On the Rocks: The Local Impacts of Glacial Melt

Photo by Dan Rafla.

Photo by Dan Rafla.

It is early morning, and I am alone at the toe of the Athabasca Glacier. The early-July sun beams down brightly, and the crisp subalpine breeze makes me wish I wore something just a bit warmer. Hemmed in by lofty, glacier-hatted peaks that glow orange in the morning sun, and faced with a that hundreds of thousands of people travel from all over the world to see each year, you would think it would be an opportunity for me to celebrate the grandeur of nature and to revel in the in the surrounding beauty. But instead, it feels more like a solitary mourning ritual.

The Athabasca Glacier and the rest of its kin throughout Western Canada are dying, in large part due to anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. And with the loss of glaciers, much of what we mountain folk hold dear about the places we love will be washed away. Our little pieces of paradise – along with the planet as a whole – will become much different and  more difficult places to live.

Now you see it; now you don’t

A recent study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, entitled “Projected De-glaciation of Western Canada in the Twenty-first Century,” uses observational data, computer models and climate simulations to predict the future of individual glaciers in the mountains of Western Canada. Released in April 2015, it reveals that 70 per cent of the glacial ice could be gone in the next 85 years, including a 90 per cent glacier loss in the Rockies. The study creates four different climate change scenarios, ranging from two to eight degrees Celsius of global temperature increase, and examines how each would affect the melting of Canada’s mountain glaciers.

“If temperatures rise more than 2.5 degrees, little will be left of the mountain glaciers by 2100,” explains study co-author Garry Clarke, professor emeritus of glaciology at the University of British Columbia.

Clarke explains that glaciers need a collection area — part of the glacier that stays covered in snow throughout the summer — in order to maintain their mass. If warming temperatures cause all the snow on glaciers to melt during warmer months, exposing bare ice to the sun, this process will spell their eventual demise.

“If glaciers haven’t got a collection area, they can’t sustain themselves, and they’re going to fade away,” says Clarke, who has been studying glaciers since 1962.

Glaciers in the Rockies, which aren’t that thick in the first place, are currently thinning at the rate of at least half a meter per year. And since they can maintain their surface area while still losing thickness, Clarke says the study’s projections show their disappearance could be quite sudden.

“The sense of loss is not an immediate one. You can see the area of a glacier, and it seems like it’s not changing dramatically from one year to the next,” he explains. “But the thickness is losing ground continually, and eventually you come to the glacier’s bottom and hit bedrock.

“You don’t get the sense that much is happening until 2050. Then it seems everything just starts to vapourize.”

According to the study, the only mountains in Western Canada likely to have glaciers remaining by the end of the 21st century are those in the far northwest of British Columbia. The rest, defrocked of their glistening glacial covers, will be reminiscent of mountains much further south. 

“Soon, our mountains could look like those in Colorado or California,” Clarke notes. “And you don’t see much ice in those landscapes.”

Melting pot

The evidence of this demise and its consequences are literally written all over the scene here at the Athabasca Glacier. Signs posted at the base show exactly how far it has receded (a total of 1,500 metres) in the past 125 years. During that time it has also lost more than half its volume, and continues to recede at a rate of five to 10 metres per year.

Another sign tells the hundreds of thousands of visitors who arrive here each year that if the Athabasca Glacier continues to recede at its current rate, eventually little will remain of it. Instead, a large lake may take its place. Complete with an illustration of a glacier-vacant valley, the sign only skims the surface of the consequences of this loss.

“Within the next three generations, the Athabasca Glacier and the water it provides to communities across Western North America may almost disappear,” it reads. “Strong scientific evidence points to human activities as the primary cause of climate change.”

What the sign fails to explain though is the larger consequences of glacial melt, which may make life in the mountains and prairies surrounding it much more difficult in the decades to come.

Canmore-based hydrologist John Pomeroy knows all too well what melting glaciers mean for the environment. Pomeroy, director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan, and Canada research chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, likens glaciers to a “deep savings account” for water that provide much-needed flow in the late summer and fall after snows melt.

“Warming temperatures,” he explains, “are already causing us to dip into that savings account. Warmer temperatures means snowfall is often replaced by rain, which leads to a thinner alpine snowpack. This not only reduces the amount of snow that can melt and feed waterways in the spring, but also means glaciers lose their reflective, snow-white cover earlier and melt more quickly.

