West Texas or Worse

Earlier this fall I visited Glacier National Park in Montana.

I had been there twice before, during the mid-sixties, when our family camped 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 remember much from those childhood trips, I’ve always wanted to go back, a desire that has grown more urgent in recent years as I’ve learned about global warming.  I hoped to see the last of the park’s main attractions before they’re gone.

By coincidence, I arrived at the gateway hamlet of East Glacier on the eve of the heavily promoted PBS series The National Parks.  But I didn’t ride Amtrak halfway across the continent to watch television, so I’ll have to catch it on reruns.

*                *                *

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 move 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 get thirsty.

If the climate turns warmer and drier, glaciers start retreating.  And they’ve been under attack since the Industrial Revolution, when humans began exploiting fossil fuels and filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  This has accelerated in recent years as we’ve increased our consumption of nonrenewable energy.

Scientists estimate that 98% of 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-sixties, there were about 50 left.

Today there are only 26.

Park brochures and exhibits currently say these dwindling survivors won’t last beyond the year 2030.  But talk with a park ranger and you’ll learn that the latest measurements indicate they’re melting even faster than predicted.  The glaciers of Glacier National Park will be completely gone by 2020, just a decade from now.

Glacier was established in 1910 as the United States’ tenth national park, so government officials and local leaders are gearing up for next year’s centennial.  Since we humans can’t seem to kick our addiction to coal and oil and natural gas, maybe this would be a good time for a new name:  Glacier MEMORIAL National Park.

*                *                *

What does all this have to do with Mvskoke country?

The Mvskoke people have lived in warm, humid environments for a very long time.  The Mvskoke language doesn’t even have a word for glacier, though it wouldn’t be hard to come up with one—akhvsē-rakko hetutē (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 part of our planet is feeling the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change.

The average temperature on the Great Plains is already up 1.5 degrees compared to 1979, a remarkable increase in just thirty 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 a second great removal, with the Mvskoke people—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 organic, blue planet.

Muscogee Nation News, November 2009


Glacier National Park

Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center

Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center

United States Global Change Research Program