Endangered status for Glacier National Park?

Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park is seen in the summer of 1938, left, and the summer of 1981. By 1993, the glacier had shrunk two thirds in area and had retreated by two thirds of a mile since 1850.
Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park is seen in the summer of 1938, left, and the summer of 1981. By 1993, the glacier had shrunk two thirds in area and had retreated by two thirds of a mile since 1850.Hileman Photo (Left) / U.S. Geological Survey
/ Source: The Associated Press

Glacier National Park in Montana and adjacent Waterton National Park in Canada should be declared endangered, because climate change is eliminating glaciers and harming the park environment, a dozen organizations said in a petition presented Thursday.

The Rocky Mountain parks, together known as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, are covered by a 1995 international treaty under which they became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now they should become a World Heritage Site in Danger, said the groups, which include the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The effects of climate change are well-documented and clearly visible in Glacier National Park, and yet the United States refuses to fulfill its obligations under the World Heritage Convention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Erica Thorson, an Oregon law professor who wrote the petition submitted to the World Heritage Committee.

Mechtild Rossler, chief of the World Heritage Committee's European and North American section in Paris, said the organization had received the petition, but couldn't comment at length until officials had a chance to review it.

"It's quite a substantial submission and it needs to be reviewed by a number of levels and that could take a couple weeks," she said.

Glacier has 27 glaciers, down from about 150 in 1850, said ecologist Dan Fagre, who coordinates global change research for the U.S. Geological Survey at West Glacier.

Endangered status would require the World Heritage Committee to find ways to mitigate how climate change affects the park, Thorson said. Better fuel efficiency for automobiles and stronger energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances are among the ways to reduce greenhouse pollution that contributes to warming, the petition says.

‘Ridiculous’ idea?
The proposed designation is "a ridiculous idea" that cannot be supported by sound science, said S. Fred Singer, a retired University of Virginia environmental sciences professor. Singer disputes that greenhouse gases are warming the environment and that governments can curb glacial erosion by stiffening pollution controls.

Of 20 major world glaciers that began shrinking around 1850, about half had stopped shrinking by the end of the 20th century and some were growing, Singer said.

But in a forecast that some scientists have advanced, Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity said the glaciers at Glacier park will vanish entirely by 2030 if current trends in climate change continue.

"The United States and Canada must immediately reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to slow the damage," Siegel said.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the mean summer temperature at Glacier park has risen by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century.

Fagre has described glaciers as "excellent barometers of climate change" and said that what happens to them is indicative of changes elsewhere in an ecosystem. As an example, he said, warmer weather in Glacier has caused snow to melt earlier in the season and that accelerates the growth of plants.

While some people attribute growing warmth to smokestack pollution and other effects of human activity, others say the world is going through a natural warming cycle.

Fagre stopped short of clearly affiliating with either camp but said that "we haven't seen any warming to this degree as far back as we can go, and we can go back about 500 years. This comes at a time when humans are having the largest impact on the planet they ever have, with land-use change, human population levels."

Other endangered petitions
The petition is one of four to be discussed next month at a Paris meeting on climate change and sites that hold World Heritage status through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Four other sites covered by earlier petitions seeking endangered status are Belize Barrier Reef in Central America; Huarascan National Park in Peru; Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal; and Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The Glacier-Waterton petition came on the one-year anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases. It took effect Feb. 16, 2005, without the United States' participation.

Besides the Center for Biological Diversity, the petitioners are Defenders of Wildlife and Defenders of Wildlife-Canada; David Suzuki Foundation; Green House Network; ForestEthics; Humane Society International and Humane Society of the United States; Montana Wilderness Association; The Pembina Institute; Wildlands CPR; and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.