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Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

September 9th, 2006 / / Links: Google Earth, Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Virtual Earth / Nearest places

Glacier National Park is located in the U.S. state of Montana, bordering the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. Glacier National Park contains two mountain ranges, over 130 named lakes, more than 1,000 different species of plants and hundreds of species of animals. This vast pristine ecosystem, spread across 1,584 mi² (4,101 km²), is the centerpiece of what has been referred to as the "Crown of the Continent Ecosystem", a region of protected land encompassing 16,000 mi² (44,000 km²). The famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, traverses through the heart of the park and crosses the Continental Divide, allowing visitors breathtaking views of the rugged Lewis and Livingston mountain ranges, as well as dense forests, alpine tundra, waterfalls and two large lakes. Along with the Going-to-the-Sun Road, five historic hotels and chalets are listed as National Historic Landmarks, and a total of 350 locations are on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Glacier National Park borders Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada — the two parks are known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, and were designated as the world's first International Peace Park in 1932. Both parks were designated by the United Nations as Biosphere Reserves in 1976, and in 1995 as World Heritage sites.

According to archeological evidence, Native Americans first arrived in the Glacier area some 10,000 years ago. The earliest occupants with lineage to current tribes were the Salish, Flathead, Shoshone and Cheyenne. The Blackfeet arrived around the beginning of the 18th century and soon dominated the eastern slopes of what later became the park, as well as the Great Plains immediately to the east. The park region provided the Blackfeet shelter from the harsh winter winds of the plains, and supplemented their traditional bison hunts with other game meat. Today, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation borders the park in the east, while the Flathead Indian Reservation is located west and south of the park. When the Blackfeet Reservation was first established in 1855 by the Lame Bull Treaty, it included the eastern area of the current park up to the Continental Divide. To the Blackfeet, the mountains of this area, especially Chief Mountain and the region in the southeast at Two Medicine, were considered the "Backbone of the World" and were frequented during vision quests. In 1895, Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet authorized the sale of the mountain area, some 800,000 acres (3,200 km²), to the U.S. government for $1.5 million (31.25 million USD in 2003). This established the current boundary between the park and the reservation.

While exploring the Marias River in 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition came within 50 miles (80 km) of the area that is now the park. A series of explorations after 1850 helped to shape the understanding of the area that later became the park. George Bird Grinnell came to the region in the late 1880's and was so inspired by the scenery that he spent the next two decades working to establish a national park. In 1901, Grinnell wrote a description of the region, in which he referred to it as the "Crown of the Continent", and his efforts to protect the land make him the premier contributor to this cause. A few years after Grinnell first visited, Henry L. Stimson and two companions, including a Blackfeet Indian, climbed the steep east face of Chief Mountain in 1892.

In 1891, the Great Northern Railway crossed the Continental Divide at Marias Pass (5,213 ft/1,589 m), which is along the southern boundary of the park. In an effort to stimulate use of the railroad, the Great Northern soon advertised the splendors of the region to the public. The company lobbied the United States Congress, and in 1900, the park was designated as a forest preserve. Under the forest designation mining was still allowed, but was not commercially successful. Meanwhile, proponents of protecting the region kept up their efforts, and in 1910, under the influence of George Bird Grinnell, Henry L. Stimson and the railroad, a bill was introduced into the U.S. Congress which redesignated the region from a forest preserve to a national park. This bill was signed into law by U.S. President William Howard Taft on May 11, 1910. Glacier National Park will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2010.

The Great Northern Railway, under the supervision of president Louis W. Hill, built a number of hotels and chalets throughout the park in the 1910s to promote tourism. These buildings were modeled on Swiss architecture as part of Hill's plan to portray Glacier as "America's Switzerland". Vacationers commonly took pack trips on horseback between the lodges or utilized the seasonal stagecoach routes to gain access to the Many Glacier area in the northeast.

The chalets, built between 1910 and 1913, included Belton, St. Mary, Sun Point, Two Medicine, Sperry, Granite Park, Cut Bank, and Gunsight Lake. The railway also built Glacier Park Lodge, adjacent to the park on its east side, and the Many Glacier Hotel on the east shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. Louis Hill personally selected the sites for all of these buildings, choosing each for a dramatically different scenic backdrop and a view from every room. Another developer, John Lewis, built the Lewis Glacier Hotel on Lake McDonald in 1913-1914. The Great Northern Railway bought the hotel in 1930 and renamed it Lake McDonald Lodge. The chalets were planned for backcountry access via horseback or by hiking. Today, only Sperry Chalet and Granite Park Chalet are still in operation, while a building formerly belonging to Two Medicine Chalet is now Two Medicine Store. The buildings constructed by the Great Northern Railway (Sperry and Granite Park Chalets, Many Glacier Hotel, and Two Medicine Store) are now on the list of National Historic Landmarks as is the Lake McDonald Lodge. In total, 350 structures within the park are listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.