“All these things start to connect with each other,” Pomeroy notes. “We’ve had a water bonus in glaciers, and it’s getting smaller and smaller… When we lose the glaciers, we lose that deep savings account. So in a hot summer, stream flows will become very, very small – much smaller than we’re experiencing now.”

He points to the winter and summer of 2015 as a preview of what’s to come: “We’re going to see a series of crises, and perhaps we already are. This last winter was a disaster for ski areas in B.C. and a challenging one for ski areas here in Alberta. There was fire and record drought in Southern B.C. and Saskatchewan; and you’ve got the Bow River flowing at one tenth of what it should be at the mouth of the river.

“With further warming, we will eventually see very sparse glacier coverage in the Rockies. It’s going to become a much more challenging place to live. When we do get these droughts, which will become more frequent as the climate warms, there will be less water in our deep savings to deal with them.”

Photo by Maarten van Haeren.

Photo by Maarten van Haeren.

Tip of the iceberg

This phenomenon couldn’t be more evident than it is today, here at the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. To the east of me, Alberta farmers grapple with massive agricultural disasters brought on by water shortages. To the west of me, wildfires rage throughout a drought-stricken B.C. In front of me, there is a glacier that’s clearly dying.

In early July, there is no snow on the part of the glacier that is visible to me. Instead, it is covered by dark silt that attracts more heat from the sun. A sign warns me not to approach the glacier, as the lake that could eventually replace the mass of ice has already begun to form beneath its surface – making it dangerous and unstable to go close. In the mountain morning silence, I can hear the glacier creaking, groaning and grinding. It sounds like the moaning of an injured animal, struggling for life. From its base, like grey-green blood, flows a steady stream of melt water.

Water from the Columbia Icefields feeds three major rivers that flow across the continent into three different oceans – providing fresh water for millions of people and countless other living beings along the way. Like the waters from the Icefields, the effects of a warming climate and melting glaciers will course outwards and have impacts far beyond these mountain walls, throughout North America and around the world.

Just ask Canmore’s Bob Sandford.

Amongst other titles, Sandford is the EPCOR chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Along with having written several books on the topic, Sandford speaks about water policy and water issues across the country.

He says climate change is causing major changes in the water cycle throughout North America and in the process, is bringing about more extreme weather events such as increasingly severe storms like Hurricane Sandy on the east coast, and major droughts such as the one that has been happening in California for the past five years. And it could just be the beginning.

“We’ve reached the level of 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere,” Sandford explains. “A lot of atmospheric physicists think this might be the threshold beyond which step-like changes in the climate system can occur very quickly. Some climatologists believe we might be witnessing the beginning of a long-awaited jump in global temperatures by as much as 3 degrees Celsius. Change of this magnitude can occur in as little time as a few months. Many scientists are fearful this is what’s happening in California.”

When combined with the current drier-than-normal conditions being brought about by the El Niño weather phenomenon we’re currently experiencing, Sandford says scientists fear that drought could become the new normal.

“You’ve got a cyclic return of drier (weather) conditions combined with the effects of warming brought about by changes in the composition of the atmosphere. So there’s a danger of passing over an invisible threshold in the combination of those two events, into a new hydro-climatic regime in which drier conditions could prevail.”

Sandford says that glaciers are the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to the inner workings of water in North America.

“They’re one of the most significant symbols of climate effects that you could possibly find.”

He adds that the effects of glacial melt and decreased snowpack will reach beyond the grand disasters of drought, pestilence and forest fires  into every aspect of our societies.

“This should be of great concern not only from an environmental point of view, but from an economic point of view,” Sandford points out. “The economic costs of dealing with these increased consequences of warming are making it impossible to do other things we need to do socially: like health care, education and so many other things we want. It puts pressure on the whole system. This is a big deal. What you’ve done is pulled a pretty important thread out of the whole cloth.”

River of no return

The still, silent air is pierced by a sudden enthusiastic shriek of “Dada, Dada!”

I turn to see my toddler bounding along with her mom across the moon-like surface of the Athabasca Glacier’s most recent recessional moraine.

Immense questions immediately flood to mind. What kind of world will she inherit? What will her life be like? Will glaciers like this one still exist when she is an adult? And, most importantly, is there anything we can do to help avoid the catastrophic scenario currently laid out before us?

