The changing face of the North Cascades

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Photo by the author -- explore more of the North Cascades in Carolyn Wilke's travelogue gallery.

I woke freezing like a popsicle inside my 20ºF sleeping bag. Yes, it is typically cold at high altitude, but usually this bag keeps me a bit too toasty. Now, the moist air chilled my bones, so I curled myself up to conserve body heat. Why was it so cold and what was that “thwick… thwick… thwick…” sound?

My husband got up to look outside the tent and I heard him gasp and start laughing. It was early in the morning, but bright outside. The tent is not equipped with blackout curtains, so I knew I wouldn’t get any more sleep. I pulled on my boots, grumbled, and stumbled outside. The world was wet and white in the light of the day. I let out a sigh and saw it float in front of me as fog in the cold air. Snow was piling up on every surface and chunks of it were falling from a tree onto our tent.

Yesterday, the sun shone as we left the trailhead to begin our five-day backpacking adventure in the North Cascades National Park. Now there was snow, which was rather unexpected in early September. My teeth chattered as I ate my oatmeal. I clutched my insulated mug to my chest, trying to catch any heat that escaped. We weren’t prepared for this. Even wearing all the layers I had, I still shivered in the damp cold.

After breakfast, my family and I walked down to McAlester Lake, beautiful and veiled in fog. I couldn’t really take it in. Instead, I wondered whether the next four days would be as soggy and miserable as this moment. “So Carolyn, do you want to go on?” my sister-in-law asked. I’m the amateur backpacker of the group and my kind companions wanted me to be comfortable. There was no internet, no way to look up a weather forecast. Who knew what would lie ahead?

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Located a few hours drive from Seattle, the North Cascades National Park showcases the majesty of mountains frosted with snow, the splendor of ancient trees reaching to the skies, and the jubilance of meadows bursting with wildflowers.  Glaciers and volcanoes have shaped this landscape over millennia. The forces of nature pushed up mountain peaks, carved valleys, and dropped lakes like gems over the land, creating a region teeming with ecological diversity.  

Things here are still changing, but because of a different force: climate change. In the North Cascades and the National Parks at large, climate change is transforming the land. Across the country, scientists are observing the impact of warming temperatures on the National Parks. They are recording unprecedented permafrost melts in Alaska and rising sea levels along the nation’s coasts. In the Pacific Northwest, the North Cascades looks different than it did 100 years ago. If the climate continues to warm because of human activity, the park’s landscape, plants, and animals will again look very different for visitors in another 50 years.

We had been planning this trip to the North Cascades for years. Our traveling companions, who live in nearby Portland, always extolled the park’s beauty. Their enthusiasm pushed the Cascades to the top of our almost infinite bucket list of backpacking destinations. As we planned our trip, it seemed like every month another stunningly beautiful photo would appear in Backpacker magazine enticing us, drawing us, to the North Cascades.

As I stood on the soggy shores of McAlester Lake that morning in the melting snow, it was too sad to think of returning home without our fill of the wilderness we’d been awaiting so long. We decided to journey on, rain or shine.

In the following days, the weather improved and we scrambled alongside streams and gazed up at rugged peaks as we lost and gained altitude. Every new vista and landscape reinforced our gratitude for those wise souls who saw the need to preserve these places, particularly the National Parks Service.

As we walked, it seemed as though the view around the next corner was always more breathtaking than the last. With no agenda except to enjoy the surrounding natural beauty, we savored these views as our reward for hiking the many miles on our journey. Each night, we stumbled into camp after dark; always choosing to linger over sunset-painted skies or marvel at distant mountain peaks. Basking in the surrounding beauty was worth the difficulty of cooking dinner by the dim light of our headlamps.

Back at home, my day-to-day research is driven by a desire to preserve our world’s ecosystems. However, in the lab, surrounded by test tubes, petri dishes, and samples, I don’t always feel connected to nature. Out here, it was impossible not to.

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Near a rushing river, we hid from the hot sun under a grove of whitebark pine trees. These high-elevation trees provide food and shelter for many animals including grizzly bears, songbirds, and woodpeckers.  Whitebark pines are a keystone species of the North Cascades, on which many plants and animals in this ecosystem depend.

Whitebark pine forests bring together many species, and this web of connected species extends through both space and time. When many species share a habitat, important lifecycle events of these plants and animals are synchronized -- both to each other and to their unique climate. For instance, plants rely on cues of soil and air temperature to begin germinating (sprouting seeds), growing new leaves, or producing fruit. Some insects hatch at the perfect time to feast on these new leaves of spring’s first growth spurt. The glut of bugs, in turn, provides the opportune time for migrating birds to return, flocking to the trees to enjoy the boon in the insect population. Each species responds to its environment, including the ebb and flow of other plants and animals in their habitat in one connected cycle.

As we explored the North Cascades, we felt connected too, with each other and our surroundings. At the end of our third day on the trail, we found ourselves dwarfed by massive western red cedars that had lived through many centuries, some possibly a millennium. In their long lifetime, they have served as a source of food and shelter for plants, animals, and other weary explorers like us. We pitched our tents beneath their canopy. As night fell, we rested on a soft bed of pine needles, lulled to sleep by the sound of a rushing stream.

Despite that first night’s surprise snowfall, our journey had been wonderful. But we knew on our last day, only a few miles from the end of our route, we would come to one final challenge: a bridge was out on our trail. In the morning, we could look forward to fording the river.

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service. As the Parks looks ahead to its next century, they have declared climate change is their greatest challenge. In the North Cascades, climate change has already made a visible impact. This park and its surrounding area are renowned for their more than 300 glaciers.

