If the rugged wilderness of Canada’s western provinces seems synonymous with mountain glaciers, that relationship might come with an expiration date: according to a study published this week in the journal Nature Geosciences, 70 percent of glaciers in Alberta and British Columbia could disappear by the end of the 21st century.
“What [glaciers] are telling us is that the climate is changing. The glaciers don’t respond to weather, so they don’t get confused about whether it was a cold winter or a hot summer,” Gary Clarke, lead author of the study and professor emeritus at University of British Columbia (UBC) told ThinkProgress. “When the glaciers are wasting away, we know that the climate isn’t helpful to them.”
Western Canada’s glaciers are vast, covering some 10,000 square miles — an area larger than the state of Vermont. But according to the study, which looked at glacier melt under 24 different climate scenarios, human-caused climate change is threatening to nearly wipe out the glaciers.
“According to our simulations, few glaciers will remain in the Interior and Rockies regions, but maritime glaciers, in particular those in northwestern British Columbia, will survive in a diminished state,” the paper reads, noting that the most substantial ice loss will most likely occur between 2020 and 2040.
Human-driven glacier melt is a visible consequence of global warming, and it’s happening all over the world. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, there is “very high confidence that globally, the mass loss from glaciers has increased since the 1960s.” That loss can be seen in the Europe’s Alpine glaciers, which have lost half of their volume since the 1850s. It is also on display in Africa, where glaciers have declined by 60 percent since the 1900s, and Alaska, where glaciers are melting at more than double the rate of ten years ago.
And, as the study shows, Canada’s glaciers aren’t exempt from this trend, which means that the economy and ecology of glacier-heavy regions of the country could face changes. Unlike the glaciers of Central Asia, which are a crucial water resource for people living in the area, the glaciers in Alberta and B.C. directly impact a relatively small portion of the population. But water from Canada’s glaciers impacts industries that depend on a steady flow, including agriculture, mining, and hydroelectric power. With glaciers melting more rapidly, as well as earlier in the season, these industries will need to adjust — but Clarke notes that climate change might actually help with that.
“We suspect rainfall will increase with the warming climate, so in a sense the glacier loss may be replaced by increased rainfall,” he said, noting that it might mitigate the impact that glacier loss has on these industries and stop it from “materializing into something horrendous.”
Fish and wildlife that depend on the glaciers directly, however, might not be as lucky. For mountainous ecosystems, glaciers serve as an important ecological water reserve, storing water in the form of ice and releasing that water during summer melts. This creates what Clarke refers to as a kind of “buffer for hot summers,” keeping mountain streams topped off and cold when they might otherwise run drier and warmer.
Potential losers in that scenario are salmon and trout, which depend on these cool, freshwater streams for reproduction.
“Losing [glaciers] will reduce the summer flows and also raise summer temperatures, and I don’t think either of those are advantageous to salmon populations,” Clarke said.
Losing glaciers could also affect Western Canada’s tourism industry. Last year, Parks Canada Resource Conservation Manager John Wilmshurst warned that Alberta’s Athabasca Glacier — which is believed to be the most visited glacier in North America — is losing ice at an “astonishing” rate of 16 feet per year, receding by almost a mile since 1980.
“I do think that here we take the beauty of the landscape a bit for granted,” Clarke said. “It will be shocking for people if they look up to the mountains and don’t see the glaciers.”
The study looked at glacier loss under a variety of climate scenarios, including both best case and worst case scenarios as defined by the IPCC. In the best case scenario, where atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases peak around 2050 and the planet warms a maximum of 1.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, Clarke and his team were surprised to find that glacier loss could be lessened.
“There are quite appreciable differences in the outcome if we follow the good path,” Clarke says. “If we were to correct the course a bit now we would save glaciers in the mountains. However, there’s not a great deal of time.”
Because glacier loss is such a global problem, Clarke hopes that other researchers in the field will apply the techniques used in this study to simulating glacier loss around the world, perhaps in the Yukon or Central Asia, where loss of huge glaciers would likely mean huge disruptions .
Perhaps equally important to Clarke, however, is what glaciers can tell us about climate change.
“There’s quite a lot of confusion in press and public mind about the difference between climate and weather. People use the fact that there was a cold winter to refute climate change. The glaciers aren’t confused on this point,” Clarke said. “The glaciers are an unbiased observer of climate. As the climate gets worse, it’ll be worse for the glaciers.”