90% of the biggest Yosemite glacier has melted. Did we do it?

Summary: Climate activists provide journalists with vivid stories about global warming, inciting public action to regulate CO2 emissions. Such as the recent surge of articles describing the melting Lyell Glacier in Yosemite Park as warnings of our future. They misrepresent the science by conflating natural and anthropogenic warming, an example of activists’ tactics which have failed despite decades of effort.

Melting of the Lyell Glacier
Glacier was once Yosemite’s largest; now it’s almost gone” by Tom Stienstra in the San Francisco Chronicle of 16 October 2015. Click to enlarge.

The Lyell Glacier in Yosemite Park is one of climate activists’ “poster children” for global warming. Recently there has been another surge of articles such as “Glacier was once Yosemite’s largest; now it’s almost gone” by Tom Stienstra in the San Francisco Chronicle of 16 October 2015…

The glacier has lost about 90% of its volume and 80% of its surface area from 1883 to 2015, according to Stock and Peter Devine, a naturalist with the Yosemite Conservancy who has studied the Lyell Glacier for 30 years. Stock and a crew of geologists measured the perimeter of the glacier with a GPS in the last week of September.

“’I think about John Muir a lot up there on the glacier,’ Stock said. ‘I try to envision what it was like when Muir was here. It would have been so different. I think about what (Francois) Matthes (of the U.S. Geological Survey) said in 1935, about why we need to measure our glaciers, that glaciers are sensitive indicators of climate change.’

“… At one point, Devine turned to get one last glimpse of the Lyell Glacier. ‘It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend,’ Devine said. ‘It’s hard to believe that the glacier that John Muir found and that I’ve loved for most of my life looks like it will be gone.’”

Other recent examples are “You Can Barely Even See Yosemite’s Largest Glacier Anymore” by Ria Misra at GIZMODO and “Incredible images show how the Lyell Glacier has lost nearly 80% of its surface area since 1883” at the Daily Mail. An older example is “Yosemite’s largest ice mass is melting fast” by Louis Sahagun in the LAT of 1 October 2013.

These show one of the major climate scams: describing the effects of two centuries of warming as purely anthropogenic (see other examples below). In fact much of the warming of the past two centuries is a natural recovery from the Little Ice Age.  Our CO2 emissions skyrocketed after WWII (see data here), becoming a major driver of warming. Which is why the IPCC’s AR5 says “It is extremely likely (95 – 100% certain) that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.” (See this for details.). Attributing all glacial melting to our actions is a material misrepresentation of the facts.

Lyell Glacier melting: 1883 - 2015
Lyell Glacier: top photo by Israel Russell in 1883, bottom photo by Keenan Takahashi from the same spot in 2015.

About the Lyell Glacier

The Chronicle’s graph shows only part of the record. How long has the glacier existed? When did it start shrinking? How much of the shrinking occurred before 1950? The National Park Service website about the Lyell Glacier gives some answers. It is several thousand years old; in 1885 it was near its maximum extent.

… the earliest documentation of the Lyell and Maclure Glaciers occurred near the peak of the Little Ice Age (circa 1300-1850 AD). The first map of the glaciers, published in Russell (1885), indicates that the glaciers were up against the Little Ice Age moraines. It is also correct that the glaciers were considerably smaller before the Little Ice Age, and were quite likely non-existent during the middle Holocene {7 – 5,000 years ago}.

The Lyell Glacier has receded in surges, as shown by this map of the past 80 years. It shrank rapidly in the warming of the 1930s and 1940s, as the USGS described in its atlas of satellite images of glaciers (1998)…

“In 1947 the DWPB visited the glacier to see whether it might be suitable for inclusion in their network. It was found to have receded so much that what was left of the forefoot was too steep for their purpose … {in 1930 the terminus was in a proglacial lake.} By 1953 the terminus was 60 meters beyond the beyond the lakeshore and some 4 meters above its surface.”

Recession of the Lyell Glacier since 1933

Lyell Glacier: 1933-2012
Yosemite’s Melting Glaciers” by Greg Stock and Robert Anderson, January 2009. Click to enlarge.


The answer to the title is: we are responsible for some of the melting of Lyell and other glaciers, but not — as these articles imply — all.

For 27 years (since James Hansen’s famous Senate testimony) the American public has heard many exaggerations and misrepresentations of climate science, while most climate scientists sit quietly (another example: the misrepresented basis for most of the scary predictions beloved by activists and journalists). The IPCC was once the “gold standard” description of climate science research; by 2011 activists were saying it was “too conservative” (e.g., see Inside Climate News, The Daily Climate, and Yale’s Environment 360).

