By: Marlene Affeld
Montana is home to an amazing and fascinating natural phenomenon: Grasshopper Glacier. Near Cooke City, Montana, in the heart of the Beartooth Mountain Range, Grasshopper Glacier is named for the millions of grasshoppers entombed within the lower fringes of its ice.
Grasshopper Glacier was discovered in the early 1900’s by Dr. J.P. Kimball. Dr. Kimball was an engineer and mining geologist with the US Geological Survey. He and his crew were amazed at the mass and density of the grasshopper deposit. A photographer on the expedition, Anders Wilse (pictured left), wrote that the magnitude of grasshoppers frozen in the ice “look like the skin of an elephant". Since its discovery, Grasshopper Glacier continues to intrigue and mystify scientists as well as visitors.
Scientific research concludes that over 300 years ago, in the late fall of the season, swarms of grasshoppers congregated in a nearby river valley preparing to migrate over the mountain range. Such swarms are known to have numbered in the billions. It is speculated that early snowstorms entrapped them and knocked them down into snow and ice to perish where further snow accumulations buried them for centuries before they were exposed after years of glacial melting.
In scientific studies conducted in 1914, the grasshopper remains were identified as a species called “Melanoplus Spretus ” a type of migratory locust that had been extinct for 200 years.
Located at an elevation of 11,300 feet, the glacier is presently less than a mile long and a half mile wide. Grasshopper Glacier has receded from a length of five miles. In the past this temperate alpine glacier served as an ice dam to a small 30 acre lake. During September 6th through September 12, 2003 the character of the glacier radically changed, when as a result of melting and erosion, the dam was breeched just enough to allow the release of over 650 million gallons of water into Grasshopper Creek and adjoining drainages. Sediment was spread across meadows and into surrounding lakes. Scientists say that a wall of water ten feet tall dug a 30-foot deep trench a half mile down the glacier which resulted in an altered landscape for over 8 miles downstream.
Glacial scientists call this type of natural occurrence a “jokulhlaup”, a term that originated from glacial experts in Iceland. Fortunately no one was injured in this “jokulhlaup” as Grasshopper Glacier is in a remote location.
Grasshopper Glacier is accessible by 4-wheel drive only during late July and through August when the road is dry. At the end of this arduous road a trail and a four mile hike will accommodate visitors wishing to view the glacier.