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  • Writer's pictureEd Sherline

Knife Point Glacier

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

Knife Point Glacier, Wind River Range, WY, 8/2/20, Ed Sherline

1. Introduction. The horses of the Wind River Shoshone would not be able to cross Knife Point Glacier today. In the 18th and 19th centuries the tribe exploited this tenuous but manageable route through the Continental Divide of the Wind River Range to connect the valleys of the Green and the Wind Rivers and their people who lived on either side (McCarthy, 2012). Two hundred years ago a thick layer of snow covered this shallow cirque even in the late summer, crevasse free and easy to traverse, at least in the mornings before the crusty surface turned to slush.

These days, once the last remaining seasonal snow melts off, typically by midsummer, good timing would not be any help crossing the remnants of this glacier with pack animals. The severe thinning has brought to light its rocky base layer, like a neglected road whose asphalt has worn away. The packhorses of today’s outfitters are impressive in their ability to go up and down steep trails with precisely memorized hoof placements while fully loaded. But even those horses cannot safely travel on the loose and unstable terrain of what is now little more than a basin of glacial moraine. The Earthwalk Press map for the Northern Wind River Range indicates that Indian Pass is “not recommended for livestock.” What this really means is that crossing Knife Point Glacier is not recommended for livestock.

2. Context. I am engaged in a multi-year project to rephotograph the glaciers of the Wind River Range. Though there are other early photographs of some of the Wind River glaciers, I am using as my benchmark ones take in 1950 by the glaciologist Mark Meier (Meier, 1951). Meier’s photographs provide the most comprehensive and careful documentation of the glaciers at an earlier climatic period, before the impact of human caused climate warming could be seen on these glaciers. I'm trying to photographically enshrine the damage that humans have done to these glaciers as a way of paying my respects to them.

3. The dynamics of names. The origins story of the name "Knife Point Glacier" is a study in how geographical features obtained their current names and how settler culture erased and replaced the Indigenous culture in these mountains.

It is clear, evident, obvious, plain as day that up until the late 19th century the Eastern Shoshone had an intimate presence in the Wind River Mountains, including the area of Knife Point glacier. I learned this from the first published guidebook of the range, Kenneth Henderson's The Wind River Range of Wyoming, initially published in the 1932 Appalachian Mountain Club Bulletin. For his history of the native pathways through the Winds, Henderson relied heavily on personal communications with C. C. Moore, the son of the first Post Trader at Fort Washakie and the first Indian Trader on the Shoshone Reservation (Henderson, 1933). Moore told Henderson of the Shoshone use of the pass above Knifepoint glacier, as well as of their crossing the glacier itself as part of the trail that connected the Eastern Shoshone with the clan west of the divide. Vestiges of their rock construction of this pathway, both before and after Knifepoint glacier, can still be seen today. Yet Henderson records no information about what the Shoshone called the glacier or pass or the pathway. Most likely Henderson's source, Moore, did not know the native names for these prominent features.

If the Shoshone names for what are called Knife Point Mountain and Glacier were to have been preserved by settler culture, it would have had to start earlier than the 1906 United States Geological Survey party, which resulted in the first topographic map depicting glaciers, the 1909 Fremont Peak Map (DeVisser & Fountain, 2015), which enshrines “Knife Point” as the name of the mountain but not yet the glacier. It would have had to start with the famous Hayden Surveys of 1877 and 1878 (ibid). They would have had to interview Shoshone tribal members who had used this path. Instead, following USGS convention, the glacier received its name from the mountain that is its most significant source of snow and protection. And the mountain received its initial baptism as "Knife Point," Henderson notes, "due to the many pinnacles on the ridge" (Henderson, 1933).

By the time Meier was working on his glaciological study of the Winds, twenty years after Henderson's guidebook, the transmission of these names was established: "The name Knife Point Glacier (from Knife Point Mountain) has been taken from Henderson (1933, p. 356). No other published name or any consistent local usage has been found." (Meier, 1951). By 1950 it is not surprising that Meier would find no Indian name. Legally mandated segregation of Indians and Settlers had been going on since 1868, with the establishment of the Wind River Indian Reservation. Segregation would have meant that for Meier, "local usage" was limited to white people, such as the shopkeepers in Burris, WY and the mountaineer Floyd Wilson, who ran the summer camp in the meadow below Dinwoody Glacier that Meier used as his base while on his field study.

