namesake attractions before they’re gone. By strange coincidence, I arrived at the gateway hamlet of East Glacier on the eve of the heavily promoted PBS series “The National Parks.” But television is always a poor substitute for first-hand experience, and electronic media is also a symptom of the very crisis facing this particular park: anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change.
Glaciers are formed during periods of regional cooling, when snow accumulates from year to year and gradually turns to ice. If this process continues long enough, the combined weight of snow and ice forces the bottom layers to advance across the land, eroding terrain like a giant scouring pad.
But glaciers produce more than just scenic landscapes. Meltwater from alpine glaciers amounts to about a quarter of annual mountain runoff. These cool, clear streams provide more than half of the world’s fresh water supply. Turn off the glacial spigot, and a lot of people are going to be thirsty.
When the climate turns warmer and drier, glaciers start retreating. And they’ve been under attack since the Industrial Revolution, when humans began burning fossil fuels in earnest and filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. This process has accelerated in recent years as we’ve increased our use of nonrenewable energy. Scientists estimate that 98% of the earth’s glaciers are now in retreat, and that 80% of them will disappear by the end of this century.
In 1850, there were about 150 glaciers in the area that would become Glacier National Park. When my family visited the park in the mid-1960s, there were about 50 left. By the time I returned in 2009, there were only 26.
Park brochures and exhibits at the time said these dwindling survivors wouldn’t last beyond the year 2030. But talk privately with a park ranger and you’d learn that the latest measurements indicated they were melting even faster than expected. The glaciers of Glacier National Park might be completely gone by 2020, now just a few months away.
I first wrote about this majestic place on “the backbone of the world” in my column “Mvskoke Country,” which ran monthly in the Muscogee Nation News for several years, 2009-2011. Glacier was established in 1910 as the United States’ tenth national park, so in 2009 government officials and local leaders were gearing up for its centennial. Since we modern humans can’t seem to kick our addiction to coal and oil and natural gas, I wondered in print whether that might be a good occasion to announce a new name: Glacier MEMORIAL National Park.
Today, the park’s official website encourages visitors to explore “pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, and spectacular lakes,” but there is little mention of the few “small glaciers” that remain. Buried three menus deep on a page titled “How to See a Glacier,” the website confesses that “Glacier National Park isn’t the easiest place to see an active glacier.” There are internet links to nineteen permanent webcams in the park, but none that features an actual glacier. Seven of the nineteen webcams are trained on paved roads or parking lots, which strikes me as a pretty accurate reflection of the ecological transaction that has taken place.
What does all this have to do with Mvskoke country?
Mvskokvlke have lived in warm, humid environments for a very long time. The Mvskoke language doesn’t even have a term for glacier, though it wouldn’t be hard to come up with one—akhvse-rakko hetute, “frozen lake,” might do.
The impact of global warming may be more obvious at higher altitudes and latitudes, where glaciers tend to live, but every place on our planet is feeling the effects of rising greenhouse gases. The average temperature on the Great Plains is already up nearly two degrees compared to 1979, a remarkable increase in just forty years. And it will likely jump another couple of degrees during the next decade.
Temperature rise in the southern plains will be largest during the summer months. Extreme weather events—heat waves, heavy rains, tornadoes—will become more frequent. The southern plains will get less precipitation during the twenty-first century, especially in the west. The panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas could dry up enough to produce another Dust Bowl.
In the very near future, people in Mvskoke country are going to find themselves living in a climate that is noticeably hotter and more arid than they remember. It is almost as if the Creek Nation has pulled up roots and started migrating to the southwest. You may roll out of bed one morning and wonder how you ended up in West Texas, or worse. Could this be like a second great removal, with este Mvskoke—and everyone else—embarking on a long passage into the unknown?
The earth simply cannot sustain our current levels of consumption and waste. Anthropogenic climate change is tempting fate on this spinning, blue planet.
What Climate Change Means for Oklahoma
In the coming decades, Oklahoma will become warmer, and both floods and droughts may be more severe. . . . Soils have become drier, annual rainfall has increased, and more rain arrives in heavy downpours. . . . Summers are likely to be increasingly hot and dry, which would reduce the productivity of farms and ranches, change parts of the landscape, and possibly harm human health. . . .
As rising temperatures increase evaporation and water use by plants, soils are likely to become even drier. Average rainfall is likely to decrease during spring and summer. . . . Increased evaporation and decreased rainfall are likely to reduce the average flow of rivers and streams. . . . Decreased river flows can create problems for navigation, recreation, public water supplies, and electric power generation. . . . Compounding the challenges for electric utilities, rising temperatures are expected to increase the demand for electricity for air conditioning. . . .
Increasing droughts and higher temperatures are likely to interfere with Oklahoma’s farms and cattle ranches. . . . Yields are likely to decline by about 50 percent in fields that can no longer be irrigated. The early flowering of winter wheat could have negative repercussions on livestock farmers who depend on it for feed. . . .
Although summer droughts are likely to become more severe, floods may also intensify. . . . Over the next several decades, the amount of rainfall during the wettest days of the year is likely to continue to increase, which would increase flooding. . . .
Higher temperatures and drought are likely to increase the severity, frequency, and extent of wildfires, which could harm property, livelihoods, and human health. . . . The combination of more fires and drier conditions may change parts of Oklahoma’s landscape. . . . When fire destroys the natural cover, the native grasses and woody plants may be replaced by non-native grasses, which can become established more readily after a fire. Because non-native grasses are generally more prone to intense fires, native plants may be unable to re-establish themselves.
“Climate Change Indicators in the U.S.”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency