8/17/2022 | By Wesley Shennan

Nostalgia grows dearer as we age, sparking memories of our younger days. Individual experiences influence what strikes the nostalgic chord: places, people, activities, entertainment, recreation, and more. Similarly, these experiences inform our perception of the present – and even the future. Learning of what strikes the chords for others can help us discover lessons beyond our part of the world. Wesley Shennan’s education and his experiences in British Columbia, Canada, have given him a perspective on the stories that glaciers have told – from the last ice age to today – and what they foretell of our future – and our grandchildren’s future.

This abridged excerpt comes from Shennan’s book, “Indigenous Reconciliation and Environmental Resilience,” used with permission.

I took this picture in 2011. Eleven years have already elapsed, and given the excessive heat dome we experienced in western Canada in 2021, poor Angel Glacier is probably considerably smaller. But is this a serious issue? Should we really be concerned about melting glaciers? Isn’t that what glaciers do?

Angel Glacier. Image by Edith Cavel
Angel Glacier. Photo by Edith Cavel

It was during my youth that I first became intimately acquainted with glaciers. For two summers, I gave guided tours on the Athabasca Glacier of the Columbia Icefield and could give a good spiel about moraines, moulins, and crevasses. On our days off, we’d climb up to the first step of the glacial headwall to the alpine hut, and early in the season, we’d ski down the steep toe until the snow bridges over the crevasses came dangerously close to not supporting us. We all thought glaciers were eternal. They were remnants of the last ice age and about 10,000 years old – with probably another 10,000 years of life into the future. Or so we thought.

Climate change and associated global warming has changed all that. Experts who study glaciers say the year 2021 will most likely be the worst on record for diminishing glaciers in southern Alberta, British Columbia, as well as in Washington and Montana in the United States. La Nina in the fall of 2020 was favourable to glaciers with cool conditions and ample snowfall. But in late June 2021 the so-called heat dome settled over western Canada and the United States, creating exceptional warming that melted snow cover on glaciers and exposed ice in a matter of days. A heat dome is hot ocean air that is trapped or capped, as if by a lid, and which is slow to move, sometimes referred to as an Omega block because of its similarity to the Greek letter.

The timing was especially bad, as it coincided with the same days that energy from sunlight was at its maximum. The heat was intense. On my condominium balcony in Kelowna, British Columbia, my in-the-shade thermometer registered more than 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). I say more than, because 50 is the maximum on the dial that points somewhere near 55. The extreme heat sparked a number of forest fires, creating soot, dust, and debris, and when this settled on the snow and ice of glaciers, it darkened the surface, causing them to absorb more solar energy and melt more quickly. Above normal warm and hot weather continued throughout the summer of 2021, leading to exceptional rates of glacial mass loss.

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This is a serious matter because glaciers are vital reservoirs of frozen water. With greatly reduced glacial mass, the next logical long-term outcome is radically reduced river water volume. As explained during our tours in my youth, glaciers are nourished by snowfall during the winter and depleted by melting seasonal snow and ice during the summer, releasing large volumes of cool water into headwater streams. Glacial runoff buffers aquatic ecosystems that can suffer from heat or water stress. The prairies especially benefit from this continuous flow as the summer months are quite dry.

Glacier markers

In 1965, three glaciers in western Canada, Peyto, Place and Helm, became the benchmarks for the measurement of glacial ice. Using a measurement called water equivalent depth (which is converted to mass), these three glaciers have lost mass, and this loss is accelerating – in the past decade being four times greater than the preceding decade.

Peyto glacier is the most studied of the three and some astonishing facts have been revealed by Dr. John Pomeroy of the University of Saskatchewan. He said the glacier is almost unrecognizable from one or two years ago, let alone 10 or 20 years ago. During the heat dome in June and July, 2021, it lost two-thirds of ice melt per week, a rate that led to seven metres loss in one year. This was the biggest downward melt ever recorded. The tongue of the glacier retreated 200 metres; 10 times faster than the last half-century’s retreat. Peyto’s surface has collapsed in many places and is slushy and speckled with cryoconite, a combination of soot, bacteria, and dust. Water in a web of small streams runs off the glacier. A growing lake now sits at its toe. Peyto Glacier is at the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River and its snowpack and ice melt help maintain stream flows and rivers across the prairies (the North Saskatchewan, flowing through Edmonton, Alberta, my home town, is the city’s main source of drinking water). Peyto glacier is expected to not survive the next decade and soon a death certificate will be signed (a practice carried out in Iceland when a glacier dies).

Another expert, Professor Jeff Kavanagh of the University of Alberta, measures temperatures along the icefield parkway, including the Columbia Icefield. During the 2021 heat dome, the temperatures were 10 degrees Celsius higher for a 10-day span, often reaching 27 degrees Celsius. These temperatures were sustained during the night as well, with the glaciers experiencing minimal cooling respite. Normally, temperatures are around 16 degrees Celsius – a very dramatic difference. It has been calculated: the ten-day heat dome is responsible for one month’s additional melt of all the glaciers along the icefield parkway.

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Glacial demise is a global phenomenon. Although Canada has the most alpine glaciers of any country in the world, glaciers in the South American Andes, European Alps, and other areas, such as New Zealand, are all becoming smaller. The fastest melting in Canada is actually in the Saint Elias Mountains in the Yukon – one quarter of ice cover has been lost since the 1950s.

So, what’s to be done? There are projects to increase ice and snow reflectivity, thereby reducing melt. These projects, in their infancy, have tested a hollow shell of silica-based glass, which is hydrophilic so it doesn’t attract oil. Silica is non-toxic and one of the most prevalent materials on earth, but so far alpine tests have not been pursued. It certainly isn’t a long-term solution – it’s more like first-aid to delay melting until larger solutions of decarbonization are implemented.

The alpine environment once so familiar to me is rapidly changing, and not for the better. The impact on the prairies is devastating. Imagine sitting on the bench along Saskatchewan Drive, in my hometown of Edmonton, and looking down at the recently constructed Walterdale Bridge, only to discover the arch bridge crosses a mudflat with a trickle of water down the centre. Glacial-fed rivers, flowing during the dry season and providing much needed moisture, are predicted to almost dry up in July and August within the next 50 years! Climate change and global warming are causing significant problems on this wonderous pale-blue dot in the universe. We really need to take definitive action to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Wesley Shennan, a member of the Michel First Nation, Treaty 6, in the area currently known as Alberta, Canada, is a community planner and has been working with First Nations in British Columbia for the past 22 years. His education in both the physical and social sciences, and work experience, has led him to share his understandings and encourage others to take action. He lives with his wife, Elena, in the now smoky and scorching hot Okanagan valley in southern British Columbia – the traditional unceded territory of the Syilx Nations. He is the author of “Indigenous Reconciliation and Environmental Resilience” (FriesenPress, July 24, 2022).

Wesley Shennan