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The loss of glaciers is a warning to all Oregonians

Last month the Oregon Glaciers Institute announced that the Clark Glacier, clinging to the state’s third-highest peak, the South Sister, had died. Though made of inanimate snow and ice, glaciers “live” in the sense that they move when gravity pulls their pliable frozen mass slowly downhill. But starved for adequate snow, this relic of frozen water had quit moving and was shrinking — on the way to disappearing altogether.

I’ll never forget the moment I first laid eyes on an Oregon glacier, 50 years ago, on my way to a summer job with the National Park Service at Crater Lake. After a long drive from the East, I arrived south of The Dalles in the dark of a balmy June night, rolled out my sleeping bag in the sagebrush, and six hours later awakened to sunrise on the surreal profile of glacier-clad Mount Hood. The lofty mass of snow and ice held me rapt, much as it might have done to travelers braving the Oregon Trail nearby two centuries earlier.

The Pacific Northwest seemed like a dream to me that morning, yet undeniably real where conifers ramped up to glaciers embedded not only on our state’s highest summit, but also southward on Mount Jefferson and, I later learned, at 40 shaded enclaves spanning Oregon’s Cascade Range to the remnant Lathrop Glacier on the southeast slope of Mount Thielsen.

The glaciers will be missed by many of us who have thrilled to their white gleam on the horizon. But even people who don’t care about glaciers will feel effects of the forces that are melting the ice. Our disappearing glaciers mean that snowfields lower on the mountains will also shrink as the climate warms, causing a decline in the summertime flow to rivers, farms, and household spigots. This includes the snowfields of Mount McLoughlin — once glaciers themselves — as that volcanic landmark rises to highlight views eastward from the Rogue Valley, and as its snowmelt infiltrates lava slopes and reemerges at Big Butte Springs to serve Medford’s water supply.

Less snow means that remaining stream flows will be warmer, killing salmon, steelhead and trout needing cold water. Both sport and commercial fishing will be hard-hit. It means trouble for forests and tree growth, which benefit from snowmelt’s moisture persisting in soil much longer than does rainfall. Rising temperatures mean destructive flooding because winter storms will come as rain rather than snow — delivering runoff all at once and challenging flood-control systems as massive as Lost Creek Lake. Hotter summers bring a furnace of scorching sun plus blowtorch winds that stoke wildfires charcoaling forests, choking whole states on smoke, incinerating rural homes and even towns as we saw this year through the Bear Creek corridor and perilously close to Medford.

While some people doubt the heating climate, the loss of glaciers is indisputable. Places where I hiked as a teenager — including the route through Mount McLoughlin’s snowdrifts — are turning to bare rock instead of the glistening veneer that had earlier sweetened the scene like icing on a cake.

Regrettably, it’s too late to save Oregon’s glaciers from global warming. So see them while you can. But to avoid the more painful, consequential, widespread effects of hotter days, we have little choice but to fight back. All reputable scientists report that excess carbon in the atmosphere — like a greenhouse roof — causes the warming, and that the carbon overload comes from burning fossil fuels, from cutting down large trees that otherwise sequester carbon as solid cellulose for centuries in stout trunks, and from depletion of soil that once stored carbon as rich organic humus. That’s the bad news that the melting glaciers tell us. The good news is that climate warming can be reversed if we muster the will to do it.

The changing climate affects us all, but especially rural and small-town Oregonians like me who live and work at the front line of diminishing stream flows in summer, aggravated flooding in winter, and volatile fire seasons lasting longer each year. Much can be done. Yet most of rural Oregon’s elected officials oppose efforts to address the crippling hazards that hurt the people they represent.

Anyone with views to a snow-capped mountain — whether from the front porch, the edge of town, or a vista eastward while driving Interstate 5 through the Rogue Valley or westward from Highway 97 on the other side of the Cascades — can be reminded that, as the climate warms, everything is at stake, especially for the generations to come. Our water, fish, forests, homes, livelihoods and refreshing views to snow-covered mountains could all suffer the melting fate of the glaciers — or not. It’s up to us and the people we elect.

Tim Palmer is the author of Field Guide to Oregon Rivers, California Glaciers, and other books. He lives in Port Orford.