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Climate Change is Melting Mount Rainier's Glaciers at Unprecedented Rates

Dec 22, 2014 12:24 PM EST

Climate change is melting Mount Rainier's glaciers at unprecedented rates - six times the historic speed - and with temperatures still heating up, scientists are worried that the country may soon lose one of its greatest treasures.

Mount Rainer is a stratovolcano located near Seattle, though it hasn't erupted since 1894. But seismic data suggests that it's still active and can potentially erupt again, especially considering there is a rising magma reservoir beneath Mount Rainier about 5 to 10 miles thick.

However, these days an impending eruption isn't worrying scientists so much as detrimental flooding from the site.

Over the years, The News Tribune reports, melting glaciers have sent floods of water and rock cascading down the mountain, filling up rivers, damaging roads, and endangering plant and animal species that call this place home.

The last flood occurred in November, which forced Mount Rainier National Park officials to temporarily close park access at the Nisqually entrance and impacted plant and animal habitat in its path.

While receding glaciers is nothing new, with climate change intensifying, it is happening more rapidly than scientists have ever seen before. Changes that normally occur over a matter of centuries are transpiring over decades. The Nisqually Glacier, for example, one of Rainier's 28 named glaciers, has been disappearing since 1983. It's currently at a historic minimum and still shrinking - more than 3 feet every 10 days.

"The problem is the rate of change in a short period of time," Paul Kennard, a National Park Service geomorphologist, told The Tribune. "If you look at it on a graph, it's like a pingpong ball just fell off the edge of the table."

Though temperatures across the Pacific Northwest are only about 1.4 degrees warmer on average compared to 1895, this slight rise is enough to throw off the balance Mount Rainier's delicate ecosystem, scientists say.

And with these increasing temperatures, glacial ice melt increase the risk of sudden avalanches, floods and liquid mud slurries, which can all occur on a dime without warning.

"Climate change is clearly human caused," Park Service Director Jon Jarvis told The Tribune. "It is happening now. We can see the impacts, and we need to step up to the facts and take actions."

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