Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Changing climate endangers family treasures

It was a Sunday morning in February of 1990, and the Peterson clan was restless.

I was 391/2 weeks into a 40-week pregnancy and impatiently awaiting the arrival of our second son. Our 4-year-old son was marveling at the light snow falling outside our Spanaway home and eager to get outside.

Against my husband’s better judgment, we talked him into driving us to Mount Rainier where we could play in the deeper snow.

He hesitated to take his very pregnant wife too deep into the wilderness, so he entered Mount Rainier National Park and pulled into the first available turnoff — Sunshine Point Campground on the Nisqually River. The three of us got out and threw snowballs, built a snowman and — as difficult as it was — even lay down to make snow angels.

Afterward, we piled back into our minivan and headed down the mountain.

That’s when I felt the first twinge, followed by another and eventually another, that told me the baby was on its way.

Based on our experience with Baby No. 1, we weren’t worried about making it home in time for Baby No. 2. Indeed, he wasn’t born until the next day. But Sunshine Point forever became the place I went into labor with our youngest son.

A decade later, after the Army had taken us away from this community, around the world and back again, we began day hiking with our two sons.

One of our favorite hikes was up to the Carbon Glacier. From the Ipsut Campground, we hiked along the Carbon River, across a log bridge and up to an overlook perched directly above the snout of the glacier. The glacier was so close, you felt like you could almost touch it.

At 3.5 miles each way, it was an easy half-day hike for a couple of able-bodied boys. And what a reward at the top.

But now, one of our family landmarks is gone and the other is almost out of reach. Ultimately, melting glaciers are to blame.

The Nisqually Glacier for years has been dumping sediment along with melt water into the Nisqually River, filling it with rocks and making the banks so shallow that the river can easily break through them. The river did exactly that during the terrible flood of 2006, tearing off 5 acres of Sunrise Point and dumping it into the river.

The land is gone and the campground with it. It would be fruitless to rebuild. The river will only continue to tear away at the bank.

Similarly, the Carbon River has been filling up and jumping its banks as the Carbon Glacier melts. Year after year, the river spilled over and covered the road beside it with rocks and trees. Year after year, National Park managers cleaned up and rebuilt the road, so people could drive the 5 miles from the park entrance to Ipsut Campground.

In 2011, they gave up.

Rather than spend $10 million to rebuild a road that would only wash out again, they turned it into a trail, requiring cars to stop at the park entrance.

The 7-mile day hike to the Carbon Glacier became a 17-mile overnighter, accessible only to the hardy.

Then Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga called it his toughest decision in his eight-year tenure. He said he went through a grieving process over the loss of access, but didn’t see any other responsible call.

We ran a letter to the editor that expressed the community’s loss.

“The decision to close the road is equivalent to being banned from experiencing a treasured area at Mount Rainier,” the writer said. “The tens of thousands of area visitors will likely shrink to a few thousand. The tens of thousands of others losing this treasure will be many families with small children; classes of schoolchildren having the chance to see a glacier face-to-face; and many others who do not have the ability, time or inclination to make an overnight trip into the wilderness.”

These losses are but two small examples of the way climate change is ravaging Mount Rainier and limiting our access to it.

Climate change doubters can say the scientists are wrong about its impacts in future decades, but whatever is happening is happening now and has been for years. Scientists say further warming endangers Mount Rainier’s forests and flower meadows, along with several species of animals.

We’ve written about these changes many times in the past, but after spending a day this spring on the mountain with scientists and park managers, editors believed it was time to step back and explain the entirety of the changes occurring on our mountain as best we could for readers.

Today’s paper includes a 16-page section filled with the stories, photographs and graphics we’ve been working on since June. We’ve also produced a 10-minute documentary movie you’ll find with our digital presentation of Losing Paradise at thenewstribune.com.

Oftentimes, our stories hunt for a solution. This time, a solution is hard to find.

Even with limitless money, park managers cannot keep up with a mountain intent on tearing down the roads and bridges and campgrounds and trails that allow us into its natural wonderlands. Whether man-made or a cycle of nature, our climate is warming. If it continues, precious plants and animals will be lost.

My family and yours will share in those losses.