Wildfires bad news for western Canada’s glaciers

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Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favour fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

-Robert Frost

While American poet Robert Frost lived during an era before the world began to grapple with the effects of climate change, his words are almost prophetic.

The Canadian Rockies have seen back-to-back summers of intense wildfire activity and smoke, while glaciers at higher elevations continue their slow decline.

For glaciologist and University of Calgary professor Shawn Marshall, while both wildfires and the recession of glaciers are connected to the effects of climate change globally, as fires burn in Western Canada they are also contributing to the loss of ice.

Marshall is also chair of the Rockies Institute – a Canmore-based non-profit with a goal of building resilience to climate change. He spoke about how it is a difficult time to be a glacier in Western Canada these days at a talk in August, while outside the sun was obscured in a haze of forest fire smoke.

He said smoke and ash from wildfires, combined with increased average global temperatures, are contributing to the rate at which glaciers are melting.

“When I started into the world of being a glaciologist maybe 25 years ago, I thought glaciers were permanent parts of the landscape and now this idea that I might outlive some of the glaciers I am studying is a bit disturbing,” Marshall said.

Since 1880, there is enough data to calculate the global average temperature and the top 12 warmest years on record have all occurred in the recent past, he said. All of us are living through an era of climate change and its effects and for those who live in the mountains, that means a loss of glaciers and increased wildfire.

Marshall said incremental increases to the global average temperature may seem relatively low – at 0.9 C in 2017 – there is a steady progression since the 1980s and 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.

“It is a crazy amount of energy to warm the whole planet by that much and you can see by sea ice, snow and glaciers what one degree Celsius, or half a degree Celsius, actually means to the planet,” he said.

Research has shown that glaciers are losing an average of one metre a year, and Marshall said there is more at work than just warmer average temperatures.

As each glacier loses its snow cover sooner in the year, its surface is exposed to the sun. The surface is less reflective than snow cover, and the result means more energy from the sun’s rays are being absorbed and contributing to melting.

A similar process is at work with respect to the effect of wildfires on glaciers. When ash and debris from wildfires lands on the surface of glaciers in Western Canada, it also affects the rate of melting through the summer months. But it is also a cumulative process. As the soot and ash is deposited, over time it accumulates and makes the surface darker.

“We are working hard to understand the melting, but we are also trying to understand the long-term scenarios of where the glaciers are headed,” he said. “A big fire year is a really bad year for glaciers in the Rockies.”

When it comes to climate change, Marshall presented how simple the situation is, even though the science can be quite complex. The most important factor that has changed over the past century has been the atmospheric transmittance of the sun’s radiation back out into space.

As greenhouse gases and water vapour levels increase in the atmosphere, it traps more energy from the sun within the planet and acts like a blanket to keep more heat in the system.

“The earth is warming because the atmosphere is becoming thicker,” Marshall said. “It is pretty simple on some levels and it is a matter of us accepting that and deciding how much we want that to roll out.

“How much fire and how little ice do we want on the planet?”

He said Montana is a place that will not have glaciers much longer, but Western Canada’s icefields and glaciers will likely persist because they are larger in size and at higher elevations.

Marshall’s research has focused in this region on the Haig Glacier, trying to document what is happening there and how much meltwater is ending up in the Bow River system. Over the past 18 years, he said there were eight years during which the Haig was snowless by the end of summer. Massive crevasses are beginning to appear and rocks from beneath its surface are emerging each year, he said.

The Haig is where the national cross-country team trains in summer, but that is likely not sustainable.

“It is not meant for this world much longer if it is losing its supply of snow completely,” He said. “It is melting like crazy – it has thinned by more than 20 metres since I started working up there.

“It is still a flat place to ski, but it is not sustainable, so we are trying to actually understand the energy budget and model the melting process.”

The implications for glaciers across Western Canada is bleak and Marshall said he would be surprised if any glaciers start to do well. In fact, he said even if the climate is stabilized in the near future, glaciers in the Rockies would continue to lose 40 per cent of their size.

“If we continue business as usual, we may get down to losing about 95 to 90 per cent of the ice in the Rockies by the end of the century,” he said.

The Rockies Institute presentation by Marshall was followed by one specifically on wildfires and smoke by Cliff White at the beginning of September.

The organization is also hosting a special dinner and dialogue next Friday (Sept. 21) at Silvertip, featuring a keynote presentation by wildfire expert and Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University Toddi Steelman. The presentation is followed by a cross-cultural dialogue with Blackfoot knowledge holder Travis Plaited Hair from the Kainai First Nation.

Go to www.rockiesinstitute.ca for more information or to purchase tickets.

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About Author

Tanya Foubert

Tanya Foubert has been a news reporter at the Rocky Mountain Outlook since 2006, with a brief foray as editor of a weekly newspaper in Whistler in 2012. She won national and provincial news-writing awards for her coverage of the 2013 flood in Canmore.