Man of the Mountain


Paul Kennard ’71 works to mitigate the impact of climate change on Mount Rainier

No mountain in the continental United States holds more ice than Washington’s Mount Rainier. Gathered from its 29 named glaciers, the frozen coating would form a cube measuring a mile in each direction, enough ice to fill a line of dump trucks, bumper to bumper, to the moon and back 23 times.

We know all this because, in 1981, Paul Kennard ’71, then a young glaciologist working for the U.S. Geological Survey, measured the ice and calculated its volume. The dramatic explosion of nearby Mount St. Helens the previous year had prompted the agency to investigate the flood risk should any of the Cascade region’s other ice-covered volcanoes erupt. Kennard, then a master’s candidate at the University of Washington, was helicoptered onto Rainier’s slopes and used ice radar to map the glaciers in three dimensions.

But as it turns out, Mount Rainier was facing a more insidious threat. Forty years ago, climate change was just a little-discussed theory, but today, notes Kennard, who served as Mount Rainier National Park’s geomorphologist from 2002 until his recent retirement, the area “is showing some of the most direct, catastrophic effects of climate change in the United States, with floods, debris flows, and loss of old growth forests.” In the past two decades, the total glacial volume has decreased 3 percent per year on average, some 10 times the fastest historical rate. “When I first did the measuring of the glaciers in the early 1980s, I knew about climate change but we hadn’t really seen it on the ground or taken it as a reality,” says Kennard, who still volunteers for the park. “Since 2002, it became very apparent that climate change was real.”

As a fluvial geomorphologist—a specialist in rivers and their impact on the environment—Kennard oversaw Mount Rainier’s flood control initiatives, leading his research team of so-called “river rats” as they devised strategies and engineered barriers to protect the park’s access roads, trees, and infrastructure from rising rivers, glacial sediment, and the increasingly severe storms associated with climate change. Of particular recent concern are the devastating flash floods known as jökulhlaups, which burst from melting glaciers like mountain tsunamis.

Kennard’s efforts have left him with a deep appreciation for the park and its legacy. Years ago, he had the chance to explore the once world-famous Paradise Ice Caves, whose gleaming blue walls and miles of tunnels drew millions of visitors in the 1970s, before they were closed and eventually melted away. He knows well the area’s majestic old growth forests and vibrant wildflower meadows, which erupt in springtime color. And he has felt the scale of the park’s history as the retreating glaciers reveal land that has been covered for 10,000 years, exposing long-buried artifacts, such as airplane parts from decades-old crashes.

It’s perhaps fitting that, as a student at Williston Academy, another mountain helped stir his love of the outdoors. Raised in Briarcliff Manor, New York, Kennard arrived on campus for his sophomore year, following his older brother, Mark ’70, somewhat against his will. “I was just sort of a mopey kid,” he explains. “But when I look back, I got a very strong education, both in liberal arts and on the technical side, that really served me well when I went to Tufts University and then grad school at the University of Washington.” He played lacrosse and football, and won a history prize, but what stayed with him was skiing on Mount Tom. “I remember that very fondly,” he notes, adding that he still skis today.

Indeed, after earning his degree in applied physics at Tufts in 1975, he headed west to be a ski bum in Aspen. One day, on a road through a mountain valley, he noticed trees knocked down in an unusual pattern. “I was confused, and then I realized there had been a massive snow avalanche,” he recalls. “That started this great interest I had in snow avalanches. And that was my first entree into the physical processes that form what the earth looks like”—the scientific field of geomorphology.

Pursuing his fascination for avalanches, Kennard eventually sought out and studied with noted avalanche expert and glaciology pioneer Edward LaChapelle at the University of Washington, earning his master’s in geophysics in 1983. That year he also married his wife, Jennifer, and they still reside in the Seattle home they bought in 1988.

After publishing his Cascade volcano research, Kennard pursued a range of other jobs before being hired by the Park Service in 2002. To pay off his student debt, he worked for Texaco as an explorationist, helping identify new areas to drill. While he still likes the sound of that title, he’d prefer to forget the work (“I didn’t really have an environmental ethic developed at the time,” he explains.) Next, he served as geologist for the Tulalip Indian Tribes of Washington, helping them protect their native salmon fishery from the impacts of forestry, then as a staff scientist for the nonprofit Washington Forest Law Center. As his ecological sensibility evolved, he helped co-found the nonprofit 10,000 Years Institute, a scientific and educational institution, and he remains on the group’s board. Today, Kennard and other scientists regard the Mount Rainier ecosystem as an early warning system for the broader threats of climate change, a 14,000-foot canary in our global coal mine. The park’s dynamic environment is allowing the normally slow processes of geological change to be visible in the span of a human lifetime. In his own 40-year relationship with the park, Kennard has been just such a witness to those changes, and yet he has not given up on humanity’s ability to find solutions.

“Overall, I’m still optimistic that as a society we can come out OK,” he says. “But we better do it awfully soon.”


Glacier FAQ

Why are glaciers important?

Glaciers on Mount Rainier are a crucial source of fresh water in the dry summer months, Kennard explains. “They are great for a water supply. And great for agriculture and irrigation. And since hot water is bad for fish, they are good for fish because the water is nice and cold.”

How do you measure glaciers?

Glaciers are constantly advancing and retreating based on the interplay of winter snowfall and summer melting, Kennard says. Scientists have developed a number of ways to measure the changes, using high-tech approaches such as radar and lidar, but also old-school techniques such as drilling metal poles through the snow. Researchers also document glacial movement with photography and drones.

How much have the Mount Rainier glaciers melted?

Ice levels are at historic lows and the rate of loss is accelerating, Kennard says. Between 1936 and 1990, the glaciers lost one quarter of their ice, and they lost another 20 percent in 2003 alone. The visual retreat is “very obvious,” he says. The south-facing Nisqually Glacier, the most studied glacier in the United States, “lost well over a mile and a half of length in the last hundred years.” Several lower glaciers on Rainier have disappeared altogether, along with the Paradise Ice Caves.

How does climate change impact Mount Rainier National Park?

Several climate-related factors are combining to threaten the park’s environment and infrastructure, Kennard notes. The increased glacial run-off adds sediment to stream beds, causing them to overflow their channels, wash out roads, and flood forests. The exposed deglaciated slopes feed destructive debris flows. And both are made worse by storms that have become more frequent and stronger. “Six of the largest storms ever in the Northwest have happened in the last 25 years,” he notes. Hundred-year floods are now occurring on the Nisqually River every 14 years. As a result, says Kennard, “every road system except one at Mount Rainier is either closed, maybe forever, or in very high hazard.”

What about glaciers elsewhere?

“I’d say 99.9 percent of the glaciers are wasting rapidly now,” Kennard says. “Along with melting ice sheets, that’s why we have concerns about global sea level rising.”