Idaho’s last glacier is gone, I think.
The Otto Glacier has been called the last remaining glacier in Idaho since the 1980s. The last vestige of an ancient ice age was located in south central Idaho’s Lost River Range, tucked into the north slope of Mt. Borah, Idaho’s highest peak.
Retired Boise State University professor Monte Wilson was its discoverer and he named it after his colleague and the glacier’s co-discoverer geologist Bruce Otto. Wilson annually visited the glacier in the 1980s.
When I talked to him in 2007 about the glacier he was unsure if it still existed. Even in the 1980s the Otto glacier was small and only a remnant of its former size.
The Otto glacier was in what is known as the Rock Creek Cirque, according to Robert K. Moseley, who proposed in 1992 to protect the area because of its rare plants. Borah Peak rises 2,000 feet out of the cirque and on this steep wall lies a permanent snow field.
The Otto Glacier was tucked in a depression at the base of the wall, Moseley said, quoting Otto’s 1976 and 1977 papers.
“In 1975 measurements, the glacier was about 1,300 feet long and 1,000 feet wide at the widest point,” Moseley wrote. “Using seismic equipment, ice thickness was found to vary from 210 feet directly below the firn line to 60 feet near the toe of the glacier.”
The snow field feeds several springs at the base of the slopes but there is no glacial lake like in many other cirques in Idaho’s alpine regions. The elevation rises from 9,400 feet at the treeline to the top of Borah at 12,662 feet, he said.
I contacted BSU geologist Jen Pierce, who was leading a research team in the Lost River Range in 2007. Pierce was unaware of the Otto glacier and skeptical of its existence. She said all she saw on Borah were permanent snow fields.
If its true that Otto Glacier was still around in the 1990s but now is gone then it is another sign of the warming of the planet that more than 2,500 scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say is likely due to the burning of fossil fuels. In nearby Glacier Park in Montana scientists predict its glaciers will be gone in two decades so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Idaho’s lone glacier melted away when we weren’t looking.
Scientists say a lot of things we value could disappear in the next few decades no matter what we do to combat climate change. Perhaps the Otto Glacier should become a reminder of to us that we don’t always know what we’ve got until it’s gone.