Scientist recognized for telling Glacier’s evolving story

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  • Dan Fagre at his office in Glacier National Park.

  • 1

    A young Dan Fagre shows former Vice President Al Gore, center, photos of Grinnell Glacier while former Sen. Max Baucus looks on in this photo from the summer of 1997. Gore hiked to Grinnell Glacier.

  • Dan Fagre at his office in Glacier National Park.

  • 1

    A young Dan Fagre shows former Vice President Al Gore, center, photos of Grinnell Glacier while former Sen. Max Baucus looks on in this photo from the summer of 1997. Gore hiked to Grinnell Glacier.

For decades now, U.S. Geological Scientist Dan Fagre has been telling the evolving story of climate change in Glacier National Park to anyone willing to listen — from the local press to international outlets to world leaders.

For his efforts at outreach and communication, Fagre recently received the U.S. Geological Survey’s Shoemaker Lifetime Achievement award. The Eugene M. Shoemaker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Communications is presented annually to a USGS scientist who creates excitement and enthusiasm for science among non-scientists using effective communication skills.

Fagre has dedicated his career to understanding and communicating science about the interactions between climate, mountain ecosystems and snow-glacier dynamics in Glacier National Park and across Western North America.

In the summer months, it’s not unusual to see Fagre trudging up the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail at Logan Pass, a journalist in tow, busily scribbling notes in a notebook.

It’s always been about science.

“The important thing to keep in mind (as a scientist) is what your role is ... keeping it to the facts,” he said.

The affable Fagre has told the story of climate change in a real world setting to the likes of Vice President Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., numerous Secretaries of the Interior over the years, most recently, Sally Jewell, who was Interior Secretary during the Obama Administration. Requests from major news outlets come regularly, he noted.

One of his most unique interviews was with Icelandic Public Radio.

“They all want to hear the same story ... with a different twist each time,” he said.

The story, of course, is the disappearing glaciers in the Park, and the eventual impacts that will have on the flora, fauna and the summer water supply to the landscape, as one of the most coveted Parks in the U.S. continues to warm.

Science and scientific research is a slow methodical process, Fagre noted and doesn’t really fit the 24/7 news cycle.

“It’s a challenge to make it fresh, when science progresses slowly,” he said.

Fagre received his doctorate from the University of California, Davis, has been a faculty affiliate at six different universities and mentored or sponsored many graduate students, published three books and 170-plus scientific publications, and co-founded several national and international science networks.

He was born in Minnesota, but spent most of his youth growing up in Tokyo, Japan. He started his science career in 1976 and came to Glacier in 1991 after stints as a college professor and researcher. Today he’s the director of the Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems Project and lead investigator in the USGS Benchmark Glacier Program. He works with a staff of eight, most of which are part-time. He credits them for his success.

“An award given to an individual is nearly always a reflection of a team effort,” Fagre said. “I’ve been honored to work with a stellar group of talented colleagues that share my passion for communicating the adventure and social relevance of science and the daily delight I take in being a scientist.”

While he’ll be 65 in a few days, he’s not ready to retire. He still has several projects he wants to finish before that day comes. One involves tracing the glaciers of the Little Ice Age of the 1850s in the Park. The ice and glaciers from that era have long receded, but by examining the slow growing lichen on the rocks in the area, one can determine when they last moved — and thus, the extent of the glacier. By combining satellite imagery and lichen data, the hope is to determine the extent of the glaciers and, more importantly, the water they stored.

Glaciers are like water in the proverbial bank. They grow through the winter and then release water through the summer. The cold water not only provides water for a host of native fish species, it also ensures a nearly pristine supply for everything downstream, including humans.

But today, the park’s glaciers are no longer growing. The summers are too warm and, even in big winters like this one, they’re not building mass. The park currently has 26 glaciers, defined as moving sheets of ice that are 25 acres or more. One glacier was recently added back to the list — Siyeh Glacier was once thought to be too small, but satellite imagery has shown that a good portion of it is buried in rock — something Fagre and his staff were able to confirm in the field.

“Being out in the field is critical for new ideas and new understandings,” he said.

For example, the staff has started to examine tree rings to get a better understanding of avalanche occurrence throughout the Park. Avalanches and forecasting them is an important part of plowing the Going-to-the-Sun Road each spring. Better predictions mean a safer environment for plow crews. Avalanches also play an important role as food sources for animals like grizzly bears. Avalanches scour mountainsides of trees and provide for lush plant growth in their wake that bears feed on.

Glacier is far more forested than it was even a 100 years ago. Old photos depict passes like Dawson Pass as meadows. Today, Dawson pass on it south flank is largely woods.

Similar forestation is happening in meadows at Preston Park, which once used to be a coveted campsite for early Park travelers.

Fagre said he’s also wants to finish another round of repeat photography of the Park’s glaciers. Fagre and his staff chronicled the disappearance of glaciers in the late 1990s and 2000s compared to photos of the early 1900s. Now, it’s time to revisit them again, 20 years later.

“The overarching theme (of future studies) is studying upper elevations of the Park, where we see the most change the most quickly,” he said.

Another document that needs to be updated is one that was written in 1987 by Arnold Finklin, a Forest Service meteorologist who wrote “A climatic handbook for Glacier National Park-with data for Waterton Lakes National Park,” Fagre said.

The data has likely changed in the past 30 years, Fagre notes.

Is that a project he’ll take on before he retires?

Fagre smiles. That might be one for the staff that follows him, he admits.

Overall, many of the long-range predictions scientists have made about changing climate years ago have proven true.

“A lot of the weather predictions, in a general way, have been born out,” he noted.

Summers have proven hotter. Winters warmer. Even this winter, despite all the snow, didn’t have many subzero days.

But for now, it’s on to the next interview. A Polish journalist wants to talk to Fagre, and Fagre is more than happy to oblige.

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