According to legend, Paul Revere rode through Massachusetts
at midnight shouting his warning, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”
I would like to ride out of the Rocky Mountains, shouting my own warning: “The glaciers are dying! The glaciers are dying!”
You can see this for yourself, if you drive the Icefields Parkway that runs from Banff to Jasper up the spine of Canada’s national parks.
The Crowfoot glacier no longer looks like a crow’s foot. The Angel Glacier does not look like an angel. And the Snowbird Glacier looks as if a coyote got to the bird first and ripped it apart.
Only by looking at old photos can you appreciate the names given to these glaciers.
When I first saw Lake Louise as a child, Victoria Glacier at its western end came right down to the shore. Today, the glacier clings to the high ridges.
And if you stop at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, you might learn that as recently as 1870 the Athabasca Glacier covered the spot where you parked your car. A series of markers, looking like tombstones, march across the highway and up the valley, marking the glacier’s steady retreat.
What you can’t see from the Discovery Centre is the Columbia Icefield from which the Athabasca Glacier oozes down the valley.
The Columbia is the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies. It covers about 220 sq.km. It may be 700 m deep, over 2,000 feet. It is a bigger water storage facility than any dam on earth.
Its waters flow to three oceans. By the Athabasca River to the Mackenzie and the Arctic Ocean. By the Columbia River into the Pacific. And by the Saskatchewan River system into Hudson’s Bay and the Atlantic.
It is unique, a triple continental divide.
This is water that has flowed without interruption for more than 10,000 years.
And it may have lost a third of its stored water since the early 1990s.
This is not just a Canadian problem. In Glacier National Park, just across the border from Waterton Lakes in Canada, 113 of the 150 glaciers found in the park as recently as 1860 have vanished.
Some 300 glaciers disappeared along the Great Divide of the Canadian Rockies just between 1920 and 1985. Over the next 20 years, between 1985 and 2005, Jasper National Park lost 135 of its 554 glaciers; Banff National Park lost 29 of its 365, and its total glaciated area shrank by 20% -- 1% every year!
These figures come from Bob Sandford, probably Canada’s most knowledgeable person about glaciers. Sandford, EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University, condensed his vast knowledge of glaciers into his latest book, Our Vanishing Glaciers.
Given their rate of demise, Sandford suggests that Canada should treat its mountain glaciers as an endangered species.
As the earth’s atmosphere warms -- let’s not argue about why, let’s just accept that it has been warming for about 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution – snow melts sooner in summer. It doesn’t last long enough to pack down and form new ice. Old ice, now exposed to the sun, melts too. Rivers rush down the surface of all our glaciers.
“All the glaciers in the Canadian Rockies appear to be a period of prolonged recession,” Sandford states.
Another glacier authority, Dr. Brian Luckman, puts the issue more baldly: glaciers in the Rockies have been changing in size faster in the last 150 years than they have since the last great ice age ended 10,000 years ago.
Peyto Glacier is the most studied glacier in Canada, one of only 30 “reference” glaciers in the whole world. It has had its shrinkage painstakingly documented non-stop for 40 years. It’s been shrinking at slightly under 1% a year — in the last 100 years, it has lost 70% of its volume.
It’s likely to disappear entirely by 2050.
Already research scientists are abandoning Peyto; it’s becoming too small to provide reliable data that can be extrapolated for bigger and less accessible glaciers.
Other glaciers will follow Peyto’s lead. The Bow Glacier around 2060, Luckman estimates; Saskatchewan around 2070; Athabasca around 2080.
Every river that flows across the prairie provinces starts in those mountain glaciers. There is no other reliable source of fresh water. For drinking. For agriculture. For industries. For power.
If the prairies had to rely on rainfall, they’d be a desert.
Instead of obsessing about petroleum reserves, Alberta and the prairie provinces might better worry about water reserves -- what they’ll do when the glaciers run out.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist.