There’s A Big Leak In America’s Water Tower

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Montana's Glacier National Park is showing the effects of climate change.

Montana’s Glacier National Park is showing the effects of climate change.

Scientists have identified numerous species of fish, insects and other wildlife endangered because of the effects of climate change, but few people seem to realize that humans are among them.

The northern arm of the Rocky Mountains is sometimes called “the crown of the continent,” and its jewels are glaciers and snowfields that irrigate large parts of North America during spring thaw but the region is getting warmer, even faster than the rest of the world.

Global warming is scrambling the complex relationship between water and nature in ways that could threaten some species with extinction as well as bring hardship to ranchers and farmers already suffering from prolonged drought.

Shrinking of the more than two dozen glaciers in Glacier National Park, as well as the disappearance of some snowfields that once lasted through summer, are a threat to what University of Montana professor Richard Hauer calls the vast natural irrigation system comprised by snow capped mountains and wide valleys, a giant sponge.

Moist air from the Pacific hits the mountains and falls as snow and ice. The mountains hold that water until spring. Then it melts and runs through the gravel valleys and across big parts of North America.

Running out of water sooner means drier summers — just when plants, animals and people need it most.

Ecologists like say there are other changes happening as well — retreating glaciers, and more flash floods.

“One of the expectations with climate change is that we’re going to see a decrease in the permanent streams, particularly in the high alpine, and an increase in the temporary, ephemeral streams,” Hauer says.

“In only a few decades, we’re going to lose all the glaciers here,” says Fagre, a research ecologist with the USGS at the West Glacier Field Station. “And they’ve been persistent on the landscape here for 7,000 years — so suddenly you are having a profound change in just a few decades, and that’s very difficult for many organisms to adapt to.”

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