The NSS Bulletin - ISSN 1090-6924
Volume 56 Number 2: 70-81 - December 1994

A publication of the National Speleological Society

Evolution of the Paradise/Stevens Glacier Ice Caves
Charles H. Anderson, Jr., Mark R. Vining, and Chad M. Nichols


In the early part of the 20th Century, ice caves were discovered in the frontal margin of the Paradise Glacier on the south flanks of Mount Rainier. These subglacial passages are produced by numerous meltwater streams flowing within the glacier. A constant struggle goes on between the forces that enlarge the cave upward into the body of the glacier and those shortening it as the glacier flows slowly down the slope. Long-term climate warming in the northwest has accelerated the retreat of the Paradise Glacier destroying much of the original ice cave system. Review of old photographs (c1936) have shown the Paradise Glacier has retreated a minimum of 4000 ft (1220 m) in a period of less than 50 years. The approximately 2-mile-long Paradise Glacier consists of three lobes, the Paradise, Stevens and the Williwakas. The Stevens lobe (of the Paradise Glacier) once extended down off a steep headwall and covered the entire floor of Stevens Basin. A subtle topographic divide under the ice mass separated the headwaters of the Paradise Rive and Stevens Creek. As a result, the Paradise River flows westerly off Mount Rainier to Puget Sound. Stevens Creek flows southward into the Columbia River and on to the Pacific Ocean.

A renewed interest in ice cave exploration began in 1967, when only 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of the actual cave area had been mapped. By 1978, Charles Anderson had accomplished mapping the remaining cave systems which totaled over 8.23 miles. The caves featured a complex maze of passages, always in a constant state of change. Falling flakes (long slivers or chunks of ice separating aways from walls and ceilings), continuously collapsed inward as a result of interglacial pressures made mapping of the caves a difficult project.

By 1993, accelerated degradation of the glacial toe has resulted in the ice retreat above the Stevens Basin headwall and the destruction of virually all of the previously mapped ice caves.

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