I KNOW WHAT it’s like to be baptized in the meltwater of a dying glacier. It feels like a plunge into all the emotions of living in our climate-changed world: joy, dread, awe, fear, love.
In August, a few of my college friends and I took a trip, something of a pilgrimage, to Glacier National Park in Montana. We wanted to visit the glaciers that are projected to die off in the coming decades. The Kootenai people call this place Ya·qawiswitxuki,“the place where there is a lot of ice.” It is a place burdened with names that it will hold on to even after the glaciers and ice disappear.
The geology of the park is like a cake cut open to show layers of sandstone, shale, and limestone — a portal into deep time. About 100 million years ago, in an event called the Sevier Orogeny, the mountains in Glacier formed as the forces of colliding tectonic plates thrust two billion years’ worth of sedimentary rock upward. Across 100,000-year cycles, glaciers formed and retreated, slowly whittling away at the rock and carving out dramatic valleys, moraines, arêtes and horns, cirques and tarns. During a simple four-hour hike, we walked through billions of years of sedimentation.
Walking through such a place makes this moment in history seem both insignificant and deeply important. Thousands of feet of layered sediment formed organically, with nearly no human influence, but the small sliver at the top will be markedly human. This Anthropocene layer in the geologic cake holds markers of nuclear bombs, cow manure, and a lot of plastic. It holds the most dramatic increase in carbon concentration and the accompanying increase in temperature. It holds the extinction of hundreds of creatures, which may soon include the western glacier stonefly and meltwater lednian stonefly, who require ice-cold clear streams to survive.
This layer is also the moment, a blink of an eye in geologic time, when the mighty glaciers disappear. It is estimated that by 2100, two-thirds of the world’s glaciers will be killed. The reality is more devastating in the eponymous national park, where all the glaciers are expected to be gone by the end of this century. I can’t predict all the impacts the park will feel over the next 75 years, but I imagine that the numerous hikers currently making pilgrimages to the glaciers will instead walk in funeral processions to plaques, like the one marking the death of the Okjökull Glacier in Iceland.