Unhappy Trails

The Northwest's backcountry offers a grim preview of what's to come thanks to global warming.

"Water break?"

Andy and Peter agree, so we drop our packs, setting them against big logs that were thrown up last winter by the churning river. We're at Kennedy Hot Springs in the northern Cascades. It's late spring, and today we have the place to ourselves. In a few weeks, the good-natured racket of families, dogs, and Boy Scouts will compete with the din of the rushing of the river.

It's no surprise that this is a much-loved place. Reached by an easy hike through a virgin forest of outsized fir and cedar, the hot springs are nestled beneath perennially ice-clad peaks. If you had enough energy and time, trails from this spot could take you to more than a million acres of roadless wilderness. It's a favorite jumping-off point for trekkers of the Pacific Crest Trail, the storied footpath connecting Canada to Mexico. And for my fellow climbers and me, it's a stop on the most popular route up volcanic Glacier Peak, Washington's fourth highest mountain.

It was one year ago when we stopped for water on an overcast day. What I didn't know then was that Kennedy Hot Springs had just four months to live.

In October 2003, when frost-nipped backpackers usually linger to soak beneath yellow alder leaves, a record-smashing rainstorm lasting nearly a week drenched nearby Darrington with 6 inches of rain in 24 hours. The storm unleashed a slough of mud, rocks, and timber that crashed down the overflowing White Chuck River and Kennedy Creek, burying the hot springs.

As Ron DeHart, with the U.S. Forest Service, crisply put it to me, "It's gone. It doesn't exist anymore as far as we know."

The real tragedy, however, is that the destruction of Kennedy Hot Springs is just an appetizer on the menu of climate change. And the next course is already on its way. In fact, scientists say that flooding is one of the principal effects of global warming in the Northwest.

There is an overwhelming consensus among atmospheric scientists that human-caused gases—from cars, factories, and other sources—are slowly but steadily cranking up the planet's thermostat. Studies of satellite readings, ocean temperatures, glacial retreats, melting ice sheets, soil samples, tree rings, and coral all point to the same culprit: human-sponsored greenhouse gases. Though the phenomenon is commonly called global warming, the effects of climate change may take a variety of different forms, including cooling in some places and dramatic temperature swings in others.

At the University of Washington, a multidepartmental collaboration known as Climate Impacts Group (CIG) puts a regional face on the global problem. In one recent report, CIG research scientist Philip Mote, together with 18 other scientists, documented the likely effects of global warming in the Northwest. Using seven different computer models to simulate future climatic conditions, they predicted more flooding in some rivers, when precipitation falls in sudden bursts of rain.

Hmmm . . . sounds familiar.

I asked Dr. Mote whether the Kennedy Hot Springs–crushing rainstorms were caused by climate change.

In the cautious parlance of scientists everywhere, he told me that no climate model—no matter how sophisticated—can detect the fingerprints of global warming on any specific event. Science is capable only of predicting patterns and trends; it can't say for certain whether a particular storm would have happened in a world without global warming.

"But were the storms the sort of thing one would expect from climate change?" I asked.

He shrugged and admitted, "It kind of fits the picture."

The feds agree. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency worries that "more precipitation may come in short, intense bursts . . . which could lead to more flooding." And in a warmer climate, more precipitation falls as rain (and less as snow), which immediately runs off into streams and rivers.

As Mote points out, no one can say for certain whether global warming caused October's floods. Nevertheless, the floods are the kind that scientists have been predicting—and what they expect in the future. That means Kennedy Hot Springs may not be the last of our favorite places to meet an untimely demise. And it means that by sizing up last year's flood damage, we can get a glimpse of what global warming may do to Washington's trails.

100 Hikes Underwater

As it turns out, last October's floods did a lot more than bury Kennedy Hot Springs. You can forget about your plans for hiking from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail. Twenty-five to 30 miles of the path is gone, including a number of critical bridges.

"Gone?" I asked DeHart, at the Forest Service. "What do you mean when you say 'gone'?"

"It's gone," he barked. "It washed off the mountain. You can't even see where the trail was."

He ticked off the list of flood casualties: the Mountain Loop Highway, the Monte Cristo ghost town, and Baker Lake; 13 campgrounds, 15 trails, 20 trail bridges, 40 roads—all unusable until they're repaired.

When I asked DeHart how soon things will be patched up, he gave a short, sad laugh. "It's absolutely a budget killer," he explained. "There's no way this organization has the wherewithal to fix it."

According to Elizabeth Lunney, executive director of Washington Trails Association, without additional funding for national forests, popular trails will not be fixed for a decade or longer, while a new maintenance backlog builds up. So with support from the Mountaineers and the Pacific Crest Trail Association, Lunney flew to D.C. to lobby the state's congressional delegation for repair money. She believes that if the money comes through, repairs could be made in two to three years . . . in a best-case scenario.

"I don't think people really understand what they're not going to be able to get to this summer," Lunney told me.