After the park was well established and visitors began to rely more on automobiles, work was begun on the 53 mile (85 km) long Going-to-the-Sun Road, completed in 1932. Also known simply as the Sun Road, the road bisects the park and is the only route that ventures deep into the park, going over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (6,670 feet, 2033 m) at the midway point. The Sun Road is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1985 was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Another route, along the southern boundary between the park and National Forests is U.S. Route 2, which crosses the Continental Divide at Marias Pass and connects the towns of West Glacier and East Glacier. During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed many of the park's trails and campgrounds.

In 2003, wildfires on the western side of the Continental Divide burned 10% of Glacier National Park. There were also extensive fires in the surrounding forests.

Glacier National Park is managed by the National Park Service, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior; park headquarters is in West Glacier, Montana. The National Park Service has the smallest staff of any major federal agency, yet oversees over 84 million acres (340,000 km²). Visitation to Glacier National Park averages slightly less than 2 million visitors annually, however a relative few venture far from main roadways and hotels.

Glacier National Park has an operating budget of $11,885,000 for fiscal year 2006. Most of this budget is used to provide a minimal number of staff and to make minor improvements to structures and roadways that are in immediate need of repair. More than 60% of the employees are employed for only a few months per year during the summer. Only 20% of the park's annual funding comes from entrance and campground fees. The remaining funding comes from federal tax dollars, grants and donations. According to a report presented to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999, the cost of deferred maintenance, not including repairs to roads and hotels, was $77 million. Restoring the five hotels in the park by bringing them up to the current fire codes and performing stabilization work, would cost another $100-135 million.

The mandate of the National Park Service is to preserve and protect natural and cultural resources. The Organic Act of August 25, 1916, established the National Park Service as a federal agency. One major section of the Act has often been summarized as the "Mission", " promote and regulate the use of the...national parks...which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." In keeping with this mandate, hunting is illegal in the park, as are mining, logging and removal of natural or cultural resources. Additionally, oil and gas exploration and extraction are not permitted. In 1974, a wilderness study was submitted to congress which identified 95% of the acreage of the park as qualifing for wilderness designation. Unlike a few other parks, Glacier National Park has yet to be protected as wilderness, but National Park Service policy requires that identified areas listed in the report be managed as wilderness until congress renders a full decision.

In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the park in 2010, major reconstruction of the Going-to-the-Sun Road is underway, and temporary road closures are expected in the 2007 season. Some rehabilitation of major structures such as visitor centers and historic hotels, as well as improvements in wastewater treatment facilities and campgrounds, are expected to be completed by the anniversary date. Also planned are fishery studies for Lake McDonald, updates of the historical archives and restoration of trails.

The park is bordered on the north by Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, and the Flathead Provincial Forest and Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park in British Columbia. To the west, the north fork of the Flathead River forms the western boundary, while its middle fork is part of the southern boundary. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation provides most of the eastern boundary, and the Lewis and Clark and the Flathead National Forests form the southern and western boundary. The remote Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is located in the two forests immediately to the south.

The park contains a dozen large lakes and 700 smaller ones, but only 131 lakes have been named. Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake, Bowman Lake and Kintla Lake are the four largest lakes. Numerous smaller lakes, known as tarns, are located in cirques formed by glacial erosion. Some of these lakes, like Avalanche Lake and Cracker Lake, are colored an opaque turquoise by suspended glacial silt, which also causes a number of streams to run milky white. The lakes of Glacier National Park remain cold year round, with temperatures rarely above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 °C) at their surface. Cold water lakes such as these support little plankton growth, ensuring that the lake waters are remarkably clear. The lack of plankton, however, lowers the rate of pollution filtration, and pollutants have a tendency to linger longer. Consequently, the lakes are considered environmental "bellwethers" as they can be quickly affected by even minor increases in pollutants.

Two hundred waterfalls are scattered throughout the park, however, during dryer times of the year, many of these are reduced to a trickle. The largest falls include those in the Two Medicine region, McDonald Falls in the McDonald Valley and Swiftcurrent Falls in the Many Glacier area, which is easily observable and close to the Many Glacier Hotel. One of the tallest waterfalls is Bird Woman Falls, which drops 492 feet (149 m) from a hanging valley beneath the north slope of Mount Oberlin. Bird Woman Falls can be easily seen from the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The rocks found in the park are primarily sedimentary in origin, having been laid down in shallow seas over 1.6 billion to 800 million years ago. During the formation of the Rocky Mountains the Lewis Overthrust, commencing 170 million years ago, moved an enormous region of rocks three miles (4.8 km) thick and 160 miles (257 km) long, eastward more than 50 miles (80 km). This resulted in older rocks being displaced over newer ones, and today the overlying Proterozoic rocks are over 1.4 billion years older than the underlying Cretaceous age rocks.

Glacier National Park is dominated by mountains which were carved into their present shapes by the huge glaciers of the last ice age; these glaciers have largely disappeared over the 15,000 years. Evidence of widespread glacial action is found throughout the park in the form of U-shaped valleys, glacial cirques, aretes and large outflow lakes radiating like fingers from the base of the highest peaks. Since the end of the ice ages, various warming and cooling trends have occurred. The last recent cooling trend was during the Little Ice Age which took place approximately between 1550 and 1850. During the Little Ice Age, the glaciers in the park expanded and advanced, although to nowhere near as great an extent as they had during the Ice Age. Coincidentally, the park region was first explored in detail near the end of the Little Ice Age and a systematized survey began in which the number and size of glaciers was documented on maps and by photographic evidence. Much of this late 19th century work, however, was undertaken to lure tourism into the region or to search for mineral wealth, not out of a particular desire to document glaciers.

