Fire and Ice: What I Did on My Summer Vacation

FILE - This 2009 file photo provided by the U.S. Geological Service shows the remnants of the Jackson Glacier at Glacier Nati
FILE - This 2009 file photo provided by the U.S. Geological Service shows the remnants of the Jackson Glacier at Glacier National Park in Montana. A recent report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council said climate change threatens the nearly $1 billion a year tourism business in Glacier, the 11th most visited national park. (AP Photo/U.S. Geological Service, Lisa McKeon, File)

I did my best to get away from work last week while my family and I were on vacation visiting friends who live in Kalispell, the gateway to Montana's Glacier National Park. But it wasn't quite possible. You see, I'm a climate scientist. And the spectre of climate change stares you in the face as you tour the park.

The once great mountain glaciers that gave the park its name have retreated dramatically in recent decades. Of the roughly 150 glaciers that existed in the park when it was established in 1910, only 25 remain today. You can't help but notice their tenuous appearance as you approach the continental divide heading up Going-to-the-Sun road toward Logan Pass, and as you hike the nearby trails watching Pika nervously scurry about as if they somehow sense a looming threat. Climate model projections indicate that Glacier National Park might lose all of its glaciers by 2030 as human-caused global warming proceeds. Perhaps it will be renamed "The Park formerly known as Glacier".

But that's just one of the climate change impacts you see and feel. As you enter the park, you're warned that the current fire threat is "high". Fuel load is at peak levels due to pine forests weakened by warmth-loving pests such as Pine Bark Beetles that have moved as far north as northern Montana in recent years. The high fuel load has combined with extreme heat and drought in recent years to pose a wildfire triple threat, a threat that can be linked to climate change.

There were no active wildfires in the park that I was aware of during my visit. But according to The Hill, there are roughly 30 major wildfires raging across three West Coast states with California battling over a dozen large fires during the worst drought in the state's history, forcing Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency last weekend. The smoke plume from the west coast wildfires is so massive that smoke is being transported all the way to Montana. This smoke was visible as we explored Glacier National Park, obscuring our view of some of the more distant peaks. Another reminder, as if we needed one, that climate change is already having a very intimate impact on our world.

Almost as if to comment on my experiences, the White House released a video yesterday linking America's increasingly more frequent and widespread wildfires to climate change. President Obama's Science Advisor Dr. John Holdren explains -- in less than three minutes -- how climate change is making wildfires more dangerous and why we must act now:

"Climate change has been making the fire season in the U.S. longer and on average more intense," Holdren says in the video. He explains that wildfires have "increased several-fold in the last decade" and the eight worst years on record for "area burned" by wildfires "have all occurred since 2000."

Holdren adds,

The influence of climate change on the wildfire regime comes not just from the higher summer temperatures and reduced summer soil moisture that go with global warming, but climate change is also bringing us more dead trees -- kindling in effect -- killed by a combination of heat stress, water stress and attacks by pests and pathogens that multiply faster in a warmer world.

He warns, "longer, hotter, dryer summers are projected to continue to increase the frequency and intensity of large wildfires in the United States."

This commentary was originally published at EcoWatch


Michael Mann is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (now available in paperback with a new guest foreword by Bill Nye "The Science Guy")