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Natural Resources & Energy

Beartooth Snowfields Melting

Dr. James Halfpenny

Snowfields that have topped the Beartooth Mountains for centuries are gone now. A Montana Scientist, Dr. Jim Halfpenny says they melted this summer.

A waterfall near the Beartooth Highway is just part of the beauty this area offers now. The highway brings travelers back and forth from Northwest Wyoming to southern Montana. The colors are brilliant. The sky is clear. The weather is warm and balmy.  

 Dr. Jim Halfpenny instructed, “Listen for a moment to that sound of water trickling down. But that’s the life of this snowfield draining away. Never again may it be dense enough to form a snowfield like this used to be.”

Halfpenny was the Director of the Mountain Research Station and a research fellow with the Institute of Arctic And Alpine Research at the University of Colorado. Then he moved to Gardiner Montana, to establish A Naturalist's World:  an ecological education organization.

He’s been exploring the caves of this snowfield for decades. He says they disappeared this summer, for this first time in his life.

As he walked the bare rocky ground he commented, “This is lower than I’ve ever seen it before.”

Halfpenny said the snowfields of the Beartooths are not glaciers. They’re not dense enough. But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t very old.

 He pointed out, “That dirty looking snow we’re seeing is hundreds if not thousands of years old.  Melting it out at this point in time. It may never be replaced.”

Halfpenny is finding ancient bison bones where the snow once lay.  He points to one but doesn’t touch it.

He said, “Look carefully you will see two horn cores coming down this way. The frontal part of the skull has disintegrated over the hundreds or thousands of years.”

Nearby, what’s left of one snowfield is calving into a pool of water.

Halfpenny explained, “The past winter in the northeast part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem snowfall was well below average, and then we had a hot summer, and those two factors combined have unprecedented melting out of the snow field.”

Halfpenny blamed climate change that started as far back as the 1850's, when the industrial revolution started.

He said, “There are 16 greenhouse gasses. Three of them are only made by humans. Then of the other thirteen chemicals we can measure how much is human caused, and how much is natural. And when we look at carbon dioxide, the human caused is measurable.”

Halfpenny concluded the disappearing snowfields on our highest mountains will have an effect on the food producing states below.

 He said, “This mountain region is the water bucket of the nation. And, the mountain region has to supply the water for the grain belt. And we’re losing that ability as the climate changes here.”

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