Glacier Saga

From Climate Etc.

by Judith Curry

The loss of glaciers from Glacier National Park is one of the most visible manifestations of climate change in the U.S.  Signs were posted all around the park, proclaiming that the glaciers would be gone by 2020.  In 2017, the Park started taking these signs down.  What happened, beyond the obvious fact that the glaciers hadn’t disappeared by 2020?

Not only are Montana’s glaciers an important icon for global warming (e.g. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth), it also seems that the glaciers are an important political icon for progressive politicians in Montana. Earlier this week, Reilly Neill, a (sort of) politician in Montana, went after me on Twitter:

A number of progressive academic types are leaving twitter owing to Elon Musk’s takeover.  What???   And miss all this fun???

Well, it just so happens that I have some analyses of Montana glaciers and climate in my archives; maybe I can help Reilly (and the “real scientists of Montana”) understand what is going on.

Variability of glaciers in Glacier National Park

The total area of Glacier National Park covered by glaciers shrank 70% from the1850s to 2015, according to US Geological Survey. Melting began at the end of the Little Ice Age (circa 1850) when scientists believe 146 glaciers covered the region, as opposed to 26 in 2019.

The first surveys of glaciers in Glacier National Park began in the 1880s, with most of the focus on the two largest glaciers – Grinnell and Sperry. A 2017 publication issued by the U.S. Geological Survey entitled Status of Glaciers in Glacier National Park [link]  includes a table of the areal extent of named glaciers in the Glacier National Park since the Little Ice Age (LIA) with markers at LIA, 1966, 1998, 2005 and 2015.   Analysis of these data show:

  • A ~50% loss from LIA to 1966 (~115 years), averaging a loss of ~4.5% per decade.
  • Additional ~12% loss from 1966-98 (32 years), averaging a loss of ~3.7% per decade.
  • Additional ~4.75% loss from 1998-2015 (17 years), averaging a loss of ~2.8% per decade.

Much of the glacier loss occurred prior to 1966, when fossil-fueled warming was minimal.  The percentage rate of glacier loss during this early period substantially exceeded the percentage rate of loss observed in the 21st century.  I suspect that much of this melting occurred in the 1930’s (see next section).

Looking much further back, Glacier National Park was virtually ice free 11,000 years ago.  Glaciers have been present within the boundaries of present-day Glacier National Park since about 6,500 years ago. [link]  These glaciers have varied in size, tracking climatic variations, but did not grow to their recent maximum size until the end of the Little Ice Age, around 1850. An 80-year period (~1770-1840) of cool, wet summers and above-average winter snowfall led to a rapid growth of glaciers just prior to the end of the Little Ice Age.  So, the recent loss of glacier mass must be understood in light of the fact the glaciers reached their largest mass for the past 11,000 years during the 19th century. [link]

The USGS hasn’t updated its glacial survey since 2015 (gotta wonder why, with the huge losses they were expecting).  While the loss between 1998 and 2015 has decreased relative to prior decades, it appears that the ice loss has actually stalled or slightly reversed since 2008 [link] This stall caused the Glacier National Park in 2017 to start taking down the signs that expected the glaciers to disappear by 2020.

So, what is going on?

The areal extent and mass balance of glaciers depends in the interplay between snow accumulation during the cold season and the glacier melting during summer.  There is no prima facie reason that slow warming of the average annual surface temperatures will cause net loss of glacier area/mass.  There are strong interannual and multidecadal variations in the amount of snowfall, and in some situations warmer winter temperatures can be associated with more snowfall.  The summer melt season is quite short.  The timing of the quixotic, weather-driven seasonal transition from snow to rainfall is a key determinant of the onset of the melt season and hence its duration.  During summer, the diurnal timing and overall amount of cloudiness can make a big difference in how much melting occurs.  And finally, soot associated with air pollution can provide a substantial accelerant for glacier melting; this is a huge issue for the Hindu-Kush-Himalayan glaciers, but I don’t see any reference to soot in context of Glacier National Park.

You will not be surprised to learn that ENSO, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) influence the atmospheric circulation patterns that influence both the cold season snow accumulation and summertime melt (For an overview see LINK )

Lets first look at snow.  For the period of instrumental snow measurements in Montana since 1955, there has been an overall declining trend in April snowpack in Montana during the period 1955-2015.  However, since 2016, most of the last 7 years have shown normal to above normal spring snowpack across Montana. [link] This behavior reflects the variable nature of climate on both seasonal and decadal scales.

