Photo by Meg Haywood Sullivan, courtesy of National Geographic.
I’m not much of a traveler. There are few places I want to travel to. There’s just too much to see close to home. And I’m not in a rush. I plan to live to be two hundred and two, so I have time. Maybe when I’m done exploring around here I’ll finally get to go there, “wherever there may be.” Paris, maybe. Rio. Parts of India. The not so hot parts. Japan, specifically the island of Kyushu for some reason. I wouldn’t mind giving Honshu the skip. I have no interest in seeing Tokyo, although I hear Kyoto’s nice. And I probably should try to make a point of seeing Mount Fuji while I’m there but it wouldn’t break my heart if it didn’t pan out. When I read Paul Theroux’s descriptions of winter on Hokkaido in Ghost Train to the Eastern StarI thought I might like to go there:
Across the high Hokkaido moorland, the sun disengaged from a puffy storm cloud and suddenly brightened, changed color, going hotter, the dazzling orange of hot lava, then became a low yellow dome near the frosty hills on the horizon. I watched the diminishing dome: it slid finally into the snow, leaving a glow in the storm cloud, a pinkness, a blush above the ridge of hills, until it became just a smear of pink, going gray.
After that, the bare black trees were like exposed nerves in the ashy whiteness of the bleak snowfields at dusk. In this rounded, softened, and heavily upholstered world of deep snow, the pinetops changed from ragged lace to bottle brushes to saw blades as the train turned on the meandering river and the angle of the light altered.
Five and a half hours after leaving Sapporo, the train drew into the tiny station of the topmost town in Japan.
It seemed a magical arrival---the little station, the snowy streets, the deep drifts sparkling in the lamplight, frost crystals in the air and a strong odor of the sea…
But as often happens when I read Theroux’s travel writing, the farther on I read the more I felt like I’d be happier just staying home. He can grow sour on a place in a heartbeat and he has a talent for passing that sourness along to a reader.
But as for home---and I mean the United States---I would like to visit New Mexico, get back another time or two to New Orleans, maybe do some poking around up in Montana. But there’s really just one place I feel like I have to see.
At some point when I was most vulnerable to it---and I think it was back when we were living in Fort Wayne and I was especially depressed by the flatness of the place---I read John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra and The Yosemite and I was enchanted. I had to go!
Sadly, I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’m not anxious. Like I said, I have time. Fourteen decades at least. But that’s just if all I want to see is bare rock. The glaciers and with them the grass and the trees that drink the runoff will be long gone by then. If I want to see the glaciers, I need to get out there fast. Within five years, according to Caroline Gleich in this article she wrote for National Geographic, Is It Too Late to Save Yosemite’s Glaciers?
Gleich, a professional ski mountaineer (I’m not sure either), adventurer (nice work if you can get it, but I wonder what it pays and how much insurance you have to carry), and environmental activist, went out with her friend, the photographer Meg Haywood Sullivan to take a look at the Lyell Glacier while it’s still there to be looked at. The great naturalist John Muir discovered the glaciers of the Sierras for white people in the last third of the Nineteenth Century and deduced the process by which the glaciers had gouged out the canyons and shaped the cliffs of that part of the Sierras that now make up Yosemite National Park. Muir posited that the glaciers were still at work. He was going against the scientific consensus of his day on this, by the way. According to Edwin Way Teale in a note before Muir’s essay “Discovery of the Sierra Glaciers” (collected in The Wilderness World of John Muir, edited by Teale), eminent geologists at the time believed that there were no “living” glaciers in Yosemite Valley and the cliffs and mountainscapes had been formed by some as yet scientifically unexplained cataclysm in which, in the words of David Brower in his introduction to my copy of The Yosemite, "the bottom dropped out" of the unformed valley,"leaving the walls." Muir, Brower says, "would have none of it." The eminent geologists didn’t like Muir’s proving them wrong. Muir, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed having done it. But, as Gleich reports in her article, those living glaciers are dying and they’re not doing it at glacial speed.
As we hiked, I tried to imagine what Muir saw in the summer of 1872. He went to the Lyell Glacier because he suspected that glaciers were responsible for shaping the iconic landscape of Yosemite. He placed pine stakes at the lip of the glacier to measure movement. His adventure and experiment showed the glacier was “alive” and moving, upsetting the predominant theory that Yosemite was shaped by a major earthquake. In 1875 he published his findings in a Harper’s Magazine article, “The Living Glaciers of California.” Essentially one of the first conservation adventure athletes, Muir used his platform to advocate permanent protection of Yosemite, convincing President Theodore Roosevelt to accompany him on a camping trip there in May 1903. The men “talked far into the night regarding Muir’s glacial theory of the formation of Yosemite Valley ... they talked a great deal about the conservation of forests in general and Yosemite in particular.” The discussion sparked plans for the “setting aside of other areas in the United States for park purposes,” and Roosevelt eventually preserved 230 million acres of public lands. It seemed fitting that Meg and I would be in Yosemite for the National Park Service’s centennial. But it was crazy to think that our generation could be the last to see the park’s glaciers firsthand.
