Warm, dry weather could spell the doom of this Yosemite landmark.

How warm has California been lately? Well, look at the bottom image below and see if you can tell it was once a mighty glacier:

U.S. National Park Service

The top photo, taken in 1883 by Israel Russell of the U.S. Geological Survey, shows the expanse of California’s Lyell Glacier, the biggest in Yosemite National Park. In its golden years the frozen block was a true behemoth, but balmy weather has melted it down to a virtual ice cube, as shown in the 2015 photo by the National Park Service’s Keenan Takahashi.

As of this year, the landmark has lost about 80 percent of its 19th-century surface area of a half square-mile—and more than 10 percent of that loss happened in the past four years, according to NASA. Much of the blame can be ascribed to the hot, dry weather that’s been plaguing the West, and NASA isn’t shy about throwing in the double-C term. The space agency writes:

Yosemite National Park Glaciers are important indicators of climate change because they are sensitive to environmental conditions. The Lyell Glacier, larger of the two glaciers in Yosemite National Park and second largest in the Sierra Nevada mountains, has thinned noticeably even in just the last few years.

The pace of recent melting is evident in this comparison from the Septembers of 2009 and 2014:

U.S. National Park Service

“Newly exposed bedrock is visible on the east (left) side of the 2014 image,” says NASA. “The glacier is currently estimated to be 15 to 20 feet thick, losing about three feet of thickness each year. Slowly flowing glaciers are credited with sculpting much of Yosemite’s scenery.”

Here’s one more historical contrast from 1901 and 2011 posted by Yosemite park ranger Bob Roney:

In a poignant discussion of Lyell’s withering, Roney bemoans the likely fact that future generations won’t get to walk the glacier’s gelid barrens:

The ice continues to melt and by Yosemite National Park’s second centennial [in 2116] it may be completely gone. For hundreds of years, snow and ice melt from the foot of these two glaciers has fed the Tuolumne River and kept it flowing even in late summer and fall when other streams have dried.

Over the years I’ve made several attempts to climb Mount Lyell and its glacier but each time lightning storms in summer or avalanche danger in winter prevented me from completing the ascent. Although this may be disappointing to me, I am truly saddened by the fact that the last of our glaciers, these icy icons of wildness, may disappear within the lifetimes of my children and with them a source of late summer water for streamside life along the Tuolumne River.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Environment

    A 13,235-Mile Road Trip for 70-Degree Weather Every Day

    This year-long journey across the U.S. keeps you at consistent high temperatures.

  2. An illustration of the Memorial Day flood in Ellicott City, Maryland.
    Environment

    In a Town Shaped by Water, the River Is Winning

    Storms supercharged by climate change pose a dire threat to river towns. After two catastrophic floods, tiny Ellicott City faces a critical decision: Rebuild, or retreat?

  3. Design

    Bringing New Life to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lost Designs

    “I would love to model all of Wright's work, but it is immense,” says architect David Romero. “I do not know if during all my life I will have time.”

  4. Transportation

    CityLab University: Induced Demand

    When traffic-clogged highways are expanded, new drivers quickly materialize to fill them. What gives? Here’s how “induced demand” works.

  5. A line of stores in Westport, Connecticut
    Equity

    Separated by Design: How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing

    In southwest Connecticut, the gap between rich and poor is wider than anywhere else in the country. Invisible walls created by local zoning boards and the state government block affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need it.