Melting Glaciers: Climate Change at the Columbia Icefields

Climate change is something that I suppose wouldn’t typically be explored on a travel blog, but when we’re talking about something that affects this beautiful world we love to explore so dearly, I feel like it’s worth a mention.

If you’ve come to this blog post hoping for travel advice on the Icefield’s Parkway, then some of our other posts will definitely offer you far better advice (Guide to the Icefields parkway & The Glacier Skywalk: Is it worth it?). But if you’re interested in learning how to experience very real climate change for yourself at the Columbia Icefields then keep reading!

Athabasca Glacier Wilcox pass

My experience with climate change

I don’t think there’s really any doubt anymore that climate change is real. Without even looking at any data, we just have to take a look at the increasing number of freak weather events we have year on year to know something’s seriously wrong with the planet. Up until recently though, nothing about climate change had ever really hit home on a personal level.

Over the past few years I’ve experienced several freak weather events in Canada, like the enormous Calgary flood of 2013 and the huge fire that all but destroyed Fort McMurray in 2016; but bad weather comes and goes, and always has, and although I have no doubt that the increasing regularity of events is a sign of climate change, none of these events ever made me step back and think, “Wow…this is climate change, right here, right now”.

I mean it’s such a nebulous and distant concept that I think I just put it to the back of my mind and ignored it. You know, “maybe it’ll happen one day, but not today” etc.

I guess that without having something measurable and quantifiable in front of me that I could judge for myself, my acceptance of climate change would always have been based on other peoples’ opinions. That’s fine.. obviously.. (I mean, that’s how we pass on knowledge) but without any personal connection to climate change, it was always something I struggled to connect with emotionally.

All that changed last week when we revisited the Columbia Icefields again.

The Changing Glacier

We’ve made a habit of coming back to the Athabasca Glacier a few times every year, both in Winter and Summer, and it’s always amazing to climb the big Moraine and check out the enormous glacier in all its glory.

After a fun winter romping around the Icefields and checking out what was left of the collapsed ice cave, we decided to come back last week and take in the summer views. We hiked up the hill and almost immediately were taken back by how much it had changed – or at least how different it was from what we remembered.

In previous years, the ice seemed to end right in front of us, but now a large lake had appeared in between. It felt like the Glacier had retreated dozens or even hundreds of feet from what we remembered, but I suppose there was a part of us that still didn’t want to believe it. I still didn’t have proof that I was really experiencing what I thought I was experiencing so I didn’t really think any more of it… I snapped some pictures and we continued on to Jasper for the weekend.

Athabasca lake

athabasca glacier

Chasing Ice

Eventually we got home, and one night we found ourselves in the mood for a documentary. We happened upon an incredible film called “Chasing Ice”, a documentary following the world famous photographer James Balog, and the biggest photo study of Glaciers ever before undertaken. The goal was to take photos of several Glaciers around the world every hour of the day for a number of years. The idea was that if indeed the glaciers were receding as global warming was predicting, the full extent of it would show up on film.

chasing ice

The results were astonishing and in some cases, between 2000 and 2010, Glaciers had receded far further than they had in the previous 100 years. It was quite shocking to watch actually, but also interesting because it described one of the best ways for us to see a quantifiable effect of global warming. There’s always room for doubt with forest fires, hurricanes and floods, but a if a glacier that’s been there for thousands of years suddenly disappears in the space of a few months and years, it’s pretty hard to argue with.

Had the Glacier changed since my first visit?

So this got me thinking.. Could my photos over the years show any changes in the Athabasca Glacier? I first visited it back in 2014, and it’s now been almost exactly 3 years since then. When we talk about climate change we’re always taking about, “maybe not in our lifetime, but our kid’s lifetimes” etc., so I suppose I was hoping that not much would have changed in the 3 years I’ve been visiting.

It turned out that I had taken a couple of photos from roughly the same reference point (one from 2014, and one from 2017) and when I compared the two together, my jaw dropped.

The Glacier has retreated… a lot.. Here’s a (terrible) gif I’ve made to show how far it’s retreated.

Glacial retreat canada climate change

So you may be thinking that this may not seem like a lot, but this is a huge chunk of a glacier to disappear in such a short time frame. Consider that this glacier has probably existed for thousands of years, yet in the short space of 3 years it’s receded probably 100 feet. Some experts are predicting that this glacier won’t even be here for the next generation.

If the amount the glacier has retreated is hard to fathom from this photo, perhaps a bit of scale would help. If you look to the left, there’s a big boulder. That is not a small boulder – see if you can spot the tiny people next to it. That boulder is at least 4 times as tall as the people next to it.

Seeing those photos was my real wake up call. This is something I’ve seen change drastically in my lifetime, and a very, very short part of it at that. There is absolutely no denying the evidence; the evidence that’s so plain to see that even some guy with a camera can capture it. No bar charts, no fancy spreadsheets, just two photographs side by side. It’s truly a shame that this is going on under our watch, and it’s even worse that it’s happening all around the world to virtually all glaciers.

If more people could experience something tangible like this for themselves, I think we’d quickly start to gather more support for climate change policies and ethical/eco-friendly governance. It’s for that reason that James Balog’s study was so important, and it’s why we’re trying to do the same thing here (albeit on a relatively microscopic scale!)

Here are some other incredible glaciers in Canada that we’re at serious risk of losing:

Saskatchewan Glacier

The Saskatchewan Glacier

Angel Glacier Jasper

Angel Glacier – Mt Edith Cavell, Jasper

So how can you experience climate change for yourself then?

So I mentioned that if you stuck with me this far I’d suggest how you can experience it for yourself. It’s probably pretty obvious at this point!

If you’re planning a visit to the Columbia Icefields this summer, why not visit with your environmentalist’s hat on. Take a look at the markers along the road with years written on them. If the marker says 1992, it means that back in 1992, the Glacier was level with it. Notice just how far the glacier has retreated since the earliest marker, and even more importantly, notice how the distance between each signs grows as the years get closer to the present.

Take lots of photos for reference and when you get home, google some old photos of the Athabasca Glacier. If you’re anything like me, the distance the glacier has retreated will blow you away. Be the researcher for a change!

For reference, this is what it looked like in 1906! (it’s right up to the highway)

Athabasca Glacier 1906

Athabasca Glacier 1906 (above), 1998 (below). Source: Géographie physique et Quaternaire, 1999, vol. 53, n° 3, p. 401-405

If you’ve been before and this is a repeat visit, I would highly recommend bringing any old photos with you and comparing them with what you’re looking at. If seeing the tragic decline of the incredible glacier doesn’t make you want to do something for the planet, nothing will.

Donate

If, like us, you believe that raising awareness about climate change is an important issue, please consider donating to James Balog’s Extreme Ice survey. His tireless work to raise awareness needs to continue. (In case you’re wondering, we have ZERO association with this cause; we just really really believe in the work he’s doing).

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Melting Glaciers Athabasca Glacier

By | 2017-08-03T04:07:27+00:00 August 3rd, 2017|Alberta, Banff, Canada, Environment, Hiking, Summer Activities|0 Comments

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