Here’s what Muir saw:
Beginning on the northwestern extremity of the group, I explored the chief tributary basins in succession, their moraines, roches moutonnées, and splendid glacier pavements, taking them in regular succession without any reference to the time consumed in their study. The monuments of the tributary that poured its ice from between Red and Black Mountains I found to be the most interesting of them all; and when I saw its magnificent moraines extending in majestic curves from the spacious amphitheater between the mountains, I was exhilarated with the work that lay before me. It was one of the golden days of the Sierra Indian summer, when the rich sunshine glorifies every landscape however rocky and cold, and suggests anything rather than glaciers. The path of the vanished glacier was warm now, and shone in many places as if washed with silver. The tall pines rowing on the moraines stood transfigured in the glowing light, the poplar groves on the levels of the basin were masses of orange-yellow, and the late blooming goldenrods added gold to gold.
Pushing on over my rosy glacial highway, I passed lake after lake set in solid basins of granite, and many a thicket and meadow watered by a stream that issues from the amphitheater and links the lakes together; now wading through plushy bogs knee-deep in yellow and purple sphagnum; now passing over bare rock. The main lateral moraines that bounded the view on either hand are from 100 to nearly 200 feet high, and about as regular as artificial embankments, and covered with a superb growth of Silver Fir and Pine. But this garden and forest luxuriance was speedily left behind. The trees were dwarfed as I ascended; patches of the alpine bryanthus and cassiope began to appear, and arctic willows pressed into flat carpets by the winter snow. The lakelets, which a few miles down the valley were so richly embroidered with flowery meadows, had here, at an elevation of 10,000 feet, only small brown mats of carex, leaving bare rocks around more than half their shores. Yet amid this alpine suppression the Mountain Pine bravely tossed his storm-beaten branches on the ledges and buttresses of Red Mountain, some specimens being over 100 feet high, and 24 feet in circumference, seemingly as fresh and vigorous as the giants of the lower zones.
Evening came on just as I got fairly within the portal of the main amphitheater. It is about a mile wide, and a little less than two miles long. The crumbling spurs and battlements of Red Mountain bound it on the north, the somber, rudely sculptured precipices of Black Mountain on the south, and a hacked, splintery col , curving around from mountain to mountain, shuts it in on the east.
I chose a camping-ground on the brink of one of the lakes where a thicket of Hemlock Spruce sheltered me from the night wind. Then, after making a tin-cupful of tea, I sat by my camp-fire reflecting on the grandeur and significance of the glacial records I had seen. As the night advanced the mighty rock walls of my mountain mansion seemed to come nearer, while the starry sky in glorious brightness stretched across like a ceiling from wall to wall, and fitted closely down into all the spiky irregularities of the summits. Then, after a long fire side rest and a glance at my note-book, I cut a few leafy branches for a bed, and fell into the clear, death-like sleep of the tired mountaineer.
Glaciers are more than a playground for skiers and climbers; they are significant to the world, and it’s vital to pay attention to what’s happening to them. For 85 years, the park service has conducted annual surveys of the Lyell and Maclure Glaciers. The results of the most recent studies are shocking. The glaciers have lost about 80 percent of their surface area.
“The reason glaciers are good indicators of climate change is because they are simple. Snowfall and temperature are the only two things that control a glacier's health. So if you have less snow or warmer temperatures, the glaciers are going to retreat,” explains Greg Stock, a Yosemite National Park glaciologist.
In Yosemite, the Lyell and Maclure Glaciers form the headwaters of the Tuolumne River, providing drinking water to more than two million people in the Bay Area. Once the glaciers disappear, the ecosystems downstream are bound to change. In other places in the world, like China, Bolivia, and the Alps, melting glaciers provide a significant source of freshwater for large communities. Globally, the loss of glaciers means many communities will lose their water source.
“The other part,” Stock says, “is more philosophical. Glaciers were foundational in creating this landscape that’s so famous. When the glaciers disappear, we’ll lose the physical links to the past and the tangible link to the past study of glaciers from John Muir on—the hundreds of people involved in studying these glaciers over a century and a half.”
A couple decades of sustained cold temperatures and above-normal snowfall would rejuvenate the glaciers, Stock says. They’d be able to form more ice, and the weight of the additional ice would start pushing them down the mountain again. But sadly, it may be too late. “Even if we were to stop emitting greenhouse gases [a cause of global warming] today, both of those glaciers would disappear in the next few decades. If the drought conditions of the past five years continue, the Lyell could be gone in five years. It’s that close,” Stock says. “There’s so much inertia in the system, the warming will continue for decades.”
That wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. I was hoping we could save them, to protect them for future generations. Stock says people can still act to prevent this from happening on a larger scale. “We should take individual actions to try to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said, “and we have to be more assertive in climate change policy, and vote for the politicians that fight for strong climate action.”
Just so you know how lucky my students are, Brian Switek, the tweeter of this tweet and author of the article tweeted in the tweet, is the virtually guest lecturing in my Digital Commoners class tomorrow.