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Glacier National Park is located in the northern Rocky Mountains of northwestern Montana along the U.S./Canadian border, and sits astride the “Triple Divide” of North America, from where waters flow to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans. The Park was formed by an Act of Congress in 1910. In 1932, Glacier Park joined with adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first such entity in the world. The Going-to-the-Sun Road that crosses the Park from West Glacier to St. Mary-a distance of 50 miles-is a National Historic Landmark that took 11 years to construct, with completion in 1932. Most visitors to the Park traverse this road, crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.
Glacier Park is dominated by two mountain ranges, the Lewis and the Livingston, that trend northwest to southeast through its north-south orientation. Rocks that comprise these ranges consist of several sedimentary formations. A conspicuous geologic feature of the Park is the Lewis Overthrust fault that displaced older Proterozoic rock formations over 65 kilometers to the east and over younger Cretaceous sedimentary formations. Chief Mountain, an isolated outlier at the easternmost edge of the Overthrust, is a sacred site for the Blackfeet Indian Nation that borders Glacier Park to the east.
Elevations in the park range from forested valley bottoms of nearly 940 meters to rock, snow, and ice surfaces on peaks that extend to slightly over 3,000 meters. A maritime climate on the west side supports a more diverse forest, including Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), and Western Larch (Larix occidentalis); than the distinctly more continental climate and associated forest on the east-side characterized by Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta) and Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides) at lower elevations.
Both rise through a distinctive alpine tree-line ecotone, a zone of transition that ranges from the closed canopy-forest through open-canopy forest and tree islands of five-needle pines (Pinus albicaulis or Pinus flexilis), Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmannii), and Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa); to alpine tundra, which is the signature ecosystem of the park, varying across extensive drier patterned ground to more localized wet meadows. The spatial organization and composition of the vegetation in the park is largely shaped by the two climate regimes and made heterogeneous by lithology, topography, and local disturbances that include snow avalanches, debris flows, fire, and historically widespread insect outbreaks. This diversity of vegetation also supports a diversity of wildlife, including the charismatic megafauna grizzly bear (Ursus horribilis) and mountain goat (Oreamnus americanus).
The park is a focal point for work on global climate change, given that its glacial climate history appears to be heading toward the loss of all its current glaciers. These small cirque glaciers, which have been shrinking and disappearing since the late 19th century, are predicted to be gone by the year 2050. The distinctive glacial landforms including, for instance, U-shaped valleys, cirques, horns, tarns, paternoster lakes, and moraines, will continue to attract tourists to this “Crown of the Continent.
- R. Butler and S.J. Walsh, “Lithologic, Structural, and Topographic Influences on Snow-Avalanche Path Location, Eastern Glacier National Park, Montana,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (v.80, 1990);
- P. Hall and D.B. Fagre, “Modeled Climate-Induced Glacier Change in Glacier National Park, 1850-2100,” BioScience (v.53, 2003);
- J. Walsh, L. Bian, S.A. McKnight, D.G. Brown and E.S. Hammer, “Solifluction Steps and Risers, Lee Ridge, Glacier National Park, Montana, USA: A Scale and Pattern Analysis,” Geomorphology (v.55, 2003).