4. The appreciation of nature. The primary reason I'm seeking out the glaciers is to appreciate them. What is required for the appreciation that I desire? Do I need to walk slowly past them, stopping occasionally to study them, like viewing paintings hanging at an art museum? Walk on the glacier? Drink its water? Camp on it (not feasible, since most of these glaciers are at an angle). Do I need to photograph it, or just be present?

Once home from this trip, my philosopher’s brain goes into overdrive thinking about the appreciation of nature. Is there a correct way to appreciate the glaciers of the Winds? Is it taking pleasure in the lingering beauty their sadly dwindling forms still offer? Is it being emotionally awed by their power? Is it possessing a glaciologist’s understanding of how glaciers work? An anthropologist’s understanding of the role of these glaciers in the lives of the earliest indigenous people in the region? Is it immersing myself as much as I can in the experience of the glaciers? Is it seeing them as mysterious entities very much aloof and indifferent to humans? Is it beginning to live within their geological time? For learning that these differing views each have their advocates, I am indebted to a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article (Carlson, 2020). I have finally figured out that for me, it is all of these, though it begins with immersion. During my photographic trips, it is walking on the glaciers, boots plunging into their snow and wading across their streams and swamps, the sun nearly blinding in its reflection, drinking their silt-laden water, scrambling back and forth over their moraines to find the points where Meier stood. Immersion leads to experiences and responses. And then, once home, there is study of the science and culture.

Though I'm a professional philosopher, my approach to appreciating these glaciers, and the entire mountain environment, is definitively not philosophical. I don't begin with reflection, trying to figure out the best theoretical account of the appreciation of nature, and then let that determine the character of my engagement with the range. Rather, I begin with urges and action, the urge to backpack and photograph amongst the glaciers, follow through on that urge, and then retroactively, in the comfort of my study, designate that as how I understand the appreciation of nature.

Place where the northern and southern lobes once met.

5. One into two. Knife Point was the southernmost glacier that Meier studied. Once down on it, I turn sharp north, and ascend along its protected western slope where there are still thick and crumpled snowdrifts filling the angle between the mountain wall of the divide and the glacier floor. Meier described Knife Point as composed of a southern lobe shaped more like a cirque and a northern lobe shaped more like a valley, their ice flows conjoined in the middle. Meier predicted that due to thinning, the lobes would separate at this meeting point (Meier, 1951). Zig zagging up the steep connecting snow, I see first-hand that Meier is right. I'm not stepping up glacial ice so much as snow covered rock. The United States Geological Survey codified this separation in 1968, recognizing the northern lobe as its own glacier with its own name, Bull Lake (U.S. Geological Survey, 1968). What was once one is now two, and will eventually be so many small snow fields, counting them will be pointless.

6. Signs of decline. Knife Point glacier is disappearing. "Receding" is the technical term glaciologists use for when outputs exceed inputs--recession isn't good for either glaciers or economies (Benn and Evans, p.4). One sign of its recession is thinning, which is what has caused the separation of Knife Point's two lobes. Another major sign of Knife Point's recession is that it is retreating (it is impossible not to think of a retreating army in the face of the enemy onslaught). Retreat is when the terminal edge, such as its snout, moves upslope to a higher elevation.

A Scientific American article says that Knife Point is one of the fastest retreating glaciers in the range (Storrow, 2017). Meier noticed in 1950 that it had “retreated considerably from its maximum extent in the Little Ice Age” (Meier, 1951, p. 67). He estimated that from about 1880 to 1950 it lost over 16% of its area (Meier, 1951). That melting has only speeded up since then. It underwent a steep decline from 1950 through 1970, and then its steepest melting since the late 1990’s. It melted three times faster from 1999 to 2015 than from 1966 to 1999 (DeVisser & Fountain, 2015; Storrow, 2017).

Knife Point Glacier, Mark F. Meier's 1950 photograph is L., Sherline's 2020 photograph is R. The southern lobe (Knife Point glacier proper) is above the black line.

7. Side to side comparison of photos. Neil Humphrey, a glaciologist familiar with the range, estimates from the 1950/2020 pair that the glacier has lost at least 50% of its mass (the total amount of snow and ice in the glacier). More disheartening, when I follow up he tells me that “This glacier was pretty close to glaciologically dead in the 50s, and sure looks dead now” (personal communication).

