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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Sally Jewell Straps On Snowshoes To Offer Perspective On Climate Change

Hot on the heels of President Obama’s latest State of the Union address, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came home to Washington to meet with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service.

But this wasn’t your usual boardroom PowerPoint session.

The group snowshoed out to a snowy overlook to check out the Nisqually Glacier. It’s the source of the Nisqually River, which drains from the slopes of Mount Rainier out into Puget Sound and supplies drinking water to several communities along the way. The glacier has receded by almost half a mile.

At one point, Jewell stood next to Paul Kennard, a scientist with the National Park Service, as he pointed to the vast valley where the Nisqually glacier used to be.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Don’t let the snow fool you. In the mid-1800s the Nisqually Glacier filled this valley down to the bridge. Now it’s receded up around the bend and out of sight from this stretch of the access road. ", "fid": "8758", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201402/nisquallyglacier.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Ashley Ahearn"}]]“In 1840 the ice was at the top of that, which is really hard to believe,” Kennard said, gesturing at the walls of the empty, snow covered valley behind him. “The ice is mechanically buttressing this slope so when it leaves, it’s much more prone to failure.”

You might think of glaciers as icy corsets, locking in mountain mud. When the ice melts away, the mud is free to slide off the slopes and down into nearby rivers, like the Nisqually.

The glaciers of Mount Rainier have decreased in area by almost 20 percent in the past 100 years or so. Glaciers in Washington state’s Olympic and North Cascades national parks are down more than 50 percent over a similar period of time.

Scientists believe the flooding and mudslides that hit that river in 2006, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage, may have been exacerbated by the warming climate, changing precipitation patterns and receding glaciers.

[asset-audio[{"description": "KUOW reporter Ashley Ahearn interviews Sally Jewell while snowshoeing on Mount Rainier.", "fid": "8762", "uri": "public://201402/20140206_AA_Jewel2Way_0.mp3"}]]The Department of the Interior issues the leases to mine coal and other fossil fuels, which climate scientists consider to be a large part of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But Jewell said that the department has also been supporting grants in conservation and renewable energy projects on public land. “The president has made it clear that you can’t switch from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy based economy over night, but we can all conserve starting now,” she said.

Jewell said the president is committed to tackling climate change.

“He’s been very consistent in helping his cabinet understand that this is one of his top priorities to address while we’re here because it’s what the next generation expects of us and we’re in a position to do something about it,” she said.

However, Jewell said that those that want to put a price on carbon should focus their attention more on the legislative branch of government. “I think if the public believes that a price on carbon is a way to address climate change then they should be making that clear to their elected officials,” she said.

“This is the sort of thing that’s done by Congress. It’s not a thing that can be done through the executive branch, so if people feel strongly about that, they should make their voices heard with their elected leaders.”