To extend understanding of past snowpack behavior, paleoclimate records have been developed to supplement the modern data pool. These records include lake sediment and tree ring data. An important study focused on the American West was published in 2011, providing a data record over 500 years. [LINK] This length of record revealed climate variability on century scales including features like The Little Ice Age. The study also demonstrated more short-term climatic features that show different anomalies between the northern and southern Rockies.  Of particular relevance, the study identified a snow drought during the 1930s in the Greater Yellowstone Region (Montana) that is similar to low values seen toward the end of the 20th century.

Now consider summertime temperatures.  Shown here are Montana state averages from the NOAA State Climate Summary for Montana (2022).[link] While the two decades in the 21st century have overall been the warmest for Montana since 1900, there has been no trend in extreme summer temperatures.  Montana’s warmest summer temperatures were in the 1930s.

The number of very hot days (≥95 oF) and warm nights (≥70 oF) was highest in the 1930s.

Any surprise here if glacial retreat was particularly strong in the 1930’s?

Montana’s cold winters

The “greed” part of Reilly Neill’s twitter rant seems to have something to do with fossil fuels. If there is ever a place you might want to be kept warm by fossil fuels (or nuclear), Montana during winter is it.  Montana is one of the coldest states in the U.S.   Of particular concern are wintertime “Arctic outbreaks,” which occur multiple times each winter with varying magnitudes and durations. “Arctic outbreaks” periodically bring exceptionally cold temperatures to large regions of the continental U.S., even in this era of global warming.

A little known JC biographical fact is that Arctic cold air outbreaks and the formation of cold-core anticyclones was the topic of my PhD thesis). [link] [link]

An exceptionally cold outbreak occurred in Montana during February and March 2019, with similar outbreaks in 2014 and 2017. In February 2019, average temperature departures from normal in Montana were as much as 27 to 28 oF below normal, with Great Falls at the heart of the cold. Temperatures did not rise above 0 oF on 11 days and dropped to 0 oF or below on 24 nights. While the cold in February was remarkable for its persistence, the subsequent Arctic blast in early March 2019 delivered the coldest temperatures. Almost two dozen official stations in Montana broke monthly records, with an all-time record state low temperature for March of -46F. [link]

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be without electric power and household heating under such cold conditions.  Apart from freezing and figuring out how to keep warm, water pipes would be frozen; not just a lack of potable water, but massive property damage once the pipes thaw.

Fortunately, Montana has a reliable power system with about 50% renewables (mostly hydro) with most of the rest produced by coal. There is a nontrivial contingent in Montana that is seeking 100% renewable power (hydro, wind, solar).

In addition to exceptional power demand for residential heating during such Arctic outbreaks, any power generation from renewables is at a minimum during such periods.  Montana’s solar and hydropower capacity are at their lowest during winter. While winter winds are generally strong, the Arctic cold air outbreaks are accompanied by large regions of high pressure that are called cold-core anticyclones The nature of these circulations is that wind speeds are very low within the high pressure system, resulting in very low amounts of wind power production.

While Arctic outbreaks generally impact the northern Great Plains states the worst, the spatial extent of these outbreaks can be very large. The cold outbreak during February 2021 that impacted Montana also covered half of the U.S. and extended down to Texas, where massive power outages ensued that resulted in considerable loss of life. The large horizontal scale of these high pressure systems indicates that remote transmission of excess energy from someplace else is not going to be of much help if much of the continent is also suffering from cold temperatures and low winds.  The long duration of these events makes battery storage hugely infeasible.  The options are nuclear, gas and coal.


Nothing is simple when it comes to understanding the causes of climate change impacts.  The key to understanding is to look at the longest data records available, and try to interpret the causes of the historical and paleo variability.  Once you understand the natural variability, you aren’t so prone to attributing everything to fossil-fueled warming and making naïve predictions of the future.  And once you understand weather variability and extremes, you won’t be so enthusiastic about renewable energy.

I hope that this little exposition helps Reilly Neill and the real scientists of Montana understand the causes of the recent variations in Montana’s glaciers.

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November 11, 2022 6:23 am

Our favourite lukewarmer realist real scientist can really bite a buffoon on the ass when it is called for. I would hate to challenge JC without one hell of a lot of evidence to back me up. As for Weasely ,Wiley Reilly back to the climate doghouse you snivelling whipped cur!