Over the past century, mean annual temperatures in the Pacific Northwest have risen by 1.5 ºF. This may not sound like much, but these warmer air temperatures increase snowmelt in the summer and decrease snowfall in the winter. In the last 100 years, the area covered by glaciers in the North Cascades has shrunk by more than half. And mean annual temperatures are projected to continue rising: with temperatures climbing 2 ºF by the 2020s, 3.2 ºF by the 2030s, and by the 2080s to temperatures 5.3 ºF warmer than now.

These projected temperature increases could lead to more fires and substantial habitat shifts, affecting keystone species and synchronized life cycles. For instance, the distinctive whitebark pine is under threat from all sides. As of 2014, 30% of the whitebark pines in the North Cascades National Park Complex were infected with white pine blister rust, a non-native fungus invading the forests. A further 28% of the whitebark pine trees in the park are dead. In fact, the mountain pine beetle (which is thriving in the warmer temperatures) has killed 1% of the whitebark pines in the North Cascades area alone. As temperatures rise, the climate will likely become even more favorable for this beetle, encouraging its spread, and further endangering this important keystone species.

Threats to a keystone species like these may harm creature populations dependent on the trees for food and shelter, too. If the whitebark pine is affected, the Clark’s nutcracker may also suffer. This dapper little grayish bird feeds on the seeds of the whitebark pine and stores them in underground caches. The seeds left in the ground plant a new generation of trees. Climate-induced threats to the whitebark pine threaten this food source of the Clark nutcracker, which, in turn, depletes its ability to seed new whitebark pine trees.

Climate change also poses a threat to the synchrony of natural events. In a warmer climate insects may begin to hatch earlier in the season. But if this occurs before their primary food sources have sprouted new leaves, they’ll starve. If warmer weather patterns trigger migrating birds to return before the insects hatch, they too will have limited food supplies, resulting in fewer birds that can reproduce and survive. Small changes in the climate can affect the timing of key natural phenomena for a number of species, and climate change will impact different species in different ways. Even for research scientists and park experts, it’s too complex to determine what the outcome will be on the mosaic of interrelated creatures that make up each ecosystem.

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A few miles before the end of our journey, we found the broken bridge and looked for a suitably shallow place to cross. I was probably more worried about meeting a bear than falling into a stream, but stream crossings are one of the biggest backpacking dangers, with slippery rocks and deceptively calm-looking water. We prepared to cross by rolling up pant legs, taking off boots and socks, and unclipping our backpacks’ hip belts so that if we fell, we could get rid of them before they dragged us down the river. Our group produced a lot of shrieking as we stepped into the frigid water. After a few steps, the water felt refreshingly cold and with the aid of our trekking poles we traversed over the slick rocks to the other side. Feeling just a little more accomplished, we hiked the last two miles toward where our car was parked.

As we crossed the last mile marker and headed back to the car, our journey came full circle. I couldn’t help thinking of how we were almost prevented from exploring this place at all. A couple weeks before we left home, we heard news of a severe wildfire in the North Cascades – the largest fire the park had ever seen. The Goodell Fire set about 7,000 acres ablaze and closed off much of the highway that allows access to the park. A few days later, another much smaller fire broke out on the other side of the park.

Wildfires are part of the natural lifecycle of these dry coniferous forests. Some plants require fire for their seeds to germinate. By clearing out dead trees and undergrowth on the forest floor, fires allow new plants to take root.

But the increasing average temperatures attending climate change could mean more fires in the North Cascades. Higher temperatures would further dry dead trees, creating more fuel to burn. According to the USDA Forest Servive, Climate change will very likely cause larger swaths of forests to burn in the future; and with more flammable forests, wildfires are projected to occur more frequently and be more severe in the years ahead.  

More frequent and more severe fires may, in turn, promote invasive species that are more resilient after fires than native plants. Cheatgrass is an aggressive non-native plant, which can displace native grasses after fires. Worse, cheatgrass is more flammable than native grasses, making future fires more likely.

As we drove from our trailhead back towards home, we saw fire-scarred forests lining the road and were thankful for the heavy rains that preceded us, quenching the fires enough for us to enjoy our expedition. 

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How will this beautiful landscape look if we return in the future? What will it be like for the future generations that visit this place? The effects of climate change on this and other National Parks are uncertain. Uncertain, however, doesn’t mean the parks won’t be affected.

Scientists with the National Park Service have been working to determine how vulnerable the Parks are and devise a plan of action. In the North Cascades, a network of scientists has come together to understand the challenges facing this park and to preserve it. They are monitoring many species–including whitebark pine and grizzly bears--to understand how climate change is affecting plant and animal populations. They are also breeding varieties of whitebark pine resistant to blister rust and searching for other interventions to help the park adapt to climate change. As climate change continues to affect key species, these people will be tasked with the difficult choices about where and how to intervene.

In the North Cascades, climate change is clearing away glaciers, endangering keystone species like the whitebark pine, and may put the lifecycles of plants and animals out of sync. Across the country, climate change threatens the very mission of the National Parks to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values… for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” 

The forecast for climate change is uncertain, but the outcome and how quickly the temperature rises depends on us—people, nations, and institutions. The National Parks Service is leading the way by cutting carbon emissions and reducing waste in the Parks, as well as working hard to understand the challenges ahead; setting a direction we can all aspire to follow.

Explore more of the North Cascades in Carolyn Wilke's travelogue gallery. Find out more about the Norther Cascades National Park and its climate change a research and adaptation plan in the full USDA Forest Service report.

 

 

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