For 35 years, a team of scientists have studied the decline of glaciers. What does their loss mean?

Walking the icy flanks of Mount Baker—an active volcano in Washington State and one of the highest peaks in the Cascade Range—is probably one of the most untainted wilderness experiences.

A high mountain glacier, in its frigid, deadly enormity, doesn’t feel much like a landscape meant for humans. In the European Alps, medieval myths held that glaciers carried curses and incarcerated the frozen souls of the damned. And yet, on a grand scale, where glaciers and humans coexist, our lives are entwined in ways we rarely realize.

During the last ice age, the glaciers of Alaska locked up so much water that the seas lowered enough to create a land bridge to Siberia and perhaps allowed the earliest passage of humans into North America.

Glaciers have carved out many of our mountain ranges, scoured out plains and prairies, and birthed rivers and lakes. Today, in many parts of the world, mountain glaciers preside over vast empires of fresh water that reach from the highest peaks to the coast: they dictate the flow of water downslope and influence the seasonal pulse of rivers and fish and the temperature and chemistry of streams and estuaries.

They supply water for drinking, irrigation, and hydropower dams. But as the world gets warmer, glaciers’ influence in many regions is waning.

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