Looking back: point-in-time climate effects on Mount Baker - Salish Current
July 21, 2023
Looking back: point-in-time climate effects on Mount Baker
Alan Fritzberg

Glacier Creek spills down Mount Baker on a summer day, blocking the trail spur to Coleman Glacier. A photo essay compares today’s reduced snow and glacier coverage at around 6,000 feet with coverage four decades ago. (Alan Fritzberg photo © 2021)

July 21, 2023
Looking back: point-in-time climate effects on Mount Baker
Alan Fritzberg


Ed.: In 2023, halfway through the 12th driest year to date here in 129 years, it’s easy to recall the summer of 2021 and the impact of its heat dome … and to wonder what’s in store for the rest of this summer.

Among our coverage of climate change effects, in 2021 we reported on how farmers were protecting livestock from the heat, first-responder wildfire-fighting training, climate action plans in our three counties, and what is known about water supply in the Nooksack Basin and throughout the San Juan Islands.

Toward the end of the summer, photographer Alan Fritzberg shared a dramatic, up-close look at how changing climate has affected Mount Baker over time. It bears repeating; this week we take another look.

Whatcom County did not escape the effects of the heat dome of this past summer. Our summer was hotter than usual and it seemed to go on forever without rain. We typically are afforded occasional views of the iconic 10,750-foot Mount Baker, but this summer it was there almost every day.

When my wife, Liz, and I were driving along Chuckanut Drive north from Burlington, we first noticed what seemed like much more rock visible on Mount Baker in contrast to the usual glacier and snow on the mountain. Whoa! How much glacier has been lost? The welcomed higher-than-usual snow depth on the mountain from last winter and spring was reported to have been lost over a series of several hot days.

Born in Everson and growing up in Whatcom County, I’ve had the privilege of climbing the mountain three times starting with my first in 1967. The second was in 1975 and the third in 1981. In 2007 I hiked up the Heliotrope Ridge Trail to see what had happened since those earlier climbs. At the bivouac area at the edge of the glacier, I was shocked to see that the foot of the glacier was now some 100 yards higher up the mountain. After this summer’s intense heat, I’d been anxious to see where the climb on the glacier started.

This week I hiked up the Heliotrope Ridge Trial with friends Ava Ferguson and Georg Luebeck to see what has happened to that part of the mountain over my knowing it for 55 years. The forecast was for clearing to sunny skies through the day. 

There were some small “blue-sky cloud failures” at the trailhead, but just cloudy weather for the hike up to where the climbers’ old Kulshan Cabin used to be. Our plan was to first view the Coleman Glacier from the end of the spur trail to the overlook. It wasn’t to be. The amount of meltwater eliminated that option.

Glacier Creek
The trail spur to the Coleman Glacier overlook requires crossing Glacier Creek, which was not safe to cross. Above the trail several more streams can be seen. (Alan Fritzberg photo © 2021)

We retraced our steps back to the trail junction and headed up the steep trail leading to the climber’s bivouac. At the 5,500-foot level we reached the area where climbers camped in previous years. But more climbing was required to reach the glacier. The glacier edge is substantially higher than the 6,000-foot level, and the glacier looked insubstantial and more like a remnant. 

Coleman Glacier
At the 6,000-foot elevation, it is another 100 yards or so to glacier remnants. In the foreground, rocks have been moved for bivouacking. The 2005 USDA Forest Service map of Mount Baker shows the snow/glacier level significantly below this level. (Alan Fritzberg photo © 2021)

On our descent, the clouds parted and we saw how much glacier loss there was on the upper north face of Mount Baker. A close-in view shows most of the north face bare east of the Roman Wall area on the northwest corner of the summit section.

Mount Baker summit
Close-up view of the summit cap of Mount Baker. The exposure of the rock looks interesting with numerous layers present. (Alan Fritzberg photo © 2021)

A more distant view from further out shows much of the mountain below the summit snowcap now free of snow.

Mount Baker, September 2021
Mount Baker, September 2021: Snow and glacier are missing from the summit and the upper north side of the mountain.(Alan Fritzberg photo © 2021)

By comparison a photo from the 1981 climb taken from close to the same location shows a dramatic difference in snow coverage and apparent depth.

Mount Baker, August 1981
Mount Baker, August 1981: In a snowier time, Mount Baker’s upper north face was nearly completely covered by glacier, as seen from near the climber bivouac area. (Alan Fritzberg photo © 1981)

This last photo provides more detail for comparison to the 1981 photo and shows the still remarkable scenic beauty of Mount Baker. While the waterfalls evoke scenes in Song of Norway and Sound of Music, the loss of glacier is very substantial. What also was surprising was that in the middle of September when the meltwater would be expected to have slowed, the rate of water loss on this trip was impressive. In comparison to the view of August of 1981, the stream flow looks substantially higher.

Mount Baker, view from Heliotrope Trail
The view from lower down the mountain shows the Roosevelt Glacier on the left nearly merging with the Coleman Glacier in the foreground. It is apparent that the upper portion of Mount Baker has markedly changed in the last several decades. (Alan Fritzberg photo © 2021)

— Essay and photos contributed by Alan Fritzberg


Help us revive local journalism.

© 2024 Salish Current | site by Shew Design