Mt. Shasta's glaciers are shrinking, 'spectacular loss of snowpack' leaves west side bare

Barry Kaye
Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers
Mt. Shasta was once described by Joaquin Miller as "lonely as God, and white as a winter moon." For the first time in recent memory, Mt. Shasta's western side is devoid of snow on Aug. 5, 2021.

Mt. Shasta’s glaciers are shrinking at an alarming rate and will completely disappear if current climate trends continue, scientists said.

The three largest glaciers in question on the 14,179-foot peak near the California-Oregon border were expanding as recently as 2008, according to a study published at the time by researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz.

That began to change when a severe drought, now affecting much of the American West, began taking its toll.

Dr. Mauri Pelto, an expert on glaciers and climate change, said Mt. Shasta’s Whitney Glacier, the longest in California, has retreated 800 meters in the past 16 years, or about 25% of its length. Even more stunning is a “spectacular loss of snowpack” above 12,000 feet, helping reduce Whitney's total mass by nearly half.

“If you (continually) repeat this summer, glaciers on Mt. Shasta can’t survive,” he said.

Pelto, who is a director with the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Nichols College outside Boston, Mass., said he was attracted to the study of glaciers because he loves snow and skiing but also because they are dynamic formations.

“They are kind of like beaches. Those are two things that change all the time,” he said. “Most of our landscape, day after day, year after year, looks relatively the same.”

In an aerial photo of the Whitney Glacier taken on August 17, 2021, the glacier appears to have split in half. However, geologists say the area is especially prone to rock slides and the middle part of the glacier is simply not visible from above. The red lines indicate the glacier's boundary.

He has spent the past 43 years chronicling glacial activity, recently returning from a field expedition on Mt. Baker in Washington state. He said this summer his studies found that glaciers in the Pacific Northwest are losing more of their snow cover – creating slush zones at higher altitudes – which lays bare the raw ice underneath. That puts them in “disequilibrium with current climate.”

“As a business model (glaciers) are not sustainable,” he said. “They can’t change their climate. They can’t relocate. They have tried shedding their worst-performing divisions, so to speak, at lower elevations. And that hasn’t helped. The only remaining question is just how fast do you lose them.”

After the ice is gone

Mudflow covers Pilgrim Creek Road in August of 2021 near McCloud from Mt. Shasta's melting snowpack.

Mt. Shasta is considered a dormant – but not extinct – volcano and is the second most southern peak in the Cascade Range. It was once described by naturalist John Muir as a “religious icon.”

Already the consequences of glacial melting are being felt. Mud and debris-flows earlier this summer on Mt. Shasta’s northern and eastern slopes closed forest roads and triggered warnings to back country hikers by the U.S. Forest Service.

Nick Caselli, a geologist and operations director for Shasta Mountain Guides, said as glaciers retreat, the mountain is changing as well, leading to places where there is “striking difference when you are up there.”

Mount Shasta's Headwaters - Where does the water go?

“There is a ridge that goes out of the Hotlum-Bolam camp on the north side. The upper most portion of that ridge was all snow when you got above say 11,200 feet. You were on snow 100% of the time,” Caselli said. “It started emerging out of the snow and ice and now seems to be a permanent feature. There is even a little trail up it.”

As dire as the predictions are for the future of Mt. Shasta’s glaciers, Caselli said climate change is a tricky science. As quickly as the mountain’s seven total glaciers are retreating, they also have the potential to expand rapidly.

He said precipitation is “really the wild card.”

“Mt. Shasta’s glaciers pulse and shrink rapidly with wet or dry years,” he said. “El Nino, which gives (the state) its biggest snow and water years, is driven by heat in the ocean. It is not impossible that, with heating, Northern California could get wetter.”

'Shining whitely in the sun'

A lenticular cloud caps Mt. Shasta in June of 2012.

The loss of Mt. Shasta’s glaciers would erase one of the mountain’s most iconic features.

Several have Native American names dating back thousands of years, showing a deep spiritual connection to the mountain. Roughly translated from the Wintun language, Bolam means “steep,” Hotlum is “great” and Kanwakitan stands for “great muddy one.” This sense of connection is not a singular event or unique to the Pacific Northwest.

In his literary masterpiece “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Ernest Hemingway writes about an injured man on safari looking wistfully across the African plain at Tanzania’s famous snow-capped peak while waiting to be rescued.

Although the west side of Mt. Shasta is completely devoid of snow, the eastern and northern slopes where the mountain's seven glaciers flow still retain portions of their snowpack. This photo was taken from near Lake Shastina on Highway 97 on Aug. 21, 2021.

This being Hemingway, the protagonist never summits the peak and instead dies from gangrene inside a tent surrounded by hyenas. But the figurative metaphor of something unreachable “shining whitely in the sun” – the reflection from ancient glaciers – takes on a literal irony 85 years later as those ice fields have all but disappeared.

For Chris Carr, one of Shasta’s most recognized and talented backcountry skiers, the thought of Mt. Shasta’s glaciers disappearing “makes my stomach drop.”

“What attracted me here is this mountain. At the time it was possible to ski almost year-round,” he said. “To be in California ... and be able to rock climb in the desert, surf in the ocean, it’s Shrangi-La. Losing these glaciers would have a profound personal impact on me.”

Barry Kaye is a regional writer for the USA Today Network.