Reply to  alastairgray29yahoocom
November 11, 2022 6:43 am

Some people can’t accept that others simply want us to learn from the past so as to avoid making stupid mistakes.

If we listen to Greta or Al, we are setting ourselves up for another great tyranny that is best avoided, along with the death and suffering it would bring.

Gunga Din
November 11, 2022 6:29 am

Sounds like they will continue to claim the glaciers are disappearing due to fossil fuels but hope that people forget the “settled science” says they are already gone.

PS “Fortunately, Montana has a reliable power system with about 50% renewables (mostly hydro) with most of the rest produced by coal. There is a nontrivial contingent in Montana that is seeking 100% renewable power (hydro, wind, solar).”

Why is it where hydro is already in place they claim it’s “renewable” yet none of the enviros are proposing building more dams? Padding their success numbers?

Reply to  Gunga Din
November 11, 2022 6:53 am

Think of the roe!

Reply to  Gunga Din
November 11, 2022 8:07 am

Speaking of settleed science, dIdn’t the head of the IPCC declare recently, for the umpteenth time in the last 50 years, that we have less than 10 years left to avoid climate catastrophe?

Reply to  MarkW
November 11, 2022 8:58 am

Well, less than 10 years, but the error margin attached to that computation (which is never quoted) is +/- 1,691.27 years.

Give or take a millenium.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Gunga Din
November 11, 2022 6:22 pm

Envirowhackos in Washington State have proposed getting rid of all the dams.

Richard Greene
November 11, 2022 6:34 am

The Climate Howlers are discussing two new plans to make those pesky glaciers climate change boogeymen again:

(1) Gradually paint the glaciers the same color as the surrounding mountains so it looks like they are melting, or

(2) Change the signs to: “These Glaciers Will Be Gone By 2030”

Last edited 2 months ago by Richard Greene
Reply to  Richard Greene
November 11, 2022 6:55 am

2030 is not bad. However, given the intense and deferential faith of the aligned, they could get away with 2023, 2024, 2025, … in lockstep.

Reply to  n.n
November 11, 2022 7:24 am

They could use changeable-flip numbers, like they used to use on scoreboards, for the last two digits. It would give it a touch of class.

B Zipperer
Reply to  n.n
November 12, 2022 6:29 am

But don’t you find it odd that most predictions [dates, temperatures] all end in
0 or 5 ?
I guess 0 or 5 sounds more “sciency” to the ecotheologists. LOL

Reply to  Richard Greene
November 12, 2022 6:41 pm

One sign did say “by 2030”, but the most conspicuous said “by 2020”. I was told by staff that new Administrators in the Obama Administration made the changes.

Last edited 2 months ago by BobM
Steve Case
November 11, 2022 7:04 am

“There are strong interannual and multidecadal variations in the amount of snowfall, and in some situations warmer winter temperatures can be associated with more snowfall. The summer melt season is quite short. “

The same should be expected for the polar ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland. Gaining and shrinking ice is more a function of snow fall than temperature.

November 11, 2022 7:04 am

But the “real scientists of Montana” believe that the glaciers are disappearing and in settled science world, belief is all you need, so let’s not waste time with pesky observed data and all that other contradictory evidence …..

Chuck Higley
Reply to  Shytot
November 11, 2022 7:44 am

Yes, one of the climate “scientists” even had the gall to say that fas ts do not matter, it’s the models that are right. Remember, it is not their fault that the planet does not perform as they predict—they are still right.

Reply to  Shytot
November 11, 2022 7:44 am

Yes. Observed data is considered inconvenient these days by what appears (but incorrectly) to be the majority of scientists. Hence the very inconvenient policies such as FFS—: Fossil Fuel Starvation.

Reply to  Shytot
November 11, 2022 9:11 am

Michael Shellenberger and a colleague compiled a taxonomy to demonstrate that “Wokeism Is A Religion”.

For every tenet of wokeism, there is an equivalent tenet of unquestioning belief in traditional religious adherence.

