I’m headed up to the top of Mt. Hood tonight! Watch for updates on Twitter under the hashtag #opbhoodclimb. One of the claims I’ve heard as I’ve been talking to people about the climb is that the summit is harder to reach because climate change is shrinking the mountain’s glaciers.

Two of our Mazama climb leaders have agreed they think this is a reasonable claim. The climbs have gotten harder for sure – the classic route between the hogsback and the pearly gates is steeper than it was in the past. And scientists have verified that the mountain’s glaciers are indeed shrinking.

Portland photographer Gary Braasch sent OPB photo evidence of the mountain’s shrinking glaciers since 1976. I’ve posted them in a larger size below. The top picture is one he took in 1976; the middle picture was taken in 2002, and the last one in 2009. See the difference?

Braasch has been photographing climate change since 1999. He’s visited 24 countries specifically to take pictures of climate change in action; to go where scientists are working and where they’ve documented climate change already.

But when he took the first picture of Mt. Hood in 1976, it was just to capture the warm August light surrounding the peak.

“I was just photographing the mountain because it’s my mountain and it’s beautiful. I was taking landscape pictures – scenic pictures. I appreciate looking at glacier in late summer. To see the bones of the mountain was always very thrilling to me. Then I come to find out that they’ve been measuring these glaciers and you can see the differences in my pictures – particularly if you look at the edges of the glaciers. White River Glacier is clearly diminishing – its lost about 61 percent of its ice.”

 

Only twenty-some glaciers of the 400-500 glaciers measured and many more observed from satellites are holding their size or growing, Braasch said, and that means trouble for water users:

“The bottom line is that ice in the glaciers is our late-summer water for agriculture and fish runs and recreation and, in many cities, drinking water as well. This is a huge crisis for our use of water that we’ve gotten used to.”

The world view of climate change has evolved considerably since Braasch started photographing it.

“My focus was to demonstrate if there was climate change. I didn’t know in 1999,” Braasch said. “Now there’s so much more evidence and we are seeing effects around the world that were predicted by the theory that more carbon dioxide makes a warmer atmosphere. Now it’s a major subject. It’s one of the two or three most important things happening on the entire planet.”

Earlier this year, Braasch went to the South Pacific this year to document sea level rise on small islands of coral, and to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s carbon dioxide observatory in Hawaii, where he saw the global CO2 measurement hit a new high of 393 parts per million.

Portland State University geologist Christina Hulbe said indeed glaciers all over the world are shrinking, and even if they’ve shrunken in the past, scientists agree it’s different this time.

“It’s undoubtedly happened in the past,” Hulbe said. “The issue is why its happening now. Throughout the world what’s happening is glaciers are retreating. We can pretty clearly say that global warming is human induced and these glaciers are responding to that warming.”

Hulbe said the glaciers that are advancing are in maritime climates where as the atmosphere gets warmer more snowfall is outpacing the melting, or they’re surge-type glaciers that flow faster and may be getting bigger but are also getting thinner. A few others have quicker responses to short-term weather changes, so they advance quickly and retreat quickly. “But on Mt. Hood that’s not so much the case. These are glaciers that are responding to a longer-term trend and are responding to the warming.”

Tonight I am going to wish ill upon climate change as I claw my way through the pearly gates toward the summit of Mt. Hood. Wish me luck, and check back here for updates. I’ll post them if I can … if my fingers aren’t frozen or my limbs too limp from exhaustion.