This has failed to create strong support for policy action: polls consistently show climate change near or at the bottom of the public’s policy priorities. Perhaps activists and scientists should consider a change of tactics. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous (people who know all about dysfunctionality)…

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

Another example

Obama used Alaska’s melting glaciers as tangible evidence of anthropogenic climate change. As with Lyell glacier in Yosemite, the actual story is more complex — with melting beginning when the Little Ice Age ended, long before anthropogenic CO2 levels surged after WWII. As shown in this table from an article by Susan Huse, a biologist for the Alaskan Support Office of the National Park Service.

Retreat of Exit Glacier in Alaska - from NPS

Other posts about activist scientists misrepresenting science

For More Information

What’s been done wrong in the campaign for policy action to fight climate change. Here is a first step to restarting the debate.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See these posts about activists misrepresenting the effects of climate change…

29 thoughts on “90% of the biggest Yosemite glacier has melted. Did we do it?”

  1. let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that some significant fraction of recent warming is not caused by human activity. let’s further assume that, if the trend continues unabated, there will be very significant adverse effects. isn’t it reasonable to take such actions as may be available to us to mitigate those effects whether humans caused them or not? we take action constantly to try to mitigate the effects of wildfires, landslides, flooding etc. no one suggests that, because we are not responsible, we should simply ignore these events.

    the error many people seem to make is to say that the assignment of all responsibility for climate change to human activity is wrong. therefore, we are not responsible for the changes and, thus, have no responsibility to take any action in response. this is a thoroughly flawed syllogism. i don’t think anyone other than the inhofes of the world deny that at least some portion of the change is human caused and as a result, some portion of that change is susceptible to changes in human behavior.

    attacking scientists as fraudsters and conspirators is not intended to advance the debate over what we can and should do in response to climate change. it is intended to put that debate off limits and insist that business as usual can continue indefinitely with no negative consequences.

    finally, if we decide to take no action in response to climate change, we had better be right–100% right–because this is an issue as to which we are unlikely to get a do-over.

    1. Ann,

      Thank you for your comment. However, I do not see any relevance of it to this post.

      (1) “let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that some significant fraction of recent warming is not caused by human activity.”

      AR5 says 100%. I rely on them.

      (2) ” let’s further assume that, if the trend continues unabated, there will be very significant adverse effects”

      First, that is irrelevant to this post, which discusses how scientists can ethically communicate with the public. Second, that’s an indefensible assumption. Much like in 1900 calculating how soon our cities would be buried in horse dung. Tech and population trends provide the basis by which the IPCC makes projections, which is sensible.

      (3) “the error many people seem to make”

      The list of errors “many people” make is infinite. I’m only interested in those you believe are made in this post.

      (4) “attacking scientists as fraudsters and conspirators…”

      I don’t do so here or elsewhere. However, these posts clearly identify examples of inaccurate descriptions of climate science. That has several different bad effects.

      (5) “if we decide to take no action in response to climate change”

      Striking bold poses accomplishes nothing from a public policy perspective. There are hordes of people making bold statements about their causes. Science is one tool by which we evaluate claims.

      Corruption of science, as shown here, is a impediment to the actions you seek. Your tolerance for such things — perhaps you even cheer them — enables activist scientists to continuing doing so. I suggest asking yourself about your behavior before judging others.

  2. The extreme divide on popular AGW positions mirrors well the extreme polarity and unreality of the right and left in general. Given that CO2 is central to industrialism I’m tempted to say climate extremists really just dont want industrial order and what its come to imply, while climate deniers tend to want unabbated industrialism.

    1. roamer,

      “I’m tempted to say climate extremists really just dont want industrial order”

      We can only guess at people’s motives. However, I think that is unlikely to be so — except for the usual radical minority. Quite a few leaders on the Left have openly stated that they like climate policy because it allows a radical expansion of government regulation of the economy. IMO that explains much of the movement.

      The other large driver for extreme environmentalism is, I suspect, the “green religion”. The desire to seek the sacred — religiosity — always surfaces again after the old gods die.

  3. Well regardless of motives it seems the left will not get its wish anytime soon. Yet you remain very focused on rekindling the dialogue around models using a lower level of CO2 sensitivity, which many less extreme climate scientists seem to be in agreement on. What do you think needs to be done to prepare for a less dramatic human induced climate change?

    Have you considered lesser recognized models for AGW drivers? William Ruddimen’s “Plows,Plagues and Petroleum” comes to mind. It provides plausible testable model that identifies agriculture as a long term significant driver.

