NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK, Wash. -- Global warming is altering the identity of national parks in the West, especially the Pacific Northwest, where the iconic string of glacier-capped mountains inexorably shrinks from the horizon, park officials warn.
The melting ice caps in Washington state, home to more glaciers than anywhere else in the lower 48, are providing one of the most visual accountings of global warming outside Alaska and the Arctic, enhanced by federal officials' digital archiving last year of photos of park glaciers taken 50 years ago.
The changes over the decades are threatening the aesthetics and ecosystems of parks such as North Cascades, imperiling the country's natural heritage, park officials and conservationists said. For example, Glacier National Park in Montana has lost 124 of its 150 glaciers in the past 150 years and is projected to have none left by about 2030, park officials said.
"It's awful. We've got to change our ways," said Steve Shuster, 55, an architectural designer from Seattle and a regular North Cascades visitor for the past 10 years.
Another passer-by enjoying the 360-degree panorama of white-capped summits, Sherry Cline, 75, agreed. "If they're all bare peaks up there, what's it going to be?" said the retired high school biology teacher from Lynden, Wash.
President Bush, criticized by some as dragging his feet on climate change, proposed an international gathering to address carbon emissions last month. At the same time, the Interior Department announced a new climate change task force to look at national parks and other agencies. Conservationist groups have long warned that many parks are facing damage from greenhouse gases.
As the G-8 summit put Earth's rising temperature on an international stage, park enthusiasts and their supporters say they were heartened to see the Bush administration say it was taking the issue seriously.
"They're finally starting to get it," said Rep. Norm Dicks, a Washington Democrat who attended a recent gathering of the state's three national park superintendents and others at Seattle's Mountaineers club. "We take it as a serious problem," he said of global warming's impact.
Not everyone agrees that mankind's emission are causing warming. Some scientists in Washington and elsewhere contend that natural cooling and heating cycles are at work.
In North Cascades and Mount Rainier National Parks, both in Washington state, six glaciers under study have shrunk by 45 percent in the past 100 years, a park geologist said. The 312 glaciers in North Cascades park, spanning 42 square miles, account for a quarter of all glaciers in the lower 48 states, park officials said.
Emerging from the icy losses has been pristine land not seen or touched by humans for centuries, as well as new lakes, park officials said. Still, the big thaw is troublesome because the runoff may cause powerful, destructive flooding and could deprive animals of cool water in the summer, park officials said.
No one is saying Washington's vistas of glaciers will vanish soon, not even in 100 years.
But the issue remains a cause of concern and controversy.
Don Easterbrook, professor emeritus of geology at Western Washington University, who has studied global climate change for 40 years, agrees that glaciers are shrinking but says there's a good chance it's a result of solar changes, not carbon emissions.
Easterbrook also noted that the trend analysis of the past 100 years begins with a cool period in which glaciers would naturally advance and ends with a relatively warm 30-year period in which glaciers would shrink.
Meanwhile, Philip Mote with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington said a study of 11 states west of the Rockies shows that snowpack shrank by 10 percent to 15 percent from the 1950s to 2000.
The snowpack melt became controversial when Washington state's associate climatologist, Mark Albright, disputed Mote's findings and referred to them as "the myth of the vanishing snowpack caused by global warming" in the Oregonian in February. Albright was stripped of his state title, an unpaid post, and remains a research meteorologist at the University of Washington, said Mote, who is also state climatologist and was Albright's boss.
Michael Martinez writes for the Los Angeles Times.