I learned about this project in 2014 and have been following it closely ever since. In late April, 2020 my friends Justin Garwood, Ken Lindke, and Mike Van Hattem (with other co-authors) published the first definitive paper on glaciers in the Klamath Mountains. While the news is bleak, their diligent research documents the changes in the Klamath for hundreds of years through the eyes of the highest peaks and watersheds in the range. Please enjoy the summary that follows.
Justin M. Garwood, Andrew G. Fountain, Kenneth T. Lindke, Michael G. van Hattem, and Hassan J. Basagic “20th Century Retreat and Recent Drought Accelerated Extinction of Mountain Glaciers and Perennial Snowfields in the Trinity Alps, California,” Northwest Science 94(1), 44-61, (22 April 2020). https://doi.org/10.3955/046.094.0104
Excerpt from The Klamath Mountains: A Natural History (2021 release)
The two highest elevation perennial surface waters in the Klamath Range begin as glacier and snow meltwater above 8,000 ft (2,450 m) cascading down north facing slopes of the Trinity Alps crest. While these streams originate within one kilometer of each other, their respective watersheds are separated by 177 stream miles (285 km). The Salmon Glacier stream drains to the South Fork of the Salmon River while the Grizzly Glacier stream feeds the North Fork of the Trinity River. Both eventually meet where the Trinity River enters Klamath River at Weitchpec.
Until recently, Grizzly and Salmon glaciers of the Trinity Alps have represented the lowest and western-most glacier ice in California, persisting 1,700 feet (518 m) below all other California glaciers—only found on Mount Shasta and across the southern Sierra Nevada (see figures below). Here, in the coldest and most rugged niche of the Klamath Mountains, snow accumulation far exceeds that in the surrounding landscape. Unique topographic properties of Thompson and Caesar Cap peaks produce exceptional snowpack necessary to maintain glaciers at these low elevations. Conducive features include northeast aspects, tall headwalls, snow avalanching, and windblown snow recruitment from the summits. Furthermore, the proximity of these high cluster of peaks to the Pacific Ocean produces unrivaled regional precipitation levels.
The massive glaciers of the Pleistocene Epoch (spanning approximately ten thousand to two million years before present) shaped the rugged pyramid summits, excavated hundreds of bedrock-lined cirque lakes, and carved dozens of long shadowed U-shaped canyons found across the Klamath Range today. During the Little Ice Age (LIA), a 700-year period lasting from around 1300 to the 1880s, glaciers were much smaller, clinging to the north slopes of the highest summits of the Trinity Alps. At least five LIA glacier locations and three LIA glacial substages have been identified in the Trinity Alps based on remaining rocky terminal moraines. Grizzly and Salmon glaciers represent the largest of the LIA glaciers and the only two persisting into the 21st century. Unfortunately, beginning during the catastrophic five-year California drought of 2012-2016, Salmon Glacier melted away and Grizzly Glacier partially broke apart (stagnated) by fall 2015 but still persists in 2020.
While the demise of these small Klamath glaciers is seemingly insignificant from a global perspective, they offer a unique local climate signature by measuring Earth’s responses to changes in temperature and precipitation. These changes will resonate in the diversity of the regional flora and fauna that depend on cold relictual habitats. Species in these habitats are still being discovered, like ice-loving beetles and ice crawler insects found to be endemic to Grizzly Glacier. Coldwater stream niches fed by glacier and perennial snow meltwater also support genetically distinct stenothermic stream fauna including the world’s highest populations of Coastal Tailed Frogs and relict populations of spring Chinook Salmon and Summer Steelhead.