Blue Glacier
Blue Glacier on the north side of Mount Olympus in the Olympic Mountains (Photo credit: Aaron Linville / Wikimedia)

Visitors to Washington’s Olympic mountains stand in awe of glaciers that have carved the landscape. But what tourists see today is different from 100 years ago.

Back then, Blue Glacier descended from Mount Olympus like an icy hand reaching out, over the rock. Now that hand has retreated up the mountain.

Nearby at what was once Lillian Glacier, only snow patches remain.

“It kind of reminds me of a birthday cake,” says Andrew Fountain of Portland State University. “You have this gorgeous birthday cake and then two days later, it’s just crumbs.”

Using glacier maps and historical photos, Fountain estimates that the glaciers of the Olympic mountains have shrunk by about 75% since 1900.

Early in the century, much of the melting could be attributed to natural causes. But Fountain says now carbon pollution is warming the climate, and that’s accelerating the glaciers’ retreat.

“From 1981 to 2015, they shrunk about 40%,” he says.

He says without climate action, their future looks grim. By the end of this century, he expects the glaciers of the Olympic mountains will be gone.

“Maybe a few ice patches left in little nooks and crannies, but as far as we can see they’ll vanish,” he says.

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Reporting credit: Deborah Jian Lee/ChavoBart Digital Media.