20th Century Retreat and Recent Drought Accelerated Extinction of Mountain Glaciers and Perennial Snowfields in the Trinity Alps, California

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Northwest Science

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The Trinity Alps is a compact glaciated subrange of the Klamath Mountains in northwest California with elevations < 2,750 m making it a unique location in the western US to study glacier change. We examined glacier change since the last Little Ice Age advance in the late 19th century by mapping historic glacier areas using clearly defined moraines. At least six glaciers existed in the Trinity Alps around the 1880s and estimated glacier cover was at least 55.4 ha (0.554 km2). We tracked changes in two glaciers and two perennial snowfields since that time. Total glacier area decreased by 79% (43.8 ha to 9.1 ha) from the 1880s to 1994. By 2013, glacier area decreased another 7% of the 1880s area to 6.0 ha. Overall, retreat was similar for Salmon Glacier (–89%) and Grizzly Glacier (–84%), but since 1994 Salmon retreat has been much faster, 53% versus 16% for Grizzly. The extended 2012 to 2016 drought resulted in catastrophic retreat of both glaciers such that by 2015 Salmon Glacier disappeared and Grizzly Glacier retreated to 1.67 ha and partially stagnated, a –97% loss of total glacier area since the 1880s. Two snowfields (3.02 ha total area in 1955) were tracked since 1955, the Mirror Lake snowfield disappeared by the summer of 2013 and the Canyon Creek snowfield disappeared by October 2014. The unusually warm summer temperatures since 2005 combined with extremely low winter precipitation from 2013 to 2015 caused rapid retreat and near elimination of the Trinity Alps perennial snow and ice threatening local biodiversity that depends on these features.


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