Glaciers in Western Canada retreat because of climate change: experts

Peyto Glacier and part of Banff National Park has lost about 70 per cent of its mass in last 50 years

Climate change is prompting glaciers in British Columbia, Yukon and Alberta to retreat faster than at any time in history, threatening to raise water levels and create deserts, scientists say.

David Hik, an ecology professor at Simon Fraser University, said the region is one of the hotspots for warming and the magnitude of change in the glaciers is dramatic.

“Probably 80 per cent of the mountain glaciers in Alberta and B.C. will disappear in the next 50 years,” he said.

The Peyto Glacier in the Rocky Mountains and part of Banff National Park has lost about 70 per cent of its mass in the last 50 years, Hik said.

“It’s a small glacier but it’s typical of what we’re seeing,” he said.

Zac Robinson, a professor at the University of Alberta, said as the climate warms, the fragmentation of some of the large ice caps in the Rockies will continue.

Glaciers are formed when snow accumulates in the winter but doesn’t melt completely the following summer.

As the Earth warms at a faster rate than it did, a combination of less snow and a rapid melt is causing glaciers to recede in length and volume, Robinson said.

The first “State of the Mountains” report, co-authored by Hik and Robinson and published in May by the Alpine Club of Canada, says outside of the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, Canada has more glacier cover than any other nation. Of the estimated 200,000 square kilometres of Canadian glaciers, one quarter is found in the West and the remainder are in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Robinson said mountain glaciers, given their sensitivity to warming, are showing the earliest and most dramatic signs of ice loss, and the St. Elias Mountains in Yukon are losing ice at the fastest rate.

“Yukon glaciers in the St. Elias ranges have lost approximately one quarter of ice cover since the 1950s,” he said.

READ MORE: Climate change, receding glaciers increase landslide risk on B.C.’s Mount Meager

Scientists studied the glaciers using a number of methods, including analysing old photographs and remote sensing.

Hik said the rate of melting varies in different places in the Canadian West.

“We don’t have detailed measurements everywhere but where we have measurements the rates can be 25 to 70 per cent (of melt) in the last six to seven decades.”

The rates of melting are similar to what is seen in the European Alps and the Andes, he said.

One of the first effects of melting glaciers is an increase in sea level, Hik said.

Melting of the St. Elias glaciers accounted for a 1.1 millimetre increase in sea level rise in the last 50 years, Hik said.

“That doesn’t seem like very much but if you take the St. Elias Mountains, the Rocky Mountains and high Arctic mountains and the Himalayas-Hindu Kush and the Andes and the Alps, and if you put all of those contributions together it counts for one of the largest increases in sea level over the past decade.”

While the melt increases water levels and sets off coastal erosion and flooding, it also causes dry areas and dust bowls.

As glaciers recede, more water flows downhill, but the further the ice sheets retreat, the less water there is to go down stream and soon the area begins to dry, Hik said.

“In places like the Kluane River in Yukon there is significantly more dust because the valley that the river flows through is essentially dried out,” he said.

But the area still experiences katabatic winds — winds coming off the glacier — which are quite strong and blow the dust from the dried stream beds farther out on the landscape, Hik said.

This dust can create problems for vegetation by settling on trees and plants, and reducing photosynthesis, he said.

Glaciers act as a bank account during hot summers when water is scarce, Hik said.

The melt also changes the way water flows and where it accumulates, creating lakes, wetlands or desert-like conditions.

“In some places you’ll have locally increased water availability and in many, many, many places that water availability will be reduced as well,” said Hik.

The changes alter the flora of the area.

Tree lines are moving up the slope, and willows and birches — water-loving species — are prospering at higher elevations, Hik said.

Robinson said it’s important to study mountains because they respond rapidly and intensely to climate changes and are recognized as sentinels of change.

“Mountains give an important glimpse into the future and can show us what’s coming down the line.”

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Subsea fibre optics running from Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii and and then south to Vancouver will improve high-speed internet connection options for Coastal Communities, CityWest said on Oct. 13.
Subsea fibre optics running from north of Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii and and then south to Vancouver will improve high-speed internet connection options for Coastal communities, CityWest said on Oct. 13. (Black Press Media)
CityWest to refresh subsea fibre optics project

Fibre optics project to run cable from north of Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii then south to Vancouver

Federal NDP looks to criminalize domestic emotional abuse with new law

MP Randall Garrison introduces private member’s bill

FILE - Nathan Cullen speaks to media in Smithers, B.C., Friday, February 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
More calls come in for Cullen’s removal as NDP candidate

Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs demand Cullen’s removal. Ellis says, There’s no place in B.C. for racism

Kelly Lynn Whitney has been acclaimed as the successful candidate on Oct. 16, in the Village of Port Clements by Election. Seen in photos Kelly Whitney-Gould is pictured putting finishing touches on “Ms. Gnomer’s Home 4 Wayward Folk.” (Kelly Whitney-Gould/Submitted photo)
Kelly Lynn Whitney acclaimed in By Election

Village of Port Clements By Election success

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry presents modelling of COVID-19 spread in B.C., March 25, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 203 new cases

up to 1,766 active cases in B.C., two more deaths

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
British Columbia man dies during ski trip near glacier west of Calgary

Kananaskis Public Safety and Alpine Helicopters responded around 2:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, following a week-long break for the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
One crisis after another for Trudeau since last federal election one year ago

It has been a year of unprecedented calamity and crisis

Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum smelter at Kitimat competes against producers in the Middle East and Russia that have no carbon tax. (Rio Tinto)
B.C. carbon tax highest in Canada, export industries unprotected

B.C. NDP, B.C. Liberals say they’re looking at exemptions

(Pixabay)
Vancouver teacher suspended after swearing, touching students and complimenting underwear

McCabe touched students, including rubbing their backs and necks, touching their hair and hugging them

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A glimpse of some of the 480 (approx) cars written off as a result of the acid spills along the Trail highway in 2018. Photo: Trail Times
2 years after huge highway acid spill, Kootenay Ford dealer’s frustration grows with ICBC

Trail AM Ford owner Dan Ashman says he just wants fair compensation from ICBC

Mail-in ballot from Elections BC (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
At least 26% of eligible voters have already cast their ballot, Elections BC says

Voters can cast a ballot until 8 p.m PST on Election Day

Most Read