Most-Visited Glacier In North America Is Losing An ‘Astonishing’ 16 Feet Of Ice Each Year

Alberta’s Athabasca Glacier. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Alberta’s Athabasca Glacier. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Canada’s Athabasca glacier is melting at an “astonishing” rate, according to Parks Canada, and could disappear within a generation.

The glacier, which is the largest of the eight glaciers that form the Columbia Icefield in Alberta, Canada, loses 16 feet of ice each year, Parks Canada Resource Conservation Manager John Wilmshurst told the Canadian Press.

“Every year we drive stakes five meters deep into the glacier in the fall. We have to return and re-drill them in mid-summer because a lot of those stakes on the Athabasca Glacier, the one that a lot of people go visit, will be lying flat on the ice at that time,” he said.

Those markers show that since 1890, the glacier has receded by almost a mile, even though it gets almost 23 feet of snow every year. The glacier is also getting shallower, losing ice depth as well as length — something Bob Sandford of the UN Water for Life Decade, said was “mind-boggling.”

“Even though this year we will have had a fairly substantial snow year, what we’re finding is that, even with substantial snow years, the summers are warm enough and the fall is prolonged enough that all of that snow goes and we’re still losing five meters,” Sandford said.

The glacier is one of many geographical formations to share the name Athabasca in Alberta, a word based on the Cree name for Lake Athabasca. It’s a name shared by the Athabasca tar sands region in Alberta, the source of the heavily-polluting fuel that’s contributing to the global rise in temperatures helping cause the glacier’s decline.

Athabasca glacier isn’t the only body of ice in the news for its dramatic melt recently. The White House’s National Climate Assessment singled out Alaska as home to “some of the largest glaciers and fastest loss of glacier ice on Earth.” Glacier melt in Alaska and British Columbia contributes a huge amount of excess freshwater to the earth’s waterways — about 40 to 70 gigatons per year.

And earlier this month, a study found that a region of East Antarctica is more vulnerable to a massive thaw than previously thought, a situation that could raise sea levels by 10 to 13 feet. The study looked at the 600-mile Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica and found that the tenuous “ice plug” that holds the basin in place could melt in the next few centuries, a melt that, if it occurs, would be “unstoppable.” In January, a study found that the Pine Island Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in Antarctica, has started melting irreversibly, and could add up to a centimeter to sea levels over the next 20 years.