Beneath the Pacific Slope’s Glaciers

In the late 1860’s, four committed, intelligent and passionate men led a series of brave groups into uncharted wilderness of the American West. John Wesley Powell took his hodgepodge crew and dropped them into the Grand Canyon. Clarence King surveyed the 40th Parallel beyond the Rocky Mountains. Ferdinand Hayden explored the geological wonders of Yellowstone, while Wheeler explored the desert southwest. Skilled and equipped to methodically search for mineral wealth, these Western surveys captured a unique record of the early American West. By the turn of the decade, the remaining realms of terra incognita in the Western US were the high summits of the Cascades and Sierras.

On 11 September 1870, Clarence King made the very first recorded observations of Mount Shasta’s glaciers. From about 12,269’ on the NE edge of the Shastina crater, King describes the Whitney Glacier as “a fine glacier, which started almost at the very crest of the main mountain, flowing toward us, and curving around the circular base of our cone. Its entire length in view was not less than three miles, its width opposite our station about four thousand feet, the surface here and there terribly broken in “cascades,” and presenting all the characteristics of similar glaciers elsewhere.” That week, four of Shasta’s glaciers were described and most in less detail.

kingp073- 1870Mount Shasta and Whitney Glacier in California, seen from the crater (Shastina). Photo by C.E. Watkins. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (King Survey). ID: kingp073, USGS Photographic Library. Photo by C.E. Watkins.


In the following month, Samuel Franklin Emmons, King’s handpicked assistant geologist, continued on to Mt. Rainier. Meanwhile, Arnold Hauge accompanied by Allen David Wilson examined Mt. Hood. These topographical details were collected and combined with a few brief descriptions. This work became the basis for putting Pacific Slope’s terra incognita and it’s glaciers on a map.

True, these mountains had been previously explored, summited, and even loosely described. Yet few of these accounts can be separated from the web of fantastic claims and flowery descriptions too vague to be useful. Apart from the King’s party’s survey points and descriptions rarely exceeding a few lines, what remains for us today are a few photographs. To this day, these government sanctioned photographs remain among the most detailed and objective records we have of the Pacific slope’s early glaciers and landscapes.

kingp079-Shasta_ShastinaCrater 1870Mount Shasta and Whitney Glacier crevasses, seen from the crater (Shastina). Whitney Glacier in California was the first glacier described in the United States. Clarence King in the foreground. Photo by C.E. Watkins. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (King Survey). ID: kingp079, USGS Photographic Library.


Several geologists observed that the Pacific Slope’s glaciers were relics of one or more greater periods of glaciation. At some point, ice enveloped the mountain flanks and reached beyond their current extents, deep into the warm territory several thousand feet below. The evidence was abound in moraines hundreds if not thousands of feet high, rouche mountonees far from the current ice, and deep carved valleys spattered with glacial polish among the infilling sandy meadows and colonizing forests.

When this evidence is compared to the larger ice masses in the Alps, King had to ask the question in the Atlantic’s March 1871 issue, “How and why these glaciers should have perished while the climate is yet cold enough for their existence has become one of the most interesting questions of the finishing-up period of Western geology.” Since observations across the West confirmed that the temperatures were sufficient for glacial accumulations, King deduced that only one other factor could explain why these glaciers had receded, “dryness.” There was simply not enough snow during the consecutive winters to survive the summer periods to foster accumulation.

Both King’s insights and Powell’s examination of the Colorado River revealed that the American West had been dry for some time. These men stood in the face of claims that “rain follows the plow.” Their efforts would be too late to clarify the misrepresentations for the millions of people following tales of gold and opportunity to populate the West. Despite their tardiness, the great western surveys at last began to provide objective, level headed reports to Congress about the opportunity and the limits found in the Rockies, Sierras, and the desert South West.

Dana_upper_pairLeft Photo: Texture and fractures helps to delineate ice from snow. Mount Dana Glacier. Northern side of Mt. Dana. Yosemite National Park, California. 1883. ID: ric00045, USGS Photographic Library. Right Photo: Both thickness of area of the Dana glacier have diminished. The glacier has separated into distinct lobes. The Dana glacier feeds into Mono Lake, one of Los Angeles’ primary water sources in the Owens Valley.


Four generations of development later, the Pacific slope’s glaciers continue to be the proverbial canary for the West’s impending water problems. We don’t have to look to the Arctic or Antarctic to observe climate change, because the effects are becoming clear in local watersheds. Snow is less likely than a decade ago and precipitation is even more variable. Glaciers continue to recede and even disappear, indicating increased stress on the Pacific Slope’s watersheds. The Lyell glacier in San Francisco’s watershed has stopped moving. Mt. Clark glacier, which heavily inspired John Muir’s theory of Yosemite Valley’s formation, has since disappeared. Many glaciers that once overlooked the Owen’s Valley, Los Angeles’ prime water source, have practically disappeared.

Alpine of the Americas Project (AAP) is continuing to tell the story beneath the Pacific Slope’s glaciers. By providing the tools to conduct simple, repeatable, and useful observations in alpine environments, individuals repeat historic photographs to show how watersheds are changing. From the thousands of useful historic photographs available throughout the Americas, AAP will help individuals capture how glaciers recede, lakes shift, plants colonize, and beetles infest. Each of these photographs becomes an effective communication tool, an example of the broad body of evidence, yet using no words, to illuminate how climate change affects us all in dramatic and subtle ways.

ric00050_pair_smTop Photo: Repeat photograph of Mt. Lyell glacier. This photograph reveals a significant retreat of ice as well as thinning in the accumulation zone over 130 years. This watershed drains into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, a primary water source for San Francisco. Bottom photo: Yosemite National Park, California. Lyell Glacier. 1883. Plate 39, U.S. Geological Survey Annual Report 5 (1883-1884). 1885. ID: ric00050, USGS Photographic Library.

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