The term “dead” applied to glaciers was not in my vocabulary before Humphrey’s analysis of my rephotographs. To explain a dead glacier, we need to begin with the distinction scientists draw between glaciers and perennial snow and ice fields. The difference is movement: the snow or ice of a glacier moves; not so for a perennial snow field (DeVisser & Fountain, 2015). A dead glacier is a perennial snow and ice field that was once a glacier.

What are the signs that a glacier has died? Ground observations include direct measurement of movement, the presence of crevasses (though according to Humphrey, a dead glacier might retain crevasses), and fine-grained sediment in the glacial streams (DeVisser & Fountain, 2015). A more remote way of figuring this out, which might be roughly inferred by comparing land-based photographs of the glacier over time, is if the glacier has significantly thinned and the surface slope of the ice decreased, since then there is not enough mass at a steep enough angle to slide (Humphrey personal communication, DeVisser & Fountain, 2015).

8. The season of dead glaciers. If you were to view this glacier in early June, once the last snowstorm has dropped its load, you would not be able to tell that it is a dead glacier. The seasonal snow makes the glacier appear thick. No moraine pokes through. And you can't easily see the extent of the glacier's recession. You can remain happily ignorant that beneath the blanket of snow is just a static patch of snow and ice, no longer a dynamic system. (Scientists speak of this as “confounding effects of seasonal snow”). You can only see the seriousness of the change late in the season, once the seasonal layer of snow has melted off (if in fact it does), revealing the permanent snow and ice.

9. How does climate warming kill a glacier? Forgive my delving into this, but I need to know this for myself, and I’m captivated by the science. It is easy to start with two syllogisms. The first: Heat energy melts snow and ice. A glacier is snow and ice. Therefore, heat energy melts glaciers. The second syllogism: Climate warming increases heat energy. Heat energy melts glaciers. Therefore, climate warming melts glaciers. And if that melting continues over enough years, eventually the glacier will have too little mass to slide, and so will die.

Even without being a glaciologist, I can immediately appreciate that these explanatory syllogisms are too simple. Take the second. Yes, climate warming increases glacier melting, but there are other conditions that can compensate for melting, conditions that can be enhanced by climate warming, and so we can't immediately conclude that climate warming kills glaciers. If a glacier gets enough new snow, even though there is melting, the mass balance will be positive and there will still be growth. So, it isn't solely melting due to heat that causes glacier death. It is when climate warming changes enough variables in the area over a sufficient period of time so that new snow cannot keep up with the melting.

An overly simplistic facet of the first syllogism is that heat energy melts glaciers. To explain I can revisit tenth grade chemistry. There are three different ways heat transfer might occur from the sun to a glacier: conduction, radiation, and convection. Conduction happens when a solid material, such as a rock buttress that has been heated by the sun, melts the edge of the glacier (photo of Grasshopper glacier). Radiation happens when the electromagnetic waves of the sun hit the glacier surface, melting it. Convection happens when the sun heats the air circulating immediately above the glacier, baking it.

Climate warming melts glaciers primarily through convection heating, both directly of the glacier and indirectly of the rocks that touch the glacier. Climate warming doesn't necessarily kill glaciers through radiant heat, since warming might increase cloud cover and so decrease radiant heat. Climate warming doesn't mean sunnier days. So, if we're looking for the smoking gun that climate warming wields to thin and recede Knife Point Glacier to the point of death, it is convection heating.

The prominent role that convection plays in melting glaciers is the reason why we should not think of it as like melting an ice cube on a hot sidewalk. Most of the work of melting the ice cube is done by conduction of heat between the sidewalk and the ice cube. A better analogy is melting an ice cube in a convection oven set to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

10. Nearly dead in 1950? What are the takeaways from the fact that the southern lobe of Knife Point glacier was dead, or nearly so, in 1950? There are too many for a hasty answer. Perhaps the most threatening to me personally is that that the rephotographic project is too late. If one of the goals of the project is to appreciate the glaciers while they are still glaciers; that is seventy years too late for Knife Point. If one of the goals of this project is to pay my last respects to these glaciers, that also should have been done seventy years ago. And Meier’s photographs are too late, at least in establishing a photographic benchmark for Knife Point glacier in which it is still, unequivocally, a living glacier.