Do subscribe to Shellenberger’s Substack publications.

shellenberger wokeism = religion.jpeg
Joseph Zorzin
Reply to  Mr.
November 11, 2022 11:52 am

at there is a somewhat more readable version- and on that page you download a very large scale version easy to read if you load the downloaded pdf into Acrobat and choose “fit width”

Reply to  Shytot
November 11, 2022 9:18 am

In all of my science classes, I never once learned about the “stealth edit” being part of the scientific method.

Yet, that is exactly what the USGS did by removing the “disappearing glacier” signs.

Being wrong while making a scientific prediction based on the data is a common occurrence.

However, REAL scientists would re-evaluate the most recent data, and then add signs that showed why their previous predictions were in error. These “scientists” and park workers did the opposite and performed a stealth edit.

QED, they are anti-scientists!

It doesnot add up
Reply to  pillageidiot
November 11, 2022 11:25 am

Someone should erect a sign with a photo of the historic sign, with the legend “Science used to think that these glaciers would be gone by 2020. The science was wrong”

November 11, 2022 7:35 am

The one thing you can rely on these days is that the UN and the IPCC predictions are ALWAYS WRONG and the Alarmunists, undeterred, take political advantage of it.

Sometimes I think the UN et al. deliberately gets it wrong to advance it agenda to destroy Capitalism. Am I falling victim to a Conspiracy theory here? Surely the UN being a pillar of rectitude would not stoop so low? /s

Graeme No.3
Reply to  cognog2
November 11, 2022 2:08 pm

1923 Montana Glacier could disappear by 1948
Says Professor Waterman. North-western University
1924 Montana Glacier could disappear in a few years
Says Dr. Elrod (University of Montana)
1924 Montana Glacier could disappear in 25 years
Says Dr. Matthes US Geological Surve
1952 Montana’s Glacier Park may need new name
The giant glaciers are melting away and could be gone in 50 years say naturalists
2009 No more Glaciers in Montana by 2020?
National Geographic News March 2 2009 
2010 Signs installed about glaciers being gone by 2020
2014 No more Glaciers in Montana by 2034?
What will they call Glacier National Park (Montana) in 30 years when all the glaciers are
gone?  New York Times Nov. 22, 2014 
2019/20 Signs removed
2021 All of the glaciers in Glacier National Park are expected to be gone by 2030,” said Noah Greenwald, director of endangered species for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD)

Chuck Higley
November 11, 2022 7:41 am

The northern latitudes, comprising half of the United States, are areas in which solar will never actually break even. It’s just too much of a failure in the colder seasons. It’s joke to do any solar in Canada.

That leaves only wind and that, as pointed out above, also fails during cold snaps. In addition, wind turbines need to be electrically heated during these periods, the blades can ice up, and chunks of ice can be thrown great distances.

This is all ignoring that the wind footprint and infrastructure is 5 to 10 times that of coal and nuclear. Such a waste of valuable materials, most of which cannot be recycled after their 12 to 15-year useful lifetime. Decentralized energy such a wind also makes maintenance super expensive, even on land.

November 11, 2022 7:49 am

Great post. Won’t change Ms. Neil’s thinking one iota, but it is valuable for most of us. Thank you.

Reply to  quantumkidsd4772e61e4
November 11, 2022 8:11 am

There isn’t much evidence that she’s done much thinking.

Reply to  quantumkidsd4772e61e4
November 11, 2022 9:03 am

Religion demands no questioning of the dogma.

You can’t even say – “that’s not our dog, Ma”

Rich Davis
Reply to  Mr.
November 11, 2022 12:06 pm

I’m triggered by your insensitive dogma comment Mr.

You see, my dogma got run over by my karma.

Reply to  quantumkidsd4772e61e4
November 11, 2022 9:31 am

The problem is, this fine article is way too long to fit in Twitter. Also, I suspect that Neil and the real scientists of Montana (a new reality show?) don’t have the attention span to read it.

November 11, 2022 9:32 am

A gorgeous response to another NPR herd-mentality politician. It’ll never appear in the New York Times, and that’s why we can count on overwhelming support for ‘our democracy’, and derogation of those who know what the scientific method involves.

November 11, 2022 9:39 am

Excellent analysis and conclusion priceless. Why do so many “real scientists” fail to grasp that concept?

Reply to  mrchuck
November 11, 2022 10:24 am

That’s easy! It doesn’t pay!

November 11, 2022 10:28 am

It sure is looking like at least some of those glaciers will be growing now. They really got plastered up there and the temps are not expected to get above freezing for some time to come.

