Hope you don’t mind, the Ice Cubicle took a little jaunt south (to Vancouver and environs) to breathe some ocean-side air. But now I’m back in Dawson and appreciating the first sips of winter.
There aren’t any glaciers within walking distance from here, but there are some up the Dempster Highway so I’ll hope to visit some of those as the months go on. For now, glaciers are on my mind (and many other minds) because a glacier’s accelerated melt rate is a highly visible effect of climate change that we non-scientists can grasp. That is, we can grasp it as information; not sure how we can grasp it philosophically or emotionally yet (more thoughts on this in a post coming up this Friday).
For now: here are excerpts from a Feb 2008 Toronto Star article that lays out facts about the fast-shrinking Athabasca Glacier, one of Canada’s nature icons.
From “The alarming redefinition of ‘glacial'” by Christi Dabu; link to complete article here. Emphases added by me.
The Athabasca Glacier, remnant of ice sheets that once enveloped the Canadian Rockies and most of Canada, draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year who catch a glimpse of what much of North America and Europe probably looked like some 10,000 years ago, the twilight of the last Ice Age.
Glaciers are constantly moving at a glacial pace, in a journey that can take centuries.
But the tourists learn a cold reality: the Athabasca is melting at a faster-than-glacial pace. During the last Ice Age, the Athabasca Glacier – a river of ice six kilometres long, one kilometre wide, and as deep as 300 metres – was much deeper and stretched down the valley. The tour guide points out where the Athabasca has retreated from; one sign predicts the glacier’s disappearance in 100 years.
The Arctic’s shrinking ice pack has been more in the spotlight lately, but researchers say climate change has already begun to leave a dramatic mark on the Canadian Rockies. Along with melting glaciers, higher temperatures and less snow could rattle its sensitive ecosystem, home to diverse wildlife and 669 major peaks, 12 ice fields, 384 glaciers, 44 rivers and 295 lakes in the protected areas.
Formed from snow buildups that eventually spill like icy rivers from mountain peaks and plateaus, glaciers advance or recede much like flowing rivers. “Glaciers have very cyclical lives and do come and go,” says Kenn Charlton, former assistant operation manager of the Columbia Icefield Glacier Experience tour in Jasper National Park.
“What the main concern at the moment is, is that the present natural recess (melting) is accelerated by global warming.”
The Athabasca Glacier on average recedes, or melts off, 10 metres per year, a retreat that began about 160 years ago and has picked up since the mid-1970s, Charlton says. Though smaller glaciers are shrinking faster, the Athabasca has now lost half its volume and receded more than 1.5 kilometres since its discovery and naming in 1898.
Bob Sandford, executive director of the newly formed Western Watersheds Climate Research Collaborative, highlighted other alarming changes during a climate change conference organized by his non-profit organization in November and in his new book, Water, Weather and the Mountain West (Rocky Mountain Books).
“However symbolic the loss of the (Athabasca) glacier may be, what is happening to the snow pack patterns may be even more significant because the Rockies appear to be becoming warmer and drier with significant consequences for already highly stressed eastern slope rivers, which supply water to a huge part of the prairies,” he said in a telephone interview from Canmore, Alta. “The peak impact of glacial recession on flow volumes in eastern slope rivers has already occurred.”