During the middle of the 20th century, examination of the maps and photographs from the previous century provided clear evidence that the 150 glaciers known to have existed in the park a hundred years earlier had greatly retreated, and in many cases disappeared altogether. Repeat photography of the glaciers, such as the pictures taken of Grinnell Glacier between 1938 and 2005 as shown, help to provide visual confirmation of the extent of glacier retreat.

In the 1980's, the U.S. Geological Survey began a more systematic study of the remaining glaciers, which continues to the present day. By 2005, only 27 glaciers remained, and scientists generally agree that if the current greenhouse warming continues, all the glaciers in the park will be gone by 2030. This glacier retreat follows a worldwide pattern that has accelerated even more since 1980. The extensive glacier retreat that has been observed in Glacier National Park, as well as in other regions worldwide, is a key indicator of climatic changes on a worldwide scale. All evidence indicates that the demise of glacier ice is indicative of global warming. Without a major climatic change in which cooler and moister weather returns and persists, the mass balance (accumulation rate versus melting rate) of glaciers will continue to be negative and the glaciers will eventually disappear, leaving behind only barren rock.

After the end of the Little Ice Age in 1850, the glaciers in the park retreated moderately until the 1910s. Between 1917 and 1926, the retreat rate rose rapidly and continued to accelerate through the 1930s. A slight cooling trend from the 1940s until 1979, helped to slow the rate of retreat and in a few examples some glaciers even advanced a few tens of meters. However, during the 1980s, the glaciers in the park began a steady period of loss of glacial ice, which continues into the the 2000s. In 1850, the glaciers in the region near Blackfoot and Jackson Glaciers covered 5,337 acres (21.6 km²), but by 1979, the same region of the park had glacier ice covering only 1,828 acres (7.4 km²). Between 1850 and 1979, 73 percent of the glacial ice had melted away. At the time the park was created, Jackson Glacier was part of Blackfoot Glacier, but the two separated into different glaciers by 1939.

The impact of glacier retreat on the park's ecosystems is not fully known, but cold water dependent plant and animal species could suffer due to a loss of habitat. Reduced seasonal melting of glacial ice may also affect stream flow during the dry summer and fall seasons, reducing water table levels and increasing the risk of forest fires. The loss of glaciers will also reduce the aesthetic visual appeal that glaciers provide to visitors.

Many areas are only accessible during the summer, and possibly the late spring and early fall, depending on snowfall and elevation. Rainfall is frequent in the tourist season during the summer and may persist for days, averaging two to three inches (5—7.6 cm) each month. Snowfall can occur at any time of the year, even in the summer, and especially at higher altitudes. Visiting in the early summer is a way to avoid some but not all of the wet weather. In the spring, however, the nights and early mornings will be substantially cooler, and high-elevation trails, including the popular Hidden Lake Trail at Logan Pass, may still be snow covered. Thunderstorms are common all summer, and normal safety precautions for lightning and hail should be taken. The mountainous terrain ensures that tornadoes are very rare. The winter can bring prolonged cold waves, especially on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. Snowfalls are significant over the course of the winter, with the largest accumulation occurring in the west. During the tourist season daytime high temperatures average in the 60's and 70's °F (15 to 25°C), and nighttime lows usually drop into the 40's (7°C). Temperatures in the high country may be much cooler. In the lower valleys, on the other hand, daytime highs over 90°F (32°C) are not unusual.

Rapid temperature changes have been noted in the region, and in Browning, Montana, which is just east of the park in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, a world record temperature drop of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (56 °C) in only 24 hours occurred on the night of January 23—24, 1916, when thermometers plunged from 44°F to -56°F (7 to -49°C).

Glacier National Park has a highly regarded global climate change research program. Based in West Glacier, with its main headquarters in Bozeman, Montana, the U.S. Geological Survey has performed scientific research on specific climate change studies since 1992. In addition to the study of the retreating glaciers, research performed includes forest modeling studies in which fire ecology and habitat alterations are analyzed. Additionally, changes in alpine vegetation patterns are documented, watershed studies in which stream flow rates and temperatures are recorded frequently at fixed gauging stations, and atmospheric research in which UV-B radiation, ozone and other atmospheric gases are analyzed over time. The research compiled all contribute to a broader understanding of climate changes in the park. The data collected, when compared to other facilities scattered around the world, help to correlate these climatic changes on a global scale.

Glacier is considered to have excellent air and water quality. No major areas of dense human population exist anywhere near the region and industrial effects are minimized due to a scarcity of factories and other potential contributors of pollutants. However, the sterile and cold lakes found throughout the park are easily contaminated by airborne pollutants that fall whenever it rains or snows, and some evidence of these pollutants have been found in park waters. The pollution level is currently viewed as negligible, and the park lakes and waterways have a water quality rating of A-1, the highest rating given by the state of Montana.

[Source: Wikipedia]

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