Sierra Summit

Conversations and observations about California's mountains

October 3, 2008
The Sound of Climate Change
To hear the sound of climate change in California, click on this link:Lyell meltwater.MP3

It's true that glaciers lose water naturally to melting, but in the Sierra Nevada - and around the world - glaciers are melting far more rapidly than they are being replenished by snow - a sure sign, scientists say, of global climate change.

A recent study by Hassan Basagic and Andrew Fountain of Portland State University found that seven Sierra Nevada glaciers have declined by an average of 51 percent over the past century. And one of them is Lyell glacier in Yosemite National Park where I recently recorded the sound bite you hear at the link above - the sound of centuries-old glacial ice melting into water and rushing swiftly downhill. 
east lobe, lyell 2.jpg
Future climate scenarios suggest the east lobe of the Lyell glacier  will practically disappear by 2050. Just in case you can't get up there for one last look, here's a picture of the east lobe I took two weeks ago. 
"It's fascinating to see the change," glacier researcher Pete Devine told me. "But when you get familiar with a resource like this and you see it withering away, it's kind of sad."
And troubling, too. For just as glaciers are retreating from the Sierra, so, too, is its fabled snow-pack diminishing. 
"The most valuable resource is the Sierra Nevada is not  timber or  gold or recreation or  second homes," said Devine, who manages educational programs for the non-profit Yosemite Association. "It's the snow-pack. It's something we take for granted. The range is well-named - the Sierra Nevada, the snowy mountain range. And if it's the less snowy mountain range, that will have some challenging consequences for everybody downstream."

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About Sierra Summit

The Author
Tom Knudson lives in the Sierra Nevada and travels widely throughout the range. His hobbies include fly-fishing, backpacking and cross-country skiing. He is the recipient of numerous journalistic awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, one for a 1992 Sacramento Bee series "Sierra in Peril," a watershed work about environmental threats to the mountain range. E-mail Tom at

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