According to Clarke, the only scenario that could allow glaciers to remain in the mountains involves keeping atmospheric warming to no more than 2 degrees, but also notes that many people think we have already passed the point where that’s possible.

“It would involve taking actions to really taper off to roughly zero emissions by 2030,” Clarke explains. “Which, if you start thinking about long term things like putting in LNG (liquefied natural gas) plants and pipelines, there’s a really big disconnect between plans for developing fossil fuels and the idea that we actually have to get to zero emissions in a few decades.

“By its inaction, the Canadian government appears to be abandoning any commitment to keep global average warming below the 2 degree Celsius ceiling that might avoid dangerous levels of climate change. The path we are currently on would have us exceed 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. We need to put on the brakes very fast.”

For Sandford, the key to approaching these vast concerns is to keep in mind that we aren’t helpless, and our actions can help make the world a more livable place in the future.

“People feel helpless but they’re not,” Sandford says. “Water is one of the ways we can get to this issue, where you can avoid a lot of deeply entrenched adversarialism over climate issues… I think it would be helpful if people knew where their water came from. How much do we use, and what do we use it for? It would be helpful if we all understood that no matter where we live, we can’t count on having the same amount and quality of water that’s available to us now available in the same way in the future.

“We need to work backward from that idea of increasing scarcity to figure out how we should act accordingly, to take an interest in this and to realize these are serious, real issues – not just put forward by scientists, but now recognized by the World Bank as major threats to the economies of the world and our current prosperity. If melt continues in this way, the West in which we live now will be unrecognizable in 50 years.”

He adds that taking action on climate change doesn’t have to be complicated. It can start here at home, in the mountains.

“We should be thinking about our communities and saying, ‘we love this place. This is home to us. This is where we have our sense of place. What do we have to do to preserve that sense of place, that quality of landscape; so we can preserve our economy, so all of us don’t have to leave because of declines we just simply ignored?”

“I think it’s really important that people understand this is something we have to face. We don’t like it; it’s one of those things that are just antithetical to human nature to have to address. But we have to pay attention to it. We have to do it for our own sake and for the world we’re creating for those who follow after us.”

BONUS: Glacial Triage

Several mountain ranges over, on Canada’s other most-visited glacier, Whistler-Blackcomb Ski Resort is taking what some might call the direct approach to saving its starving Horstman Glacier.

High atop Blackcomb Mountain, the glacier is home to two T-bars, a half pipe, terrain park, mogul field and racing lanes. Horstman sees thousands of visitors each summer who come either to ski for fun or attend the private and national team training camps hosted there.

Arthur De Jong, mountain planning and environmental resource manager at Whistler Blackcomb has been keeping track of Horstman’s health since he started working as a ski patroller in 1980. But with last winter’s unseasonably warm temperatures, De Jong says it became clear that intervention is needed to keep the glacier open for summer skiing.

“In order to sustain our summer operations, we’re at a point now where we need to interject and put snowmaking on top of the glacier,” De Jong explains, noting that the first step happens this summer with the installation of five snow guns as a pilot project. If those guns are able to hit their benchmarks, he says a total of 26 guns will be installed at the top of the glacier.

“That number of guns, based on the ratings and assumptions we’ve made would be enough to reverse the declining mass of the glacier.”

De Jong notes that the resort has been able to very accurately measure the retreat of the glacier, and based on decades of data, the guns will have to be able to annually put back about 500,000 cubic metres of ice to preserve the glacier.

And since machine-made snow has a higher density than that made by Mother Nature, De Jong says it has better staying power to last the summer and to help meet that lofty target.

“If we can maintain that white colour into the fall, at that point we should have a good jump on keeping the melt under control to some degree,” he says.

According to a recent UBC study, with a 4 degree Celsius global temperature increase, the Horstman Glacier would be all but gone by the year 2050. When presented with this scenario and asked how long he expects the artificial snow can sustain the Blackcomb Glacier, De Jong said only that the equipment being installed has an expected life span of 30 to 40 years – which would take it to about mid-century.

Colin Payne

Born and raised in Newfoundland, Colin spent several of his 10 years in the west sojourning in the Rockies before settling down with his wife and daughter near Nelson, B.C. A professional writer, editor and award-winning nature photographer, Colin’s work is driven by a passion for nature and a mission to make the world a better place.

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