Political Hay

Schweitzer’s Folly

What evidence is there for man-made global warming melting the glaciers in Glacier National Park? None. (Don't let George Stephanopoulos tell you otherwise.)

By 3.27.06

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Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer took George Stephanopoulos for a ride Sunday over Glacier National Park, and not just in a helicopter.

Thanks to his proposal to mine eastern Montana's coal beds and gasify the coal into synthetic fuel, Schweitzer is enjoying steady national press. Consider that he's a newly elected, red-state Democrat, with homespun charm and bolo tie, and you can understand the media's crush.

Pursuing creative, cost effective uses of our natural resources is fine by me, but now the governor's gone too far. He's exploiting the specter of global warming as a justification for his "synfuel" plan.

That was the point of Schweitzer's helicopter ride with Stephanopoulos: to display Glacier National Park's shrinking glaciers which are, as Stephanopoulos put it, "dramatic evidence that global warming is not, as some argue, a hoax. The glaciers that gave this park its name are melting." In touting the segment, ABC News billed the park as "a national treasure [that] is melting away from global warming." Hard hitting, critical journalism was on the way.

The helicopter ride accomplished little more than provide nice scenery. In March, the park's 1 million acres are blanketed in snow. The governor and the Clintonista flew over Jackson Glacier and imagined its shrinkage. If the men were truly environmentally conscious, they would have used hang gliders -- that one helicopter joy ride likely emitted a great deal of exhaust and wasted a considerable amount of fuel, not to mention possibly causing avalanches or disturbing wildlife.

Without any pesky, challenging questions from Stephanopoulos, who so far from Washington was clearly out of his element, Schweitzer could make his case unchallenged: There were once over a hundred glaciers in the park. Now there are fewer than 30. Measurements of "temperature and precipitation from around the world" show global warming is real. Ergo, Glacier National Park is the "canary in the mine."

I'VE HEARD THIS STORY many times. In fact I've told a version of it myself more than once. As a boat captain for three summers on St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, I would point out Sexton Glacier and explain that it's only one of about 30 glaciers left in the park. At one count, there were once over a hundred. Usually, a hand would shoot up: "Because of global warming?" No, not at all.

If Schweitzer and Stephanopoulos took the boat tour (summer only), they'd understand Glacier makes poor anecdotal evidence for global warming. Passengers learn that the small alpine glaciers in the park today were formed in a "Little Ice Age" that began only several hundred years ago. A better name for Glacier, as many will tell you, would be "Glaciated" National Park. Its most dramatic beauty comes not from the spits of ice which are rarely seen without considerable trouble, but from the dramatic peaks and bathtub-shaped valleys which were carved out by glaciers thousands of feet thick.

Yep, thousands. These enormous valley glaciers formed and melted, perhaps multiple times, well before man began even imagining the industrial revolution. And now, the disappearance of fairly insignificant alpine glaciers is the result of man-made global warming? Sorry, but for a place where I've been snowed on in June, July, and August, I'm not buying.

SINCE GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS didn't bother the governor for any evidence of his claims, I thought I would. His office was ready to send a 24-page file of information. Two-thirds were generic global warming briefs from the National Resources Defense Council -- a group known to be in the tank for global warming. In the stack, the only information pertaining to global warming's effects in Glacier was a two-page fact sheet from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and a one-page summary of the glacial recession.

No one disputes they're shrinking. But skeptics will want data to support Schweitzer's claims. It should be easy enough: show that local increased temperatures correspond to glacial shrinkage. The Montana DEQ memo cites generic warming talking points: global average temps, snow pack, polar ice cover, and the like. The most the governor's office could give on Glacier National Park was that glaciers are rapidly reducing in number and size: "Since the mid-18th century, reduction in area of the park's glaciers ranges from 46%-77%." If they've been shrinking since before the industrial revolution, what's man got to do with it?

Pressed for better evidence, Schweitzer's office sent a couple links: one to a study detailing the park's susceptibility to long-term climate change, and another to a United States Geological Survey study. The USGS estimates that glaciers began receding around 1850. While the USGS points vaguely to "above average summer temperatures and below average annual precipitation" from 1920 to 1940, the specifics aren't very convincing. The finished USGS study assumes that global temperatures are rising, based on the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change's estimate of less than one-half degree Celsius. More specifically, the authors point to another study which found that "in alpine regions the warming is even more pronounced."

How about looking at western Montana and Glacier National Park? The USGS authors cite annual summer mean temperatures from nearby weather stations at Kalispell, West Glacier, and Babb. (I'll grant them their choice of locations, even though the first two are in climate zones vastly different -- and much warmer -- than the Continental Divide, where most glaciers are located.) Though data from the latter two stations are sporadic, the authors claim a temperature increase of 1.66 degrees Celsius from 1910 to 1980. That's it. No details on fluctuations, statistical significance, or r-squared values. As Virginia climatologist Patrick J. Michaels wrote for Cato in 2001, "With climate data, it's easy to play the standard game of picking a starting point in the record to prove a point. Precisely, one can come up with 3 1/2 degrees of warming by looking at data beginning in 1950, rather than considering the entire history."

A CLOSER LOOK CALLS warming in western Montana into doubt. Michaels examined the history of the Western Montana Climatological Division and said, "Inspection of the entire summer history yields no statistically significant warming whatsoever."

The Great Falls National Weather Service office's report goes further than that. Rather than a steady increase, average annual temperatures in the area show a decline into the late 1920s, then an increase into the early 1940s, then a decline until the late 1950s. Temperatures rose in the 1960s, and dropped in the early 1970s, followed by fairly constant temperatures in the late 1970s and 1980s before a sharp increase just before 1990.

Perhaps Governor Schweitzer, with a state bureaucracy at his disposal, couldn't produce evidence of warming around Glacier because it doesn't exist. I looked at average temperatures at the Kalispell airport from 1899 to 2005. For that period, annual temperatures are quite steady -- a linear regression even yielded a negative slope. What about the much ballyhooed summer temperatures? I looked at July and found the same thing. The narrower period used by the USGS authors -- 1910-1980 -- produced cooling results for annual and July temperatures. I would be interested to see how the USGS authors found increasing temperatures. We really don't know if the area around Glacier is warming.

What evidence is there for man-made global warming melting the glaciers in Glacier National Park? None. Glaciers in the park have been consistently melting since man laid eyes on them. They've come and gone before, as they probably will again. Schweitzer is right to admit that there's nothing we can do now to stop the glaciers from melting. But to claim them as a reason for his synfuels proposal is awfully arrogant -- for the man Schweitzer and for Man. Global warming theory feeds a natural inclination to see ourselves as the problem and/or the solution. In this case, we're neither.

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About the Author

David Holman is a reporter for The American Spectator.