I also have learned many scientific takeaways. One is that, in contrast to people, there is nothing paradoxical in talking about a dead glacier that is in decline. Glacier death is about the absence of movement; recession is about the net loss of snow and ice. Even dead glaciers, that is, permanent snow and ice fields, might grow or recede.

Though its death was caused by climate warming, it was not human caused climate warming. Rather, it was the natural warming after the end of the Little Ice Age (Meier, 1951, Devisser & Fountain, 2015). So my second scientific takeaway, is that we should not be too hasty to blame the decline of the Wind River glaciers on industrialization.

A counterpunching takeaway is not to be too hasty in letting humans off the hook. Even though Knife Point might have been dead in 1950 due to natural climate warming, if it weren’t for human caused climate warming, it might have grown and come alive again. For glaciers, in contrast to biological creatures, death is reversible. Meier, in 1950, before there was scientific confirmation of human caused climate warming, speculated that if the warming from the Little Ice Age were at an end, the glaciers of the Winds would begin to grow again. So if not for human caused climate warming, Knife Point glacier’s southern lobe might have, in my lifetime, accumulated enough snow so that it would start moving again, and the two lobes rejoin.

11. Specificity is everything. Meier's northern lobe of Knife Point glacier, what we now know as Bull Lake glacier, is doing better than its southern kin. How could it be that two glaciers so close to each other, conjoined for much of their existence, would have such different fates, one surviving, at least a while longer, while the other dies? One of the lessons I’ve learned from Humphrey as well as glaciological textbooks and articles is that glaciers are individuals, with distinct characteristics, including different sensitivities to climate change. Humphrey gives two reasons for their differing conditions. The southern lobe is lower in altitude than the northern lobe. Lower is warmer, receives less snow and more rain (DeVisser & Fountain, 2015).

Furthermore, and this is not something I would have recognized on my own, Humphrey speculates that the northern lobe is probably getting more wind-blown snow buildup due to its location in the lee of Jackson and Fremont Peaks, and this windblown snow crucially supplements snowfall and compensates somewhat for increased melting. The southern lobe, with its lesser western ridge (that's why the native Shoshone picked that location to develop the pass I’ve just gone over) has a lesser amount of wind-blown supplement, and so is more vulnerable to climate warming.

12. Art exhibitions and rephotography. A couple of years ago I submitted a conjoined pair of photos of Knife Point glacier, with text by the entomologist and writer Jeffrey Lockwood, to the Governor's Capital Arts Exhibition in Cheyenne, WY. [You should magnify the above photograph to read the words.] Using Lockwood's words was an attempt to rub it in, since he is a well-known gadfly of the Wyoming carbon-industry and the politicians and state leaders who support it. As expected, the piece was rejected. I doubt the rejection was for its overt politics, but probably because it wasn't sufficiently arty or beautiful. I would have to agree. The purpose of the rephotography of these glaciers isn't to produce conventionally beautiful images, or more broadly, aesthetically interesting pieces.

13. Returning again. The only photo Meier included of Knife Point glacier in his thesis is from a vantage point on a crag well above the glacier (given his name by the USGS), so on my rephotography trip I reluctantly passed through the glacier without stopping to photograph. Later I will discover six additional images Meier took of Knife Point posted on the Glaciers of the American West website. I know I will have to return, even if the glacier is dead and in decline. A more complete appreciation, and more sustained memorial, demands it.


Benn, D. I. and Evans, D.J.A. (2010). Glaciers & Glaciation (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Carlson, Allen (2020). "Environmental Aesthetics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Henderson, K. A. (1933). The Wind River Range of Wyoming. Self Published. (Reprinted from Appalachia, 1932 vol. 19, pp. 204-227, and Appalachia, 1933, vol. 19, pp. 354-375).

DeVisser, M.H. and Fountain, A. G. (2015). “A Century of Glacier Change in the Wind River Range, WY.” Geomorphology 232. laciers.pdf

McCarthy, F. (2012, September 5). Wind River Range: Indian Pass. Forrest McCarthy.

Meier, M. F. (1951). "Glaciers of the Gannett Peak-Fremont Peak Area, Wyoming." MS (Master of Science) thesis, State University of Iowa.

Storrow, B. (2017). “Rocky Mountains’ Largest Glaciers Are Melting with Little Fanfare.” Scientific American, September 13, 2017. are-melting-with-little-fanfare/

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