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Ron Hustvedt

Ramsey, Minn.

Glaciers as sentinels of climate change

The author (right) with Wendell Tangborn (second from left), his wife Andrea (second from left) and family friend Matti Martin (left) at his home on Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle.

The author (right) with Wendell Tangborn (second from left), his wife Andrea (second from left) and family friend Matti Martin (left) at his home on Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Wendell Tangborn who is a renowned U.S. Geological Survey glaciologist, now retired, based on Vashon Island, Washington. He is originally from Minnesota and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. His life took him to the Pacific Northwest because there’s not much for a glacial scientist to study in Minnesota, no matter how cold it gets. 

Tangborn has over half a century of field knowledge with significant experience measuring glacier mass balance, runoff and related variables. If anyone questions the impact of glaciers on Minnesota, they should read on because our location in North America makes us particularly susceptible to climate change. We are also sitting in the middle of one of the largest supplies of freshwater in the world and the global population is thirsty, and getting thirstier. 

It was a great privilege to sit down with Tangborn and talk about the outlook for our future. I only wish the news was a bit brighter, but there are still things we can do as a society to prepare for what’s coming. The sooner we prepare, the better we can weather the challenges climate change will bring. Here’s the Q&A I had with Tangborn:

Q: In what ways are glaciers serving as a bellweather for climate change?

Tangborn: “The Earth’s 190,000 glaciers are sentinels of climate change and appear to be more sensitive to the climate than are humans.  But we have ignored what they are telling us.  Most of the world’s glaciers began changing in the late 1980s from relative stability to negative mass balances.   Mass balance is the difference between ice gain derived from snow accumulation and ice loss from snow and ice melting.  Thus, negative balances mean a glacier is losing mass from melting faster than it is gaining mass as snow.  (See for detailed explanations and examples.) 

The relatively abrupt change to negative glacier mass balances strongly suggests a climate tipping point, when the climate changes from one stable state to another. 

Q: That term “tipping point” comes up often when talking about climate change, but many speculate as to what that point will look like. What evidence is there to support these claims?

Tangborn: “There is other compelling evidence to indicate a climate tipping point has been reached.  One of the most critical is the loss of the floating sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean.  In 2014, the late-summer extent of sea ice in the north polar seas was the lowest since satellite measurements began in 1979.  Before 1979, evidence based on shipping and whaling charts suggests it has not been this low for at least hundreds of years. Paleo climatologists believe that Arctic sea ice cover last melted completely during summers about 125,000 years ago, during a warm period between ice ages.”

Q: How will the loss of Arctic sea ice impact the world? 

Tangborn: “Reduction of northern-hemisphere sea ice is a positive feedback mechanism:   More incoming solar radiation or insolation (light) is absorbed into darker ocean water instead of being reflected by ice and then re-radiated into the atmosphere as infrared radiation (heat). This, in turn, reduces the extent of the annual northern-hemisphere snow cover, which further accelerates global warming. A related positive feedback mechanism that could be even more environmentally devastating is the release of methane from permafrost and seafloor hydrates as the ocean warms.”

Q: What other evidence is there that we’ve already experienced a tipping point?

Tangborn: “Another tipping-point indicator is the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, which have shown signs of disintegrating during the past two decades. Just partial melting of these ice sheets will raise sea level several meters.”

Q: Much of this has been in the works for over 30 years. What’s the impact of a lack of action when we first saw these signs? 

Tangborn: “If the warning glaciers gave us in the 1980s had been heeded, and a crash program to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy had been initiated then, the climate-change crises we are facing now would be less acute.  Transitions to alternative energy such as solar and wind are underway now, but we’re late getting started and are not yet substantial enough to reduce the rate of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. These emissions have resulted in releasing into the atmosphere about 40 billion tons of carbon per year, and the rate of emissions was increasing by about two pecent annually in 2014. It should be declining if we want to avert a humanitarian crisis caused by food shortages in an out-of-control climate.

Q: Sounds pretty bleak. What can be done at this point?

Tangborn: “The implications are stark. For civilization to survive, fossil fuel burning must taper off dramatically and be replaced with renewable sources of energy.  The United Nation’s International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) could provide guidance on how this might be accomplished.  The panel is composed of climatologists and other scientists from more than 100 member countries.  Thousands of scientists from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC on a voluntary basis.

The recent visit of President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and Interior Secretary Jewell to Alaska to observe glaciers and the effect of climate change symbolically emphasized the problem of global climate warming and its impact on the well-being of humans. The GLACIER conference as it was called was organized to increase awareness of the environmental problems that face Alaskans such as coastal erosion, wildfires, sea level rise and permafrost thawing – problems that the entire world will soon be facing.”

Tangborn lives on Puget Sound on an island made of glacial till. That large body of water is fed by glacial meltwater so he is among the many who are seeing incremental changes creeping up. The impact of global warming is already mounting in many places and that will only increase. Will many Americans continue to deny that it’s a problem, only to realize too late that they could have been better prepared?  

Planet Earth will survive either way and the cyclical nature of the geologic time scale will allow for the pendulum to swing. The problem is that geologic time gets counted in millennia as human time is counted in seconds. The clock is ticking. 

