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Mount Shasta’s glaciers are shrinking at an alarming rate due to heatwave

This month’s heat wave broke temperature records across the American West, and now the top of California’s Mount Shasta is largely brown. 

The Whitney Glacier and Mt. Shasta, as seen from Shastina in 1870. Credit - C.E. Watkins, Public Domain (CC0 1.0)
The Whitney Glacier and Mt. Shasta, as seen from Shastina in 1870. Credit - C.E. Watkins, Public Domain (CC0 1.0)

This month’s heat wave broke temperature records across the American West, and now the top of California’s Mount Shasta is largely brown. 

Mount Shasta is a potentially active volcano at the southern end of the Cascade Range in Siskiyou County, California. At an elevation of 14,179 feet (4,321.8 meters), it is the second-highest peak in the Cascades arc and the fifth-highest in the state. 

The Cascades arc is a number of volcanoes in a volcanic arc in western North America, extending from southwestern British Columbia and on down through Washington, Oregon, and into northern California, a distance of over 700 miles (1,100 kilometers).

The mountain and the surrounding area are all part of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

There are seven named glaciers on Mount Shasta, with the four largest (Whitney, Bolam, Hotlum, and Wintun) radiating down from high on the main summit cone to below 10,000 ft (3,000 m) primarily on the north and east sides.

The three largest glaciers in question on the 14,179-foot peak near the California-Oregon border were expanding as recently as 2008, according to a study published at the time by researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz. But that has changed since the severe drought encompassing the west has taken hold.

Diller Canyon on Mount Shasta as seen from Weed in February 2013. Credit –  Daniel Mayer CC SA 3.0.

In August 2021, Dr. Mauri Pelto, an expert on glaciers and climate change, said Mt. Shasta’s Whitney Glacier, the longest in California, has retreated 800 meters in the past 16 years, or about 25% of its length. Even more stunning is a “spectacular loss of snowpack” above 12,000 feet, helping reduce Whitney’s total mass by nearly half, according to the Mt. Shasta News.

Kurtis Alexander, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, says that Mt. Shasta’s peak used to be covered with snow year-round. However, the lack of any significant rainfall in the last three years has destabilized the rock, debris, and soil that comprise Mt. Shasta, and in many places, debris flow and mudslides washed out roads, drainage, and power lines.

“The glaciers do help keep the landscape moist. That water is also good for water supplies. … The water seeps into the ground and fills the aquifers. And then the springs … are filled up so that they [communities] can extract that water [from] Shasta as well,” Alexander explains. “Some of the runoff from the snow and the glaciers goes to Lake Shasta, which … is the largest reservoir in California. And that sends off water across the state for cities and farms.” 

Lake Shasta provides water not only to agriculture in the Central Valley, but also to several regional Bay Area water systems. Lake Shasta is located 10 miles from Redding, in Shasta County, and about 200 miles north of the Bay Area.

This year, we are 124 feet down, which is a significant loss of a lot of storage,” said Don Bader, the northern California area manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees Shasta Dam and manages the water flowing from the lake.

On a grander scale, the glaciers reflect solar energy and heat, so losing the snow and ice means reinforcing global warming, Alexander says.

“These glaciers, like the Whitney glacier, are probably only about 100 feet thick. So when you’re talking nine inches a day, you’re talking a significant which portion.” He adds, “We have seen a pace of melting that as the climate warms, we’re going to see more years where there is this high rate of melting.” 

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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