How climate change is affecting Mount Rainier

Author Bruce Barcott, who wrote a book about the mountain, recounts the visible effects of climate shifts: plants growing higher up, melting glaciers releasing rocks and silt, climbing routes turning from ice to rock.
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Mount Rainier

Author Bruce Barcott, who wrote a book about the mountain, recounts the visible effects of climate shifts: plants growing higher up, melting glaciers releasing rocks and silt, climbing routes turning from ice to rock.

Eleven years ago, Seattle writer Bruce Barcott became something of a spokesman for Mount Rainier by publishing The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. In a mighty appealing research project, Barcott spent months hiking, camping, and climbing on the mountain and speaking with ecologists, biologists, botanists, entomologists, National Park Service officials, monks, and shamans about the 14,410-foot peak.

Barcott spent much of this decade away from the Northwest, until moving back to Seattle with his family this past summer. He found both a changing city and a changing mountain.

One change is from climate shifts, though it's difficult to measure the extent of the effect on Rainier. Declining snowfall enables trees to grow where they once couldn't, creeping into alpine meadows. Warming temperatures have allowed alpine meadows to climb up the mountain's slopes, with plants growing higher than they had earlier, Barcott said.

Melting glaciers release rocks and silt from their grip, freeing the material to tumble down into the mountain's rivers, where it can clog culverts and contribute to flooding. Receding glaciers aren't a new phenomenon, but this summer a team of researchers led by Oregon State University hydrologist Gordon Grant began studying whether climate change worsened the problem.

The November 2006 flood provided a dramatic example, wiping out roads, bridges, trails, and campgrounds. The torrent caused $36 million in damage, forcing the park to close for six months. That wasn't all due to climate change, but it highlights the unpredictable nature of this unprecedented problem. "With climate change, so much of this you don't really know until it starts to happen," said Barcott. "Who knew the rivers were going to fill up?"

Mount Rainier National Park doesn't demonstrate the effects of global warming as dramatically as Everglades or Glacier national parks, he said, but as a protected area Mount Rainier offers a different look at how temperature and precipitation changes play out. Barcott has spoken to senior mountaineering guides who can see the changes on the mountain.

"They're seeing parts of the climbing routes turning from ice to rock that they just haven't seen before," he said. "They know all the landmarks up there because they've got to find their way in snow and fog. They'll remark to each other, 'Do you remember seeing that rock outcropping before?' And they're new. Little things like that are becoming a little more naked up there."

Earlier this month, the Tacoma News Tribune traced the effects of the park's decreasing snowfall and its threat to alpine meadows. It also tracked how warmer, wetter winters seem to have damaged high-altitude meadows across the mountain West. "It's definitely going from meadows to forests," Park Service scientist Regina Rochefort told the paper. "These are dynamic landscapes. They are changing, but none of us really expect it to change in our lifetime."

After Barcott took a series of reporting trips to Belize to write The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird, he spent the past two years in Boulder, Colo. There he watched conservationists grapple with an explosion in the population of mountain pine beetles, which ravaged the whitebark pine forests. Super-cold snaps used to keep the beetle population at bay, but that hasn't happened in recent years, he said. "You don't know if there's something like the beetles that we don't know about yet that could hit Rainier," he said. "I don't mean this in a supernatural X-files sort of way, but mysterious unknown agents could be waiting to explode within the park."

In 2004, Barcott wrote in The New York Times Magazine about the Bush administration's undoing of environmental rules. He said the way the administration pushed the National Park Service to turn itself from a resource protection agency to a commercial agency is a story he hasn't yet found time to write. He takes comfort in the career Park Service officials who fought back, including Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga, who Barcott describes as "a guy who heroically pushed back, in strategic and subtle ways, against some of the political changes the Bush administration wanted to institute."


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