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‘When the Glaciers Disappear, Those Species Will Go Extinct’

Apr 18 2019 | 04:12:06
As glaciers shrink, the melting is disrupting habitats for everything from bacteria to fish. Scientists are racing to understand the changes. ‘When the Glaciers Disappear, Those Species Will Go Extinct’ Henry Fountain, a New York Times climate reporter, and Max Whittaker, a photographer, traveled to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska to see how glacial melting is affecting the natural world. Map by Jeremy White. April 17, 2019 When it was built in the early 1900s, the road into Mount Rainier National Park from the west passed near the foot of the Nisqually Glacier, one of the mountain’s longest. Visitors could stop for ice cream at a stand built among the glacial boulders and gaze in awe at the ice.

The glacier now ends more than a mile farther up the mountain. As surely as they are melting elsewhere around the world, glaciers are disappearing in North America, too. This great melting will affect ecosystems and the creatures within them, like the salmon that spawn in meltwater streams. This is on top of the effects on the water that billions of people drink, the crops they grow and the energy they need. Glacier-fed ecosystems are delicately balanced, populated by species that have adapted to the unique conditions of the streams. As glaciers shrink and meltwater eventually declines, changes in water temperature, nutrient content and other characteristics will disrupt those natural communities. “Lots of these ecosystems have evolved with the glaciers for thousands of years or maybe longer,” said Jon Riedel, a geologist with the National Park Service who has established glacier monitoring programs at Rainier and other parks.