    Personally I think a deep rethink of monoculture idustrial agriculture may be a necessary part of the solution. I think a loss of faith in these systems provides significant animation to many extreme environmentalists and the anti CO2 ant industrialism camp. I think though it is industrialism and our scientific ecological knowledge that can come up with viable long term fixes to agriculture.

    1. roamer,

      “Yet you remain very focused on rekindling the dialogue around models using a lower level of CO2 sensitivity”

      I have never said anything remotely like that. I am not a climate scientist, and have no interest in technical discussion of models. Experience in my own field — finance — has shown me the futility of amateurs’ involvement in such things.

      Here is my recommendation for a first step to restarting the debate.

      “What do you think needs to be done to prepare for a less dramatic human induced climate change?”

      Here is a first step to restarting the debate. Nothing will be done until the policy debate is restarted — or until the weather gives an unambiguous answer.

      For ideas about public policy actions that can get bipartisan support see How climate change can help the GOP win in 2016.

      For a broader view of my recommendations see section (f) of The keys to understanding climate change.

  4. FM I apologize you have said nothing about supporting a new debate around lower CO2 sensitivities. I am guilty of trying to scan over too many different information sources and noticed your posts on climate change debates often cite the failure of IPCC accepted CO2 sensitivity models to predict previous 10 year temps. Bad assumption on my part, will try to read your previous posts more carefully to understand the grounds on which you hope to restart the climate change debate.

  5. I agree that the public discussion of climate change is flooded with hype on both sides of the issues. It’s difficult for the average person to get a genuinely objective assessment of the situation. Fortunately, if we set aside everything except the reports of reputable scientific organizations, we can get excellent information. But how many people visit the sites of the National Academy of Sciences or the American Association for the Advancement of Science?
    Lastly, a red-blooded, true-blue nit: you write that “much of the warming of the past two centuries is a natural recovery from the Little Ice Age”
    Climate has no springs; it doesn’t bounce. If climate cools, it’s for a physical reason; if climate warms, it’s for a physical reason. There are many factors at work, and CO2 emissions are only one of many factors. As AR5 says, only about half of the current bout of warming can be confidently assigned to CO2 emissions.

    1. Chris,

      “But how many people visit the sites of the National Academy of Sciences or the American Association for the Advancement of Science?”

      That’s the job of scientists, journalists, and science writers. Unfortunately too many of all these groups have abandoned the IPCC and major climate agencies for more lurid sources. Note the coverage of El Nino: the careful and moderate analysis of NOAA (which has proven more accurate than that of the alarmists) has been almost ignored.

      “Climate has no springs; it doesn’t bounce. If climate cools, it’s for a physical reason; if climate warms, it’s for a physical reason.”

      I don’t believe that “recovery” means what you think it means. The definition is “return to the average/normal”. The warming after the Little Ice Age was, as I said, literally a “natural recovery”. As for pointing out that there was a “physical reason”, that is what “natural means”. The alternatives would be “supernatural” or “anthropogenic.”

  6. Glacial growth and recession is not only a function of temperature. It can also be precipitation driven. The glaciers on Kilimanjaro and Franz Joseph/ Fox are the best known examples. For Franz Joseph, there is a known six year lag between the snowfall and terminal face position. Has the snowfall in the upper Sierra Nevadas changed much in the last 100 years? I know there were some big snowfalls there in the 1980s but I don’t know if the long term data is collected or trended.

  7. FM hindcast testing sounds like a very sensible step, very confused as to why there would be resistance or lack of previous decision to do so…
    I know your intent is to simply restart the debate, but I can’t resist another crackpot guess at deeper AGW extremist motives. Perhaps the scientific community is apalled by unabated often sensless resource consumptive habits of current economy and is instinctively grabbing for the main control lever, the left recognizes this control lever as well and supports the extremism pitch to grab the CO2 reigns. This threatens many values on the right not the least of which is tendency to support materialistic excess if desired and so they divorce themselves almost wholesale from the climate science. The resource binge continues and the scientists alarmism mounts, the left embraces the potential of control while the rights digs its heels in defending American excess petro and resource consumptive way of life.

    1. roamer,

      (1) “hindcast testing sounds like a very sensible step”

      You are either kidding or unaware of how models are designed and validated. Hindcasting using the data upon which the model was created proves nothing. Keeping data out of the sample is useful, but in climate the available instrument data is quite short (a decade to a century for most, paleoclimate proxies being either of too-low resolution or problematic for other reasons) — so any out-of-sample data will be far too brief.

      (2) “very confused as to why there would be resistance or lack of previous decision to do”

      I can make some logical *guesses* as to motives of scientists resisting testing of their models. I doubt that you are unable to do so, or even find it difficult to do so.

      (3) “I can’t resist another crackpot guess”

      That’s a harsh evaluation of your comment, but I will not dispute it.

