Column: Disappearing glaciers should be cause for concern

Murmurs among scientists are that, with the rapid thawing of the world’s icy regions, glaciers are likely at a tipping point

What would B.C. Place Stadium look like if you filled it with water? OK, now empty it. Then fill it up again 8,300 times. This’ll take a while. You will need 22 billion cubic metres of water to get the job done. That’s easy. Because that’s the same amount of water that British Columbia’s 17,000 glaciers are permanently losing every year.

That staggering stat is causing serious concern among researchers from the University of Northern British Columbia, universities in Alberta and Washington State and scientists with the federal government who have all collaborated on a major study of the current state and the future fate of glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta.

Glaciers cover three per cent of our province’s land mass. Between 1985 and 1999 the annual amount of water lost from melting glaciers in B.C. was 22 cubic kilometres. The largest glacier entirely in B.C. is the Klinaklini Glacier with an area of 470 square kilometres. This rapid meltwater loss has huge implications for BC Hydro given that close to 90 per cent of B.C.’s energy is hydroelectric with melting snow and ice playing a significant role.

“Glaciers are sensitive indicators of climate, but they are also among western Canada’s most important freshwater resources,” said Dr. Brian Menounos, a UNBC Geography professor who has been leading the research program. “This project is allowing us to calculate the number and total area of glaciers in B.C. and Alberta. Even more importantly, we are able to assess – for the first time – how quickly these glaciers are melting in the current climate.”

The focus of the study has been on the Lloyd George Icefield west of Fort Nelson, Castle Creek Glacier near McBride, Klinaklini and Tiedemann glaciers in the Coast Mountains, and glaciers in the Columbia River Basin.

The research has been underway for several years and, at each glacial site, meteorological measurements such as air temperature, wind speed, precipitation, and humidity have been taken to understand what controls these glaciers and contributes to their melt. They are also measuring thickness, extent, volume and movement.

At Castle Creek Glacier, significant research has focused on the ice sheet’s retreat and the ridges of rock and earth, called moraines, left behind. They are like tree rings and extend 750 metres into the valley from the glacier’s edge, giving a geological history of its annual demise over the past half century.

Alberta has 800 glaciers and one of the most visited is the Athabasca Glacier that forms part of the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park. But a news release this week said that the glacier is melting at an astonishing rate of five metres a year. In the past twenty years, it has shrunk from 325 square kilometres to 222 square kilometres.

And the melting track record repeats itself throughout the world’s 200,000 glaciers.

All this rapid melting of B.C.’s glaciers and elsewhere has managed to pour its way onto the pages of this month’s U.S. National Climate Assessment. The red flags of global warming triggering the melt will wash up on our feet as sea levels rise, ocean circulation patterns change further changing climate, fisheries numbers decline or shift migration patterns, and hydropower production becomes compromised or ceases altogether when rain can’t replace the volume of annual spring meltwater with huge implications on water supply and agriculture.

Menounos predicts that even a 40 cm rise in sea level will cause flooding that could affect 100 million people.

Murmurs among scientists are that, with the rapid thawing of the world’s icy regions, glaciers are likely at a tipping point, a point of no return whereby the rapid melting accelerates rapid melting until they are gone.

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