Analysis of key components of the alpine North Cascade hydrologic system indicate significant changes in glacier mass balance, terminus behavior, alpine snowpack, and alpine streamflow from 1950 to 2005. North Cascade glacier retreat is rapid and ubiquitous. All 47 monitored glaciers are currently undergoing a significant retreat and four of them have disappeared. Annual mass balance measured on ten glaciers, averaging 30–50 m in thickness, yields a mean cumulative annual balance for the 1984–2006 period of −12.4 m water equivalent (m we), a net loss of 14 m in glacier thickness and 20–40% loss of their total volume in two decades.
The data indicate broad regional continuity in North Cascades glacial response to climate. The substantial negative annual balances have accompanied significant thinning in the accumulation zone of 75% of North Cascade glaciers monitored. This is indicative of glacier disequilibrium; a glacier in disequilibrium will not survive the current warmer climate trend. Alpine snowpack snow water equivalent (SWE) on April 1 has declined 25% since 1946 at five USDA Snow Course sites. This decline has occurred in spite of a slight increase in winter precipitation. The combination of a decline in winter snowpack and a 0.6° increase in ablation season temperature, during the 1946–2005 period in the North Cascades, has altered alpine streamflow in six North Cascade basins. Observed changes in streamflow are: increased winter streamflow, slightly declining spring streamflow and a 27% decline in summer streamflow. Only in the heavily glaciated Thunder Creek Basin (> 10% glaciated) has summer streamflow declined less than 10%; this is attributable to enhanced glacier melting.