Beta Blocker
November 11, 2022 10:44 am

I lived for a short time in Billings MT in the mid-1970’s working environmental regulation issues for the coal industry, later moving to the Oregon/Washington region of the US Northwest working in nuclear.

Sometimes while driving along what’s called the ‘High Line’ along US Highway 2 in northern Montana, I would occasionally see a bumper sticker which read, Cool it in Cut Bank. These Montanans sure knew where it was they were living.

The big coal-fired plants which were built in the northern Rocky Mountain states in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s are now targeted for closure by the Biden administration, with strong support from the region’s climate activists, of whom there are many. Reilly Neill is fairly typical of these activists.

The legacy coal plants are forty to fifty years old. Some have already been retired and some are still attached to the Western Interconnect. Given the current hostile regulatory environment, no one in their right mind would spend serious money on maintaining and upgrading the remaining plants.

Between 2010 and 2020, it was public policy that all these northern plains coal plants would eventually be replaced by gas-fired generation. But in 2022, gas fired generation is now off the table as a public policy option.

What the great majority of those who live in the US Northwest and in the northern plains states don’t realize is that no combination of wind, solar, and nuclear can come close to replacing the coal plants now targeted for closure. Not within the next fifty years, anyway.

Erik Magnuson
Reply to  Beta Blocker
November 13, 2022 8:49 am

The coal fired plants in Colstrip have been shut down for a while now.

While Biden’s (and Obama’s) war on coal is partly responsible for the demise of coal fired plants, a major reason has been that a CCGT plant running on natural gas was cheaper to build and operate than a coal fired plant. This may not quite true now with LNG exports and Biden’s war on frac’ing driving up natural gas prices.

FWIW, I have family spread all over Montana and JC is right that renewables are far from ready to handle a Montana winter.

November 11, 2022 3:03 pm

Reilly wouldn’t know a “real scientist” if he or she came up and bit her. A former cook and longtime bootstraps publisher with no significant science education (or much of any education for that matter), she is foolishly emboldened enough to spar with the likes of Dr. Judith Curry. She says she once took a course from a climate activist professor, so of course she is now credentialed to pontificate on such matters.

Hatter Eggburn
November 11, 2022 4:19 pm

Since 2016 earth’s length of day has been getting shorter. This means it is probable that polar ice mass is increasing, especially in Antarctica. The Jacobshavn glacier in Greenland reversed from retreat to advance around that time.

Mr Ed
November 11, 2022 4:35 pm

Yet another great piece by Judith Curry. There was a high altitude study in Montana
over the past decade that I found interesting.–>

The scientists are also finding that the high country wasn’t the same as we now see it. Old whitebark pine stumps have been dated to 1,100 to 2,100 years ago in places that are now 500 feet above where trees are growing now, Guenther said.

“These were happy, well-fed whitebark pine,” he said.

It might have been warmer during that time, at least to me.

John Hultquist
November 11, 2022 7:01 pm

An 80-year period (~1770-1840) of cool, wet summers and above-average winter snowfall led to a rapid growth of glaciers just prior to the end of the Little Ice Age. “

A wonderful period. It is to be hoped that we will soon experience this wonderful time again.

Henry Pool
November 11, 2022 11:39 pm

Maybe it is not the CO2? Maybe it is not the sun? Maybe it is earth?
It is the earth itself, stupid!? | Bread on the water

Michael Ketterer
November 12, 2022 6:21 am

Quote from Judith Curry:

“The USGS hasn’t updated its glacial survey since 2015 […]. While the loss between 1998 and 2015 has decreased relative to prior decades, it appears that the ice loss has actually stalled or slightly reversed since 2008.”

I have not the slightest Idea why Judith Curry is spreading alternative facts here:
USGS is measuring glacier mass balance at Sperry glacier in Glacier National Park since 2005. So JC should read the USGS Reports rather than Roger Roots when she wants to write about GNP glaciers.
Here are the facts which shows that the GNP bench mark glacier is performing different to the statement cited above.
No ice loss has actually stalled or slightly reversed since 2008

comment image

The link to the graph is taken from WGMS glacier fluctuation browser
WGMS and USGS web pages provide enough information on glacier fluctuation. So JC could have done better in her post here. 

Reply to  Michael Ketterer
November 12, 2022 5:01 pm

So the glaciers (like the signs) have disappeared?

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