The Columbia Icefield sprawls over the Canadian Rockies on the Continental Divide of North America. The icefield lies partly between Banff and the southern end of Jasper National Park. It is about 325 km² in area and it feeds eight major glaciers including the Athabasca, Castleguard, Columbia, Dome, Stutfield and the Saskatchewan glaciers.The melt waters flow to the Pacific via the Columbia and Fraser rivers and the Arctic via the Athabasca river and the Atlantic via the North Saskatchewan river. (Strictly speaking, the Hudson Bay, into which the N.Saskatchewan River flows is part of the Arctic Ocean, but it also connects to the Atlantic by means of the Hudson Strait) These rivers are major sources of water and are indispensable to all of humankind’s endeavours throughout western Canada, not to mention the many and varied natural habitats they support.
The first view of the Columbia Icefields was recorded was by J. Norman Collie and Hermann Woolley on August 18, 1898. Norman Collie recollected his impression of the view after their succesful first accent of Mount Athabasca:
“The view that lay before us in the evening light was one which does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers. A new world was spread at our feet; to the westward stretched a vast Icefield probably never seen by human eye and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed and unclimbed peaks“. (from Explore Rockies)
Since the era of Collie and Woolley the icefield has changed drastically. Scientific studies indicate that the melting that has occurred in the 20th century by far exceeds natural patterns. The Canadian Glacier Inventory Project has noted the following concerning the Athabasca Glacier:
During the 20th century, the overall mass-balance trend for Athabasca has been strongly negative (Ommanney, 2002).. In 1870, the glacier was about 1.5 times its present total volume (1,013×106 m3) and 2.5 times its area (6×106 m2 vs. 2.6×106 m2). The average rates of decrease in volume have declined: 3.2×106 m3 a–1 for 1870–1971 to 2.5×106 m3 a–1 for 1959–1971 (Ommanney, 2002).
In the abstract of a study done by Brian Luckman and Trudy Kavanagh, the severity of change is shown:
This paper presents examples of environmental changes in the Canadian Rockies in the context of a 1.5°C increase in mean annual temperatures over the last 100 years. During this period increases in winter temperatures have been more than twice as large as those during spring and summer. Glacier cover has decreased by at least 25% during the 20th century and glacier fronts have receded to positions last occupied ca. 3000 years ago. These two lines of evidence suggest that the climate of the late 20th century is exceptional in the context of the last 1000 to 3000 years.
A tree-ring based study at the Columbia Icefield indicated the following:
The 1961-1990 reference period is clearly warmer than any equivalent-length period over the last 800 years. This record of summer warmth reinforces evidence of significant warming at several high- altitude and high-latitude sites around the Northern Hemisphere in the late twentieth century.
And finally, data from satellite imagry has measured icefield recession in the period between 1975 and 2001 and it also verifies the rapid melting of the icefield. If melting continues at the current rate, the Saskatchewan glacial arm of the Columbia Icefield will disappear in 88 years.That is a drastic amount of ecological change for one lifetime.
If the present rate of melting continues, the Columbia Icefield will be gone in about 300 years. With the loss of glaciers will be the loss of the major source of water for Alberta and British Columbia. Climate change must be taken seriously and governments must act now to deal with the man made sources of greenhouse gasses that are so rapidly changing our environment.
(Both photographs © Adrian Thysse 2009. Click to enlarge. The first shows three glaciers, left to right, an arm of
Saskatchewan Sunwapta glacier, Athabasca glacier and Dome glacier. The second photograph shows how far the Athabasca glacier has retreated since 1942)
Canadian Glacier Inventory Project, McMaster University
Impact of Climate Fluctuations on Mountain Environments in the Canadian Rockies by Brian Luckman and Trudy Kavanagh (2000)
Tree-ring based reconstruction of summer temperatures at the Columbia Icefield, Alberta, Canada, AD 1073-1983 by B.H. Luckman, K.R. Briffa, P.D. Jones and F.H. Schweinguber. (1997)
The cumulative effects of climate warming and other human stresses on Canadian freshwaters in the new millennium by D. W. Schindler (2001)
The Big Melt Down: Columbia Icefield, Canada by Professor Paul R. Baumann, Department of Geography, State University of New York. (2001)