Reflecting on the first 100-degree day in Glacier history

Tuesday, August 21, 2018
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Enterprise photo by Johnathan Hettinger

This picture shows St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park on August 11, the first 100-degree day in park history.

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Photo by Glacier National Park

A wolverine near Grinnell Glacier on September 9, 2012. The wolverine is currently being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.


On the first day temperatures reached 100 degrees in the history of Glacier National Park, I sat with two friends underneath a sheet of melting ice, letting the prehistoric water drip on my face and replenish my water bottle.

We couldn’t have scripted the situation any better, but at the time, we didn’t realize the weather was that significant. In fact, we joked about drinking glacial water, and how one day our grandkids wouldn’t believe that we saw a glacier in real life.

We were on a weekend trip up from Livingston, and my friends, both from Illinois who had spent the week backpacking in Yellowstone, wanted to check out Glacier before they went back home.

The three of us — me, Billy and Eli — are fairly environmentally conscious. Billy studies birds, most recently the American Golden Plover. The fascinating bird migrates over 25,000 miles each year, one of the longest migrations known to man. Though they are considered of “least concern” by the IUCN, the bird is facing drastic threats in terms of habitat destruction and hunting. The species’ population has dropped more than 30 percent in the past 10 years.

Eli studies dairy cows, one of the most significant impacts to climate change. He specifically studies what to do with their waste, as the phosphorous can cause water quality issues in Illinois and the rest of the Midwest, where I’m from.

At my last job at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, I was hired under a grant to write about climate change and agriculture. I spent most of my time of each day thinking about the end of civilization, about the starvation that would occur if nothing is done, about the water being wasted on crops that become ethanol to help fuel our fossil fuel addictions. The whole ordeal got to be very depressing, thinking about the end of the world as we know it every day, writing about how each new Trump appointee would impact climate change, ending the Clean Power Plan or limiting investments in clean energy. I later transitioned into writing about pesticide issues, which was much easier on the mind.

A couple days later, I learned it was the hottest day in the history of Glacier National Park.

I’ve always told my friends that I would rather it be 100 degrees than 30 degrees. But hell, if that’s not a scary fact, I don’t know what is.

The worst part is that when I was sitting on the ridge in Glacier National Park, I complained about how cold it was, looking over a valley that was much, much warmer and much less windy. Thinking back on it, I feel guilty about feeling cold. It’s ridiculous to be upset about a little chill on the hottest day in park history.

Feeling that guilt, I knew I wanted to write about it. But I didn’t know how.

Do I really have anything new to offer other than it’s real and it’s here and it’s scary and we’re complicit and not really doing anything about it? What perspective do I have to offer other than that?

I don’t know if I do, but I think that it’s still worth noting that it happened and I was there. There’s no denying it: climate change is happening all around us.

Since that day, much of the park has been closed because of fire -- natural, but worsened by climate change.

Now, looking outside the window at the Enterprise office, I can normally see Livingston Peak. Today, I can’t see anything because of the haze from wildfires hastened by climate change.

Last week I wrote about how the wolverine is losing ground every day in its fight for survival because of melting snowpack.

The Yellowstone River is running low because of less snowpack, and likely will run lower as time goes on.

It seems to be worth noting for the future. For generations to realize that we knew what was happening, yet we chose to drive my pick-up truck to Glacier rather than Eli’s Toyota Prius because we wanted to have a smoother drive down to Polebridge, and also just be able to use the tailgate for cooking and such.

But really, what’s that mean in the grand scheme of things? Driving a truck to the park instead of a hybrid car isn’t going to drastically change our planet - not as much as the coal burned for the electricity we use all day every day or the cattle being raised for beef that dot our entire drive up to Glacier or the delivery trucks that bring fresh blueberries and eggplants and grape tomatoes and bananas to the grocery store each day.

It’s hard to capture planetary changes that are so significant and how the insignificant actions we take each day in our life affect the long-term viability of the planet. I mean, what better way to connect with nature than to admire it while destroying it?

My friends and I have often discussed what we want to do with our lives — whether we want to help save the planet or experience it for what it is during our short stays on the earth.

I think we’ve decided we’re going to try both.

When I was sitting at the mini glacier - probably not a full glacier since the park only has 26 of its 150 original named glaciers remaining — we could see a moose swimming in a lake below through our binoculars.

As I sat under the snow, I was thinking about the wolverine, the lynx, the Grizzly bear (especially the Grizzly bear considering our other hike option was closed because the Grizzly was feeding), the pallid sturgeon, everything.

While the ice sheet probably wasn’t big enough to be considered a glacier, maybe it once was.

Glacier National Park wasn’t named for its glaciers. Rather, it was named because it was shaped by glaciers. The park has some of the most significant geology I’ve experienced — rocks of different generations. The purple and blue rocks that dot the park’s streams are truly amazing. Looking at the peaks, it’s purple mountains majesty. For real.

These rocks are up to 1.6 billion years old. They don’t care about climate change. They’ll be here long after we are.

But those animals might not be. This glacier won’t be. And what are we doing about it?

Fossil fuel is our vice. But we will not sacrifice. Or take our own advice. “The science is imprecise.” “A solution we will devise.” While some may slice and dice, Will it suffice? Melting ice,

End of paradise. That is the price, It is that concise.

— Johnathan Hettinger