Researchers believe the Athabasca Glacier is receding faster than it ever has; shrinking 10 metres in length every year and losing two metres in depth on its edges and at least a metre in its centre. Now, scientists believe it could be gone within a middle-aged person’s lifetime.
“Some of these glaciers have already vanished. Some will make it to mid century, some will make it through the century, but they are all out of equilibrium,” said Shawn Marshall, a glaciologist with the University of Calgary.
“Pretty steady decline. You know you’ll go back in ten years and have to walk 100 metres further to find the glacier,” said Marshall.
The icy attractions that can contribute up to 10 per cent of our drinking water in the middle of the summer may be slipping away, and there will be no way to get them back.
Those who spend a lot of time outdoors say they are witnessing the effects of climate change first hand. For three decades, Peter Lemieux has been guiding tourists up the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefields. The lead guide with Athabasca Glacier Icewalks says it’s sad to see the glacier disappearing.
“It’s kind of like watching your kid grow. On a day-to-day basis, you don’t really notice the changes, but when I go and look at photographs that are 10 to 20 years old, I think, ‘my God, now I’m walking across the forefield.’ In the past, walking across 10, 20, 40 metres of ice.”
Glaciers don’t just feed the tourism industry and help define the Rockies. They also contribute to the stream flows and hold on to crucial snow packs, according to Robert Sanford with the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
“The warming that is causing glacier recession is changing the pattern of snow pack and snow cover and it’s changing season flows that we rely on to supply water for agriculture and cities,” said Sanford.
“If we are not able to do this now we might not be able to afford or adapt quickly enough to changes in the future.”
While scientists admit the consequences of melting ice in the Canadian Rockies will be minimal in the grand scheme of things, many scientists like Marshall, believe it’s a visual indicator of something more problematic affecting our world.
“If you don’t believe in climate change, go to the mountains and see what is happening to the glaciers. You can’t really argue anymore only 1 degree warming and look how much it’s changed that landscape. It’s a sensitive indicator of the state of our environment.”