California’s Melting Beauties

Excerpted from
California Glaciers, by photographer and naturalist Tim Palmer, released September 2012 by Heyday and Sierra College Press. For more information on education and outreach surrounding California’s glaciers and global warming, click here.

In the spring of 2010 I set out for the glaciers of California. I wanted to see them before they were gone.

I wanted to climb on the glaciers’ steep slopes, to feel the crunch of their snow underfoot, to drink from crystalline streams cutting their icy surfaces, to sleep at their rocky windswept edges, and to photograph their evanescent beauty so others might also know what was there. It proved to be one of the most remarkable summers of my life.

Many people are unaware that glaciers even exist in California. That’s no surprise, considering that these small gems of frozen water lie at extremely high elevations, cling to frighteningly slanted slopes, nestle into chilled northern recesses of our wildest haunts far beyond roads and trails, and reside where the weather constantly threatens mortal comfort if not survival. But they’re there. They’re part of California. They’re important, and they’re disappearing as the climate changes.

Reaching them was a challenge, but during my spring-through-autumn quest, I visited twenty or so in their high mountain amphitheaters. I was irrepressibly drawn to scenes of lovely elegance and to others of harshest grandeur. I watched nature’s workings in phenomena that I never expect to witness again, and also in Earth’s everyday chores—one moment, the frightening crush of a five-foot boulder from high cliff to ice surface with a thunderous thud; the next moment the ongoing drip of an icicle, a common yet revealing transformation of water from one form to another.

The glaciers are brilliant: white with drifts of snow, blue with unknown depths of ice, golden with the first light of sunrise, glistening with glassy refrozen veneers at the end of each day, and nearly black but vaguely gleaming and mysterious in their creakings at night beneath the stars. Glaciers and their greater context—the earth, water, life, sky, and weather around them—caught my eyes and propelled me onward with my camera in hand.

Beyond beauty, glaciers provide vital water supplies as they melt in late summer, when mountain streams need  the flow. Perhaps most important, the glaciers send a message that we’ve changed the world in ways that we couldn’t have imagined just a few decades ago. Because carbon dioxide is far more prevalent in the atmosphere than it used to be, the climate is warming. The carbon buildup is principally caused by our burning of fossil fuels and by deforestation. The warming results in hotter summers, reduced snow, increased rain, hurricanes and other violent storms, more frequent flooding, intensified droughts, scorching wildfires, epidemics of disease once limited to warmer zones, and the extinction or wholesale decline of plant and animal species that are either unable to move on or unsuccessful in finding new habitat.

Of all these ominous changes, the melting of the glaciers is the most immediately visible. However tragic or trivial one might regard the demise of any single patch of ice, there is no doubt that its melting signifies greater and more threatening changes to come. To add a bit of twisted irony to the old metaphor, the glaciers symbolize just the tip of the iceberg; their melting presages massive changes lurking unseen. For the same reasons that the glaciers are shrinking, the far more widespread Sierra snowpack will diminish markedly. While one might argue that the glaciers don’t hold enormous amounts of water, the snowpack does, and its decrease will have profound and inalterable consequences for water supply, nature, and life in California. As the glaciers wane, habitat is likewise running out for plants and animals that depend on the current climate; an unprecedented and degraded world emerges at a revolutionary rather than evolutionary pace. Those who doubt that these problems will grow need look no further than the disappearing ice for a change of mind.

Even though I was burdened by this knowledge, I proceeded with gusto in my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, inspired by other glacier enthusiasts who had broken trail for me, beginning with John Muir. America’s pioneering environmentalist and advocate for wild landscapes journeyed to the California mountains in the late 1800s and prowled around the peaks where the glaciers lay. He later wrote an illustrious series of articles and books aimed at awakening Americans to the beauty and importance of nature, and his first story focused on glaciers. It described how the ice long ago had shaped Yosemite by carving out the valley floor. In another article, Muir was the first to announce that active glaciers still existed in the High Sierra.

Now, more than a century later, I had the privilege of following in that percipient character’s footsteps along the trails, across the meadows and moraines, and onto the ice. My task as a photographer was one he might have relished had he been given the tools in my hands, and with them, the opportunity to show others a beauty unlike any other. But my obligation as a writer differs greatly from what Muir faced. While he joyously announced the presence of “living glaciers” to an unknowing but interested world, my fate is to document and report on these extraordinary features in their final days, or years, or decades, and to bear bad news that nobody wants to hear.

My summer among the glaciers was a time unlike any other in my life—different in an unrepeatable and poignant way, at once melancholic and thrilling. My unexpected attachment to ice led to both despair and to hope, to resignation over something too tragic and enormous to clearly comprehend or even define, but also to a determination that persists beyond the paralyzing path of despair or cynicism. Let me show you what I have seen, and let me tell you what I have learned.

California Glaciers is now available from Heyday in hardcover.