Tangborn’s parting comments were, “Mountain glaciers and humans have coexisted for roughly 200,000 years, waxing and waning but surviving as entities. It is ironic that the impending demise of glaciers is being driven by human activities. The fate of both humans and glaciers will depend on drastically reducing carbon dioxide emissions during the next decade.  Glaciers began sending mankind a warning that the climate was changing three decades ago. Are we ready to pay attention to them now?”

Let’s hope we are. This is a human problem, not a partisan issue to be swept under the rug or argued into a grave. The forecast is bleak indeed if we continue to do little to nothing. 

Experience the multi-faceted nature of bowfishing

            Bowfishing is a combination of hunting and fishing, and it’s the fastest growing sport in the archery world right now. It’s also the hottest new event at the 2015 Game Fair going on this weekend and next at the Armstrong Ranch Kennels in Ramsey.

            The “Ultimate Carp Shoot” presented by Edge Bow Fishing has been a big hit throughout the first weekend of Game Fair said Curt Cich, owner of Edge Bow Fishing. “A lot of people have heard of bowfishing, but never tried it before—out here they get to use our equipment and see how much fun it is, not to mention how addicting a sport it is,” he said.

            Besides just for fun, there’s a competitive element to this event located along Eddy Lake within the Game Fair grounds. For a fee of $5,  bowfishermen and women who hit two targets, with three attempts, are entered into a drawing where the grand prize is $500 cash and a bowfishing trip for four.

            Second place is a $600 bowfishing platform and third is a $100 Cabela’s gift card. Products from Cajun Archery and Portram will also be given to the winners.

            You don’t have to be a seasoned bowfisher to participate and you don’t even need your own equipment. “We have bows and equipment for people and the bows are adjustable from 15 to 50 pounds of draw meaning most anybody can give it a try,” Cich said.


       Nine-year-old Will Cederstrand of Ramsey was at Game Fair on Friday taking his first few shots as a bowfisherman. He managed to hit one of the foam carp targets concealed anywhere from one foot to four feet underwater.

            “That was a lot of fun,” Cederstrand said after his turn was up.

            Cich said his company and guiding business Edge Bowfishing has been exhibiting at Game Fair for the past three years but he wanted something more interactive this year. “Everybody always asked how do you do it and I had my boat out here to show them, but bowfishing is like anything where you have to try it to get it—this is the closest we can come to the real thing.”

            Four years ago Cich started Edge Bowfishing as a guide business for bowfishing enthusiasts in the Twin Cities. He had one boat that first year (his) and one guide (himself). Now he has a fleet of six boats and 10 guides who take clients out all over the metro.

            That first year he had 30 clients and thought he was doing pretty good. The second year there were 100, followed by 150 in the third year and more than 200 this year.

            Cich has been bowfishing himself for eight years. He started after a friend called and said he needed to try this sport. “I was already an avid hunter so I didn’t think I had the time to do something else but bowfishing combines all the elements of every kind of hunting I’ve ever done.”

            He likes the spot and stalking aspect of the sport, being on the water, being out when its quiet, having lots of activity, and being at the moment of the shot all night long. “It’s the speed of pheasant hunting, the strategy of duck hunting, and carp are about as wily as whitetail,” Cich said.

            Carp are an invasive species in Minnesota waters, and they are beginning to catch on to this bowfishing sport. “Five years ago you could go right up and shoot them, now they see the light and know that the great white shaft of death is coming soon after,” he said, referencing the high-visibility white colored arrows used while bowfishing.

            The sport is done at night meaning there are rarely any other boats on the water. Not only that, but the use of artificial lights is perfectly legal meaning that a bowfisher can see down into the entire water column. “It’s not uncommon to see 50 to 60 muskie a night along with northern, bass, walleye. It’s a visually entertaining sport because you are always seeing something.”

            Carp bowfishing is not just a for fun kind of venture, it’s also good for lake water quality and provides a potent fertilizer for organic farmers.

            “We are improving the water quality of lakes by removing these evasive species that stir up the lake bottom and reduce water clarity,” he said. “I also give the carp we shoot to an organic farmer to uses them for his vegetables.”

            Many who go bowfishing use the carp they shoot to fertilize their trees and gardens. “Eventually you run out of places to dig but a lot of hog farmers will gladly take them along with any farmer interested in free fertilizer,” Cich said.  

            Politics is part of everything and bowfishing for carp is no exception. Carp fishing is not a sport that can be enjoyed everywhere because of discharge laws that were written before bowfishing was much of a sport.

            “The funs we earn from the Ultimate Carp Shoot at Game Fair are going to be used to help us open up bowfishing opportunities in the metro area by advocating local governments to adjust their policies to be accommodating of bowfishing,” Cich said.

            He has already started an organization for getting that message out to effected areas called the Minnesota Bowfishing Association. The group has a Facebook page and can also be found at

            The Ultimate Carp Challenge runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Game Fair on Sunday, August 9. It will continue throughout the second weekend of Game Fair starting August 14, 15 and 16. For directions and other information on Game Fair visit 

            “This event really gives people the sense of what it’s like to shoot.”