In just four days, hot temperatures melted all the snow off a glacier

Earth’s Northern Hemisphere experienced a scorching summer, with 90-degree temperatures in Arctic reindeer country and heat waves toppling records around the globe. 

In Canada’s Kluane National Park, the massive Lowell Glacier felt the heat this summer, too. 

Both NASA and European Space Agency satellites captured bounties of snow from the previous winter melting from the glacier over just four days in July. 

In the photos of the glacier NASA released Thursday, areas of frozen water are shown in light blue, whereas melted water is shown in dark blue. 

The snow thawed under unusually high temperatures that hit 84 degrees Fahrenheit — 17 degrees higher than even the average daily high temperature for this region.

The Lowell Glacier with snow on its surface (shown in light blue).

The snow melted into a large "snow swamp."

The snow melted into a large “snow swamp.”

The water from the melted snow then collected in a 25-square-mile slushy lake, known as a “snow swamp,” on the glacier. Just two weeks later, this pool of water then evaporated completely.

Glacier scientist Mauri Pelto said via email that in the three decades since 1987, the Lowell Glacier has receded by about 3 kilometers, or nearly 2 miles. 

Pelto, the director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project at Nichols College, also told NASA that, “I haven’t seen a snow swamp of this size develop this quickly ever.”

Melting snow cover is particularly bad for glaciers, Pelto explained, as the light snowy surface reflects sunlight back into space. But without the snow, the darker ice absorbs more heat, which exacerbates melting, and ultimately, a more rapid glacier retreat. 

The Lowell Glacier

The Lowell Glacier

Lowell is a “surging glacier,” meaning it can move backward or forward relatively quickly. Yet, Lowell’s long-term retreat has now occurred over two cycles of this surging “and will likely not be recovered,” said Pelto. 

Eventually, the glacier will recede past the rocky island marked “T” above, which currently buttresses the glacier, and “there will be a larger retreat,” said Pelto.

Beginning in the 1970s, NASA started watching glaciers recede worldwide as human-caused climate change accelerated the melting

The recent events in Lowell, and glaciers around the world, are one of the most visible symptoms of a warming world, easily noticed by both the public and scientists alike. 

The once aptly-named Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, had around 150 documented glaciers in 1850. 

That number plummeted to 26 glaciers larger than 25-acres in size by 2015, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And about 500,000 visitors come to see Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier each year, which lost a dramatic 1,800 feet between 2007 and 2015.

Markedly more accessible than Lowell Glacier, some of the trails around Mendenhall were designed to lead visitors to glorious overlooks of the icy blue behemoth. But today, these overlooks lead to a pool of melted ice, or rocky terrain. 

Earth’s ice sheets are vanishing everywhere, from the Arctic, to the Antarctic.

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