Consider Washington's icon, Mount Rainier. The national park lost footbridges up to 50 feet long on a number of popular trails, including three on the way to Comet Falls and 12 on the Wonderland Trail, which circumnavigates the mountain. Two popular campgrounds were also damaged. Though the floods did an estimated $2.5 million in damage, Rainier got off easy compared to North Cascades National Park.

In North Cascades, the transpark highway that closes every winter was shut down earlier than ever before—by flood damage rather than winter snow. More than 16 inches of rain over the course of five days weakened the mountainsides near the village of Diablo and triggered a series of rockslides that rendered the town inaccessible for most of the winter. And these were no ordinary slides: The first two were severe enough to register on earthquake monitoring equipment.

Nearby, Colonial Creek Campground in the heart of the park sustained nearly a half-million dollars in flood damage when its namesake creek swallowed 36 campsites. On the park's Web site, photos make the family-favorite Stehekin Valley look like a war zone—a war won by the Stehekin River. Roads, trails, and campgrounds are hammered or missing altogether. Similarly, the Cascade River Road, which leads to the eye-popping hike up Cascade Pass and takes climbers to first-rate destinations like Sahale, is washed out.

The flooding stunned Cindy Bjorklund, a 23-year North Cascades Park veteran. "I've never seen anything like this," she says, "It's definitely the most damage the park has ever sustained."

Olympic National Park wasn't left out of the fun, either. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, nearly all the roads into the park were closed by flood damage. Rangers have not yet fully assessed the damage to backcountry trails—some of which are impassable or have simply vanished into rampaging rivers—but park officials guess that there is $1.3 million worth of trail damage.

Melting Mount Rainier

While last autumn's storms were a serious blow to Washington's trail system, they were not the first hint of climate change in the Northwest's mountains.

Seventy-five-year-old Lou Whittaker knows the mountains here intimately, and one big mountain in particular. Co-owner and co-founder of the leading guide service on Mount Rainier, he first bagged Rainier when he was 16, and he's since returned to the summit more than 250 times. Sixty years on Rainier tell him that things are changing.

When I asked him whether he thinks climate change is affecting the mountains, he didn't hesitate.

"I think basically it is getting warmer, and the scientists are going to prove it," Whittaker told me.

He insists that low-elevation areas, like Paradise at 5,400 feet, get more rain and less snow then they did in the past. And though Rainier is the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48, Whittaker has watched its glaciers recede.

Glacial retreats happen for a variety of reasons, but global warming probably exacerbates them. And there's little question that the Earth is warming. Globally, 2003 was the second hottest year since records have been kept, second only to the reigning champ, 1998. The 10 hottest years have all happened since 1990, and the five hottest since 1997.

Still, neither Whittaker's observations nor last season's trail damage prove that people cause climate change. It's entirely possible the floods were just a perfectly natural freak event.

If you're a global-warming skeptic, you can take it up with the world's pre-eminent atmospheric scientists, like the 2,500 on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who think that humans are causing the shift. The main reason is that human activities worldwide (driving, electricity, factories, and farms) pump the equivalent of more than 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. (Washington residents, on average, are each responsible for about 19 tons of carbon dioxide annually.)

Even the Bushies are starting to come around. In a memo to GOP candidates, Republican pollster Frank Luntz admitted that "the scientific debate is closing." And Bush's State Department not only concedes that climate change is a reality, but makes grisly detailed predictions of the impacts.

Personally, I'm convinced by the science, by the mountains of evidence, by the consensus among experts, and, at least in part, by last October's floods. Because to me, the floods prove that climate science isn't just abstract theorizing—it has immediate implications for the Pacific Northwest.

Last October during the torrent, I was bathing in the warm glow of my television, chuckling at the newscasters who acted as if they were dodging mortar rounds in Tikrit. But I stopped snickering when they mentioned that all the roads around Lake Quinault, on the Olympic Peninsula, were washed out. I was planning a solo-backpacking trip in the area, and I watched my trip get flushed downriver along with the dairy cows, spawning salmon, and double-wides.

My ruined backpacking trip was the reality to fit the models. And if we lose the trails that lead us to the lonely high country, we'll lose something important about our place, and maybe about our character, as well.

Of course, climate change isn't entirely out of our hands. People cause it, and, at least in theory, people can stop it, too. Perhaps trail users will develop a voice, like the ski industry coalition Sustainable Slopes, to battle for limits on greenhouse gas emissions. At the least, maybe we'll reconsider the carbon-spewing behemoths we pilot down a hundred miles of highway just to navigate a half-mile of washboard.

Even if the recent floods were "natural," they're still worrisome, because they're precisely what the climate scientists are forecasting. If government agencies and volunteer groups like Washington Trails Association will be scrambling for several years to fix last winter's trail damage, what will happen if such severe flooding becomes more frequent?

In an era of constricted budgets, when even routine trail maintenance is routinely deferred, hikers may be left planning trips around the landscaped habitrail at the downtown REI. But at least it may be warm out.


Eric de Place is a researcher at Northwest Environment Watch, a Seattle-based research and communications center. He is also a hiker and mountain climber. You can contact him at eric@northwestwatch.org.

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