Protecting Mount Rainier in the age of climate change

The National Park Service faces a mountain-sized dilemma: How to preserve nature – or even define it – when humans have been tinkering with the thermostat of the entire planet?

Mount Rainier, the subject of a 16-page special report last Sunday by The News Tribune’s Rob Carson and Dean Koepfler, is a microcosm of climate change and all its surrounding controversies.

Like the Earth itself, the massive mountain abounds in different habitats, geologies, temperature zones, ecologies and weather systems. It’s a restive volcano encased in more than a cubic mile of ice. It climbs from fir-tangled northern jungles to alpine meadows to tundra to arctic icefields. In July, at its summit, it can be colder than the North Pole.

The mountain holds pent-up energies of nuclear magnitude. As warmer weather shrinks its glaciers, they throw off boulders and immense chunks of ice. Trapped water breaks out in violent outburst floods that push masses of gravel and rock downstream. Heavy storms turn rivers into furious, destructive torrents.

Mount Rainier – formerly known as Mount Tacoma – is not kind to human roads. The flood damage of 2006 was so extensive that the National Park Service permanently closed the Carbon River Road in the northwest corner of the park. The South Tahoma Glacier bombards the Westside Road with boulders, often closing it.

Scientists believe there’s a real chance that the White River could jump its existing banks on the mountain’s eastern slopes and commandeer a stretch of state Route 410 as its new course.

As Carson reported, it’s hard to chart how climate change has been playing out on Mount Rainier. The scientific readings go back little more than a century, and temperatures on much of the mountain have never been tracked systematically. You could cherry-pick data to make a case that the mountain has been scarcely affected.

But the shrinkage of the glaciers is beyond dispute. While they have advanced and retreated over the centuries in response to climate cycles, they are currently retreating six times faster than they would be in a normal warming pattern. The Nisqually Glacier has retreated an average of 140 feet a year over the last decade. The term “glacial pace” may need a new definition.

The rapidity of change is raising a new set of policy questions that shouldn’t be left solely to the National Park Service. National parks belong to the American people; public priorities should weigh heavily in their management.

In recent decades, the NPS has taken a hands-off approach to these parks. It has been loath to protect threatened creatures from anything but human intrusion. For good reason: A wilderness that is actively managed – as a national forest is – is not a wilderness. Nature must rule.

But what happens when nature is itself being managed, on a planetary scale, by greenhouse gas emissions from human industry? If ecological shifts on Mountain Rainier are being driven to some extent by man-made climate change, does the hands-off philosophy still make sense?

In practical terms, do we let populations of Cascades frogs die off in drying ponds and streams when they could be moved to wetter parts of the park? Do we let lowland foxes drive Cascade foxes into extinction as the warmer temperature zones creep upward? Do we let barred owls muscle out spotted owls?

Climate change should reset thinking about habitat management and species preservation. Normal climate shifts happen gradually enough to allow most species to adapt. A fast shift – what we face in the 21st century – produces mass extinctions.

Climate change is blurring the traditional distinction between natural and human-driven. In the process, it is blurring the definition of wilderness. The National Park Service must itself adapt to this reality as it reviews the way it protects the ecosystems in its charge.