MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. -- Hot on the heels of President Obama's latest state of the union address, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, came home to Washington to meet with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service.
But this wasn’t your usual boardroom PowerPoint session.
The group snowshoed out to a snowy overlook to check out the Nisqually Glacier. That’s the source of the Nisqually River, which drains from the slopes of Mount Rainier out into Puget Sound.
It supplies drinking water to several communities along the way and it’s receded by almost half a mile.
Jewell stands next to Paul Kennard, a scientist with the USGS, as he points to the vast valley where the Nisqually glacier used to be.
“In 1840 the ice was at the top of that which is really hard to believe," Kennard said, gesturing at the walls of the empty, snow covered valley behind him. "The ice is mechanically buttressing this slope so when it leaves it’s much more prone to failure.”
You might think of glaciers as icy corsets, locking in mountain mud. When the ice melts away, the mud is free to slide off the slopes and down into nearby rivers, like the Nisqually.
Scientists believe the flooding and mudslides that hit that river in 2006, causing millions of dollars worth of damage, may have been exacerbated by the warming climate, changing precipitation patterns and receding glaciers.
The glaciers of Mount Rainier have decreased in area by almost 20 percent in the past 100 years or so.
Glaciers in Washington state's Olympic and North Cascades national parks are down more than 50 parks over a similar period of time.