The water is never warm at 11,400 feet, but this remote lake seemed even colder than most.

“The first time you go up, you have to jump in. Park rules,” said Mike Thomas, of Fort Collins, who hikes here a half-dozen times a year. “It’s not bad. You get in and the shock is so great, the shock isn’t over by the time you get out.”

I believed him. The 40-degree water was ice two months ago and will be ice again in a few months.

But it’s not as cold up here as it used to be.

That’s why I came — not to swim, but to experience Andrews Glacier, a relic of a bygone age. It is the largest glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park, a remnant of the earth-shaping forces that carved out the park’s stunning peaks and valleys.

Andrews Glacier 1916 National Snow and Ice Data Center
Andrews Glacier was larger in 1916. Photo Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

See it now, because scientists say this and the other glaciers in Colorado may disappear in our lifetimes. Andrews Glacier has lost 35 percent of its mass since 1900, much of that in recent decades.

Fifteen thousand years ago, these mountains, like much of Colorado, were locked in massive glaciers. The Ice Age ended and the ice retreated. By the time white settlers arrived, they were “cirque glaciers,” ice sheets lingering in high-altitude bowls at the heads of valleys, protected from sunlight and warm temperatures and fed by the heavy snow at such elevations.

These isolated locations make them hard to reach and to see from a distance. Many people don’t even know Colorado has a dozen named glaciers, all in Rocky Mountain National Park and on the Front Range.

“They’ve been there a long time. They’ve been a lot bigger than they are. They’re relics of their former selves,” said Andrew Fountain, professor of geology and geography at Portland State University, who has studied Colorado’s glaciers.

The largest and southern-most is Arapahoe Glacier, west of Boulder near the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Fountain said it has lost 40 percent of its size since 1900, the ice melted into the water supply of the city of Boulder by warmer temperatures and less snowfall.

Glaciers are shrinking across the globe, but Colorado’s are very susceptible to climate change. It’s known as “retreating,” when glaciers melt back quicker than they slide down a mountainside.

The glaciers retreated during a warm period through the 1940s, fluctuated through the ’50s and ’60s and grew in the 1970s and ’80s. Since the 1990s, the glaciers of Rocky Mountain National Park have retreated to the smallest sizes ever recorded.

Ted Scambos, researcher with the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, points to climate change. In Colorado Springs, the past decade has seen four of the 10 warmest years on record, including 2011, the hottest ever. He is 56 and predicts some glaciers will disappear in his lifetime. Dust blown from the Great Basin, kicked up by development and livestock herds, has contributed to the glaciers’ decline, he said. Dust absorbs the sun’s heat and melts ice and snow.

Some glaciers were once popular attractions. In the early 19th century, people would day-trip from Denver to take guided hikes to Arapahoe Glacier. These days, you can view it only from a distance because of water-supply regulations. The easiest glacier to visit, St. Mary’s Glacier off Interstate 70, isn’t a glacier at all, having been downgraded to a snow field.

It takes long hikes through rugged terrain to reach Colorado’s glaciers. Andrews Glacier is the easiest to reach; a five-mile hike gaining 2,200 feet of elevation. It’s often visited on a loop hike from Bear Lake and over Flattop Mountain, and is considered the safest glacier in the park to climb.

Why would someone work so hard to visit?

“I think when you can see the glacier from the lake, when you can see the snow from down below, the challenge is to get up here and see it,” said Tom Lazure, of Nebraska, whose family made the hike. “This is the start of the river. It’s just beautiful.”

Glaciers aren’t a crucial aspect of Colorado’s ecology, but without them mountain streams could run dry in late summer, said Fountain.

“It doesn’t mean anything, really, to the city of Boulder, but for high-alpine ecosystems, these are very stable sources of water during droughts. In late summertime, these guys are pumping out water after all the seasonal snow has disappeared,” he said.

But Colorado would lose something less tangible if its glaciers disappeared.

“We’ve got to expect that if we stay in a warmer climate, we’re going to see a drier Colorado, a Colorado that looks more like our neighbors to the south or west, Utah and New Mexico, than we’re used to seeing in Colorado,” said Scambos, with the University of Colorado. “It’s part of the consequences of climate change. It’s a kind of choice that we’re making about how we want to manage, nationally and locally, the landscape and the planet.”

Lazure remembers coming here as a kid in the 1960s. While he can’t recall how much the glacier has changed, he said it would be a shame if it were gone.

“People will never get a chance to see it in person. Pictures? It’s not the same.”

*Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Gazette.com in 2012.

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