      (4) “at deeper AGW extremist motives.”

      What are you talking about? It makes no sense in this context.

      (5) As for the rest of your comment, I’m uncertain what you’d give as supporting data — or if correct, it’s operational utility — or it’s relevance to anything I’ve said.

  8. I am a millennial doomer who skims lots of info and rarely takes the time to dig in deeply. In my defense I don’t have much time to do so. I schlep away at brain numbing jobs to pay off student loans and prepare to weather a financial depression. Plugging away at a smartphone between work tasks on a 12 hr shift does not make for well thought out responses.

    I thought the article linked described hindcasting previous models over 10-25 year periods but using actual not predicticted co2 emissions. You are right though that i am unaware in general of how such models are created and tested.

    I shouldn’t waste your time. I’ve seen very few blog writers actually take the time to field fair and fully thought out responses like yours. You are obviously quite earnest about restarting the climate change debate. I’m apathetic and overwhelmed by a longer list of problems that it seems our current system can not surmount. Most notably peak energy and a corporate run robotic revolution that threatens the utility and livilihood of the vast majority of people

    One reason though that I hazard stray guesses at the right and lefts divergence on AGW is to try to gain insight on their respective future bias. But yes I guess it’s a pretty futile game of taking shots in the dark. More likely I’m just a bored disengaged millennial gone galt indulging in futuristic doom porn because I can’t seem to find a path where my thoughts or decisions have much impact on my life.

    1. roamer,

      Your feelings didn’t just happen. Research has shown that your love of doomster porn and apathy are related — the former induces passivity. You have become an ideal citizen of New America, a pawn of the 1%. Content to let them rule, entertaining yourself with doomster porn, cheering your good guys and boosting the bad guys. But you can change. Not doing so is a choice; our forefathers did much under worse circumstances. Here is some material that can help.

      Collapsitarians and their doomster porn.

      Despair: so common these days, so good for the 1%.

      Becoming better informed won’t help. Here’s a small easy step towards political change.

  9. I don’t believe for a moment that we have anything to do with it, but if warmists are going to accuse us of being responsible for shrinking glaciers, what do they think is responsible for those that are currently growing/advancing?

      1. It’s my understanding that we’re (supposedly) responsible for the increase in CO2. I don’t see that as proof that we’re responsible for the warming. There is no way of knowing for sure whether it’s a natural continuation of the warming that was going on before or if the increase in CO2 is responsible for it.

      2. 4timesAyear,

        Attribution is the frontier in climate science. Determining the magnitude of the warming produce by increased CO2 is done using models, hence model validation is critical — and imo to date quite inadequate.

        There is no basis for assuming that the sensitivity to more CO2 is zero (i.e., no “greenhouse effect”). There are a wide range of estimates, although the mean estimate has been dropping.

  10. I don’t cheer any good guys or boo bad ones and my disengagement hasn’t always been so. Your suggestions for reengagement in “Becoming better informed won’t help.” do seem valid but also lacking of any directive, other than to try to ignite a more spirited engaged discourse.

    You can make it happen by asking those running the websites you read to make this change. Ask them if more information will change anybody’s minds, spur anyone into action, or make existing reform movements more effective. If not, ask them to try something new. Something offering hope, not just entertainment. Tells us what to do with the news. Discuss actions for citizens, rather than provide entertainment for peons.

    I think alot of people do try these things, but lacking any realistic reforms the dialogues and efforts quickly die out. The continued slide of the American middle class is IMO structural. Those jobs aren’t there and aren’t needed, automation, more global trade and a continued strengthening of capital will only exacerbate this. I thought that open source networks might be create naturally distributive economic systems but lyft, uber and airbnb make that look unlikely. Anyway I don’t think rekindling the right type of dialogue in itself creates opportunities we need to at least have an idea of what types of systems want to see first.

  11. From “Glaciers of the Sierra Nevada: Past, Present, and Future” by Emily Schultz, 2010 — A final research project report by a student in Geology 188 — Volcanoes of the Eastern Sierra Nevada — at Indiana U at Bloomington. Excerpt:

    ” During the late Holocene Epoch, several periods of glacial advance occurred worldwide. Geologic evidence indicates that glacial maxima occurred approximately 2200, 1600, 700, and 170-250 years B.P. [Bowerman (2006), as reported by Basagic (2008)].

    “Scientists believe that the glaciers found in California today were formed about 700 years ago during the Little Ice Age (Guyton, 1998). The Little Ice Age (LIA) refers to a cooler time period from 1250-1900 A.D. when glaciers in the northen hemisphere typically increased in area (Guyton, 1988)”.

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