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Glacier National Park Might Need a New Name As Its Glaciers Disappear

Glacier National Park in Montana might soon be in need of a more tropical name.

The park, which was once home to 37 of the 39 named glaciers in Montana, could run out of glaciers within the next few decades. Since 1966, 11 have vanished completely, while those that remain have shrunk by as much as 85% due to global warming, the Guardian reports. In the late 19th century, 150 glaciers covered the region.

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Montana’s climate is warming at a faster rate than the global average and the state is experiencing increasingly mild winters as a result, with rain replacing the snow necessary for glaciers to exist, according to the Guardian. Even when heavy snowfall does occur, as happened during the most recent winter, hotter springs and summers are melting the snow much more quickly than in previous years.  

While inconsistent weather patterns have contributed to glacial recessions in the past, experts say climate change has never posed a greater threat to glaciers than it does right now.

“The glaciers have waxed and waned with different climate fluctuations but this is the first time they are heading for almost certain extinction,” said Dr. Daniel Farge, lead scientist for US Geological Survey (USGS). “There’s no hope for them to survive.”

“We’d need a major reversal where it would get cooler, not just stop getting warmer. There’s nothing to suggest that would happen,” he said.

The 26 glaciers in Big Sky country are not the only ones facing imminent destruction. Scientists claim it’s a matter of decades until glaciers disappear entirely from the lower 48 US states.

“It’s inevitable that we will lose them all over the next few decades,” Farge said. “The Colorado glaciers started melting before Montana’s and while there are larger glaciers in the Pacific

Northwest that will hold on longer, the number vanishing will steadily grow until none are left.”

Glaciers aren’t faring much better outside of the contiguous US.

Alaska’s Muir Glacier retreated seven miles between 1941 and 2004 and became about 2,600 feet thinner, NASA reports.

A USGS study from September found that both the Gulkana glacier, in eastern Alaska, and the Wolverine glacier, on the state’s southern coast, both diminished steadily despite existing in different climates. The study found Alaska’s glaciers lose 75 billion tons of ice annually.

Glaciers are defined as moving bodies of snow and ice that are larger than 25 acres. They fall into two categories: alpine glaciers and ice sheets.  

But the (once) massive snow and ice formations are not just something scientists like to study — they provide life for countless people around the world.

Glaciers make soil more fertile for farming and are the source of many rivers that provide communities with fresh water. The Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas, for instance, feeds the Ganges River in India. The Pastoruri glacier is a crucial water source in Peru. As glaciers disappear, millions will be left without fresh water.

Melting ice sheets also cause sea levels to rise. About 40% of the earth’s population live in coastal areas, which could cause a migration crisis as their communities fall into the sea.

Wildlife has struggled to adapt as well. In Alaska, for instance, changes in water flow and water chemistry hurt salmon populations, which are vital to the local ecosystem.

Glaciers are also a visual indicator of climate change, and they are receding so significantly, the changes can be seen from outer space.

But there are some efforts being made to save the world’s remaining glaciers.

Scientists in Switzerland, for instance, are attempting to save the Morteratsch glacier by covering it with artificial snow during the summer. It’s an ironic twist: the only hope for glaciers – made of natural snow and ice and destroyed by humans – may be man-made snow.

The challenge will be creating snow at a faster rate than it melts, which will be increasingly difficult as global temperatures are rising at an accelerated rate.

“Things that normally happen in geologic time are happening in the span of a human lifetime,” Farge told National Geographic. “It’s like watching the Statue of Liberty melt.”

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