According to a new study by UBC researchers, B.C. and Alberta’s glaciers will probably disappear very quickly over the next few decades and could be 70% gone by the end of the century. This calculation includes coastal B.C.’s mountains, which are expected to lose half their ice during this time, and our Rocky Mountains, with a devastation 90% ice cover loss.
What's at stake here? Most critically, we stand to lose our most basic and precious life necessity: fresh drinking water. But there would also be a serious loss in hydropower, agriculture and mining, which all rely on water. Additionally, there would be a detrimental cost to ecosystems. Glaciers not only provide water to streams in summer, but also keep freshwater ecosystems cool at this time of year. This is critical to the species that live in these waters. Without the cooling effect from glaciers in summer, these rivers could lose their trout. This would be a huge hit to tourism, as the trout fishing in Alberta is world renowned. Losing the esthetics of glacier in the Rocky Mountains would also be an enormous cultural loss to Canadians and to the tourists from around the world who flock to our mountains see the Columbia Icefields and walk on the Athabasca glacier.
Alberta’s rivers are already suffering from climate change and a growing population. If these rivers were to lose the glaciers that help supply them, they could be running dry very soon. Calgary will apparently be one of the first places to suffer, because the Bow Glacier, Calgary’s summer drinking water, is already mostly gone and is expected to disappear soon. We don’t necessarily see glacier retreat by looking up at the mountains from year to year, since glaciers are quite thick; however, they are thinning by about 1 meter per year.
It’s not only in Canada that we are losing glaciers. Climate change is a global problem and so is glacier loss. According to the USGS, Glacier National Park in Montana has already lost many of its glaciers. When the park first opened in 1010, it still had all 150 of its glaciers that had been present in 1850. As of 2010, the park only had 25 glaciers left.
It’s not all devastating news. There are realistic measures we can still take to minimize the damage to come. We cannot reverse climate change entirely, but there are thing we can do to prevent it getting worse and to avoid water shortages. We might be able to prevent our glaciers from disappearing completely if we made the right decisions.
To help conserve water we can fix leakage, replace lawns that need constant watering with more drought resistant plants, use recycled water for flushing toilets and we can build bigger reservoirs, though this last idea could harm fish populations. Charging more to the consumers who use the most water is also a fairly effective incentive to curb water use.
Some of the biggest water consumers are industry however. Hydraulic fracking involves incredible amounts of water to be pumped into the ground to get at fossil fuels. This creates huge amounts of waste water, which industry could never afford to entirely clean up. On top of it, bitumen and LNG will be adding to our already excessive carbon dioxide emissions, which we need to work hard to reduce.
To save our glaciers and water, we need to keep fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere under 450 parts per million and prevent global average temperature from rising by two degrees celsius. This two-degree threshold is agreed on in the scientific community and has been set by the International Panel on Climate Change, as a threshold we must stay below to avoid irreversible climate change. Staying below this threshold will also give our glaciers a chance at survival.
Glaciers are responding to climate, not to weather. Climate is the long term average temperature of the planet. So even if we have a cold winter, if summer melting outweighs winter snow accumulation on glaciers over many decades, the average temperature of the planet will increase and glaciers will retreat. That’s what we’re seeing now.
Unfortunately, there is no sign of Canada moving forward with climate policy at the moment. We are ranked one of the worst industrialized countries in terms of climate policy, with only a few middle eastern countries doing worse. We are also one of the top 10 fossil fuel emitting countries.
So will this new study be a wake up call to people living in regions at risk to conserve water and for people across Canada to reduce fossil fuel burning? For those of us who do not have the power to make direct changes in industry, we can reduce our own water use and we can use our power to vote in municipal, provincial and federal elections for leaders who will take measures to reduce climate change and conserve water. For those too young to vote, have a chat with your parents and see if they will take action for the sake of you and your generation.