athabasca glacier: rapid retreat

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.

Markers show the dramatic retreat of the Athabasca Glacier, photo Judd Patterson in a Feb 08 Toronto Star article
Markers show the dramatic retreat of the Athabasca Glacier, photo Judd Patterson

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.”

7 thoughts on “athabasca glacier: rapid retreat”

  1. Loss of the Glacier and Ice field will present a few problems for us, however the Glacier and ice field are not remnants from the last Continental glaciation as noted in the article. (“The Athabasca Glacier, remnant of ice sheets that once enveloped the Canadian Rockies”) Central Alberta 4kybp was4 degrees f warmer and much drier than now from ~6500 to 4000 years ago. The rolling hills west of Edmonton are sand Dunes. Obviously the Ice field has disappeared before and will again. The time frames we’re talking about here are very short and geologically speaking insignificant. 4ky is a mere blink of an eye. So let’s not get too excited.


    1. Interesting perspective, especially as I too am interested in geological time & the way human time is a whiff of condensed breath in the air compared to the “lifespan” of rivers, glaciers, stones.
      Another thing that I believe co-exists with geological time, though, is responsibility between different groups of people. That applies to different groups of people who live at the same time, as well as those who are affecting the world in ways that future generations will have to deal with. When we see glacial retreat *along with* other kinds of climate change – measurable climate changes – it does seem like something to get both excited about and also activated about.
      To put it another way: there needs to be a balance between our tiny understanding of geologic time, and our living in the present with our responsibilities to other currently-alive beings, both human and not.
      I couldn’t imagine telling my nephew, “oh it wasn’t worth it to figure out how to use alternate-to-oil fuel sources because, you know, the earth has era-long evolution cycles that I can’t control anyways, so – sorry about the loss of the BC coast and your childhood home along with that, plus your healthy water options.” etc.


      1. What I am saying is let us not lie to each other. The statement that the Athabasca Glacier is a remnant of the last glaciation is false. A person should try to learn something before speaking.
        4000 years ago there was a pine forest where the Athabaska Glacier is now. We have yet to reach teperatures that occurred during the Halocene thermal maximum which was from 9000 to 5000 years ago. We (I think) may or may not be influencing climate change there is though absolutely no doubt that whatever we can do to reduce our expenditure of resources and pollution of our environment is to the good. However to say that the Athabasca Glacier is a remnant of the last Glacial advance is inaccurate. We should stop arguing about it and do something. A big part of the credibility problem with climate alarmists is obviously this sort of uninformed comment. Al Gore and his award winning film is an excellent example. It is very likely that the climate will continue to warm for the next several hundred years and then the Glaciers will advance again. This has been going on for the past 3 million years and it is very likely to continue. However this planet had no ice for 200 million years before the ice age cycle started so for a good part of the time no ice was the norm. Well this is not quite true as there has been Antarctic ice for 20 million years or so.
        Incidentally look up the Eemian thermal maximum and tell me how the polar bears got through no Arctic ice for several thousand years. During the Eemian thermal maximum a mere 125000 years ago there were Hippos and water buffalo in the Thames and Rhine estuaries. Climate change is normal on this planet everone acts as though it were a big surprise. One thing, the Halocene interglacial has been a very stable time climate wise and believe it or not this is not necessarily typical of this planet. It has allowed the development of agriculture and the resulting population explosion. At the peak of the Eemian, the northern hemisphere winters were generally warmer and wetter than now, though some areas were actually slightly cooler than today. The Hippopotamus was distributed as far north as the rivers Rhine and Thames.[1] Trees grew as far north as southern Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago instead of only as far north as Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, and the prairie-forest boundary in the Great Plains of the United States lay further west — near Lubbock, Texas, instead of near Dallas, Texas, where the boundary now exists. The period closed as temperatures steadily fell to conditions cooler and drier than the present, with 468-year long aridity pulse in central Europe,[2] and by 114,000 years ago, a glacial period had returned.


  2. will on-ice tours be discontinued due to warming and safety issues on Athabasca? will we see more Skywalks rather than on-ice glacier experiences for the average traveler? — e.g. on-ice experiences may only be allowed by experts in ice-climbing — no “Snowcoaches”).


    1. How long have you lived in Dawson? I was in Calumet with Keno Hill from 64 to 76. Spent some time in Dawson was partners with a guy we had a guiding outfit and a house in Dawson City. Many fond memories. Cheers


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