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A ringside seat at the end of the world: Watching glaciers melt

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On the first full day of this year’s Society of Environmental Journalist conference, we have a number of options to choose from for our daylong tours. I choose the trip to Glacier National Park, because I’ve been there, and I’ve never seen a glacier melt.

And so we embark on a three-hour bus-ride from Missoula, Montana, where the conference is based this year, and the 60 of us on board — journalists, editors and policy wonks — are fine with the long ride. It’s a chance to meet and greet, trade prognostications and horror stories, tell tall tales of hope and exchange rumors of silver linings.

We focus on each other, in part, because it’s too dark to see anything else, but even when it grows light, the land around us is bedizened in fog.

Glacier National Park is celebrating its centennial in 2010, and Ken Burns recently released a major documentary about the national park system, but that’s not why the park has received an inordinate amount of media attention lately.

No, eyes are on the Glacier National Park because one hundred years ago, it sported 150 glaciers; now, it only has 25.

And it’s predicted that the glaciers will disappear altogether in 10-20 years.

Everything down river is in trouble as a result and baby, we are all down river in one way or another.

Our tour consists of talks from various members of the Glacier National Park system, as well as the nation-wide scale, most notably Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, appointed by Obama in April 2009.

Once we’re assembled on the banks of the Upper McDonald Creek, with mountains looming all around us, Jon Jarvis announces, “Climate change is the greatest threat to the national park system.”

That’s a refreshing bit of language use, if you’ve been tracking this conversation for years — as I have. During the Bush debacle, the words “climate change” or “global warming” were few and far between, and usually juxtaposed in harmless configurations like “global climate” and “change warming.”

Now, in the Obama era, climate change is not just acknowledged but directly addressed and Jarvis told us that Glacier National Park is not the only place you see evidence of climate change in the national park system. It’s everywhere, from glaciers melting in the Cascades to the disappearance of ice caves in Mt. Rainier to less water volume in snow pack.

There are other indicators of shifts in the ecosystem, such as the fact that fires burn — on average — for 20 days longer than they used to, spring melt is three weeks earlier, and invasive species, from insects like the mountain pine beetle to invasive grass species, are koyaanisqatsi-ing the landscape to smithereens.

In response, the park system had developed a four-point “climate change response system,” comprised of 1) science, 2) adaptation, 3) mitigation and 4) communication. Being an acronymphomaniac, I juxtapose the four points into an acronym that spells SCAM, but I don’t say that aloud.

Would that these truths were a scam, a clever way for nerd scientists to get lots of funding for their wild parties.

Director Jarvis and the other assembled experts and scientists take their turns talking about their scientific or policy specialties, and they make clear they believe that parks like Glacial National Park are potential teaching tools, as the park ranger has ground level conversations with tourists and hikers.

In fact, says Jarvis, the park system can be used as “a bully pulpit” to spread the word of climate change.

Here’s what else Jarvis, who had over 30 years in the National Park Service before taking over the director role: “We can’t stop climate change; we can only slow it down.”

Talking truth to our predicament is the only way through, no matter how much we’d like to delude ourselves.

Now I’m on the three-hour ride back to Missoula, writing this. The fog has lifted and sunlight pours down upon the farmlands and the distant mountains like beatific butter.

I didn’t actually see the glaciers melt, but I know in my bones they are, bones chilled by the truth I learned today: One hundred and fifty glaciers down to 25, with the complete disappearance in 10-20 years.

And trouble, big trouble, down river.

Jim Poyser watches it all fall apart on www.apocadocs.com.

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