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. photo: San Diego's Trolley
    Transportation

    Out of Darkness, Light Rail!

    In an era of austere federal funding for urban public transportation, light rail seemed to make sense. Did the little trains of the 1980s pull their own weight?

  2. photo: Developer James Rouse visiting Harborplace in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
    Life

    What Happened to Baltimore’s Harborplace?

    The pioneering festival marketplace was among the most trendsetting urban attractions of the last 40 years. Now it’s looking for a new place in a changed city.

  3. Equity

    What ‘Livability’ Looks Like for Black Women

    Livability indexes can obscure the experiences of non-white people. CityLab analyzed the outcomes just for black women, for a different kind of ranking.

  4. Design

    Before Paris’s Modern-Day Studios, There Were Chambres de Bonne

    Tiny upper-floor “maids’ rooms” have helped drive down local assumptions about exactly how small a livable home can be.

  5. A view of a Harlem corner.
    Equity

    How Ronald Reagan Halted the Early Anti-Gentrification Movement

    An excerpt from Newcomers, a new book by Matthew L. Schuerman, documents the early history of the anti-gentrification and back-to-the-city movements.

×