A summer of unprecedented heat has not been kind to the iconic ice in the Canadian Rockies. According to researchers, glaciers are melting at a rate never seen before.
“It’s horrific to see this almost unrecognizable from one year ago, two years ago, let alone 10-20 years ago,“ said Dr. John Pomeroy, a hydrologist and director of Global Water Futures.
Pomeroy first stepped foot on Banff National Parks Peyto Glacier in 2008. He came to better understand the hydrology of the famous glacier. In the early 1900s, it once sprawled three and half kilometres further than it does today, down the valley resting near the turquoise water of Peyto Lake.
“During the heat wave in early July and late June, we were seeing 2/3 of ice melt per week. At that rate, we could lose seven metres of ice coming off this glacier this year, the biggest downward melt ever recorded,” said Pomeroy, who is also a professor with University of Saskatchewan.
“The tongue has retreated horizontally 200 metres in the last year, 10 times faster than the last half century of retreat,” Pomeroy said, adding he is “stunned and horrified.”
“It’s a nightmare come true.”
A growing lake now sits at the toe of the glacier — formed over the past decade. The ice has collapsed in many places and is slushy and speckled with cryoconite — a combination of soot, bacteria and dust. Water in a spider web of small streams runs off of it.
Pomeroy said the record-setting heat domes and wildfires this season have helped accelerate glacial melt.
“A lot of the soot from the wildfires has landed on the glaciers and darkened them up…where it’s accumulative, the ice has melted faster than where it hasn’t.”
Peyto Glacier is at the headwaters to The North Saskatchewan River. Its snowpack and ice melt help maintain stream flows in rivers across the Prairie provinces.
Pomeroy said areas of rivers not fed by glacial melt are experiencing some of the lowest flow rates ever recorded. In contrast, streams that are fed by the glaciers have had normal to even higher than normal flow rates this summer.
But with that crucial source of water now in fast retreat, scientists are worried about the impacts downstream.
“Glacial melt contributes water when irrigators need it most on the Prairies, and irrigators and people in the agricultural sector there depends on mountain water,” said Dr. Robert Sanford, chair of water and climate security at United National University Institute for water.
“It’s not impossible to imagine if we are losing ice at the rate that Peyto Glacier is losing ice this year, our rivers would run dry in August and September,” conservationist Dr. Harvey Locke said.
“This is grievously serious for the future of life on the Prairies. The world as we know it is being transformed as we watch.”
According to Sanford, between 1920 and 2005, 300 glaciers disappeared in the Rocky Mountain national parks alone.
“Years like this one will accelerate that dramatically and I think sooner or later we are going to have to issue death certificates for glaciers like they do in Iceland. I think the first will be Peyto Glacier,” Sanford said. “This is serious, we are now looking at the future.”
Peyto is one of the longest monitored and studied glaciers in the world. Pomeroy said he’d never imagined he’d be documenting its demise, he doesn’t think it will survive the next decade.
“This is not just affecting water supply, irrigation and hydropower, it’s affecting the very nature of the Canadian Rockies and what they are… we are losing our heritage we are losing our landscape, it’s very sad.”
Pomeroy points out new glaciers can re-grow in the future, but he said that all depends on humanity getting a hold of the changing climate.