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The Columbia Icefield: Dispatch from a warming world

Canada has numerous remote glacial lakes, but the largest is Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park, Alberta, which is accessible by only one road at one point. The entire lake shore is wilderness surrounded by steep mountains of the Queen Elizabeth Ranges and three melting glaciers. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

What is a column about Canadian glaciers doing in a newspaper section titled Southwest Life? Well, we were southwest of the Arctic Circle. Understanding climate change is important wherever you are on planet earth.

During one of the hottest summers ever recorded, my wife and I ventured north into western Canada to travel the Icefields Parkway described by National Geographic as the “Drive of a lifetime – one of the world’s most spectacular driving tours.” What we saw and what we learned included a visit to one of the continent’s epicenters for climate change – the Columbia Icefield and the receding Athabasca Glacier shrinking after 15,000 years.

The drive from Banff to Jasper traverses the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, through one of the largest protected areas in the world complete with elk, loons, and grizzly bears. There are vast mountain ranges and turquoise-blue and aquamarine glacier-fed lakes like Lake Louise, Peyto Lake, Moraine Lake, and Maligne Lake. Their stunning blue is because of rock flour or glacial flour so named because glaciers grind limestone bedrock into fine dust that reflects the sun’s rays back as a brilliant blue.

The remoteness of the Canadian Rockies includes only one two-lane asphalt highway uniting Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. North of Jasper and bordered on the west by the Continental Divide, Willmore Wilderness Park stretches for roadless miles. Yoho National Park and Kootenay National Park lay west of Banff.

At the top of these national parks are glaciers and icefields, but the only ice field accessible by car is at Sunwapta Pass south of Jasper where the mammoth Columbia Ice field comes down from Mt. Snow Dome. The field is so massive that it is a hydrographic apex unique in North America creating a triple continental divide. Glacial melt becomes lakes and rivers that flow into three oceans: down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, down the North Saskatchewan River to the Atlantic Ocean via Hudson Bay, and from the Athabaska River to the Arctic Ocean.

Canada has 20% of the world’s glacial coverage, more than any other country aside from Antarctica and Greenland, but its glaciers are quickly melting. Photographs vividly document climate change. Experts now believe that 70% of Canada’s glacial ice could disappear by the year 2100. Without glaciers keeping our planet cool, sea levels will rise along with storm surges, hurricanes, typhoons, and unknown damage to agriculture, fisheries, and human habitation. My wife and I had to see it for ourselves. We had to get out on the ice.

But the front of a glacier, known as a glacial snout, is not a safe place to be. Ice can calve off at any time, crumble, crack, and fall. The safest approach is much higher up on an ice field but getting there means driving over huge stony moraines of gravel and rock pushed up as high ridges to the sides of descending glaciers. The Canadian government built a wide road up to the Columbia Icefield, but travel is restricted to mammoth Ice Explorers or six-wheel-drive, 56-pasenger vehicles like school buses on steroids painted Canadian white on red.

Their tires are five-feet tall and three feet wide. They drive the steepest gravel road on the continent with a 32% grade. Powered by Mercedes engines, these Ice Explorers cost $1.3 million each. There are 22 of them in Canada and one in Antarctica. Used primarily for tourist visits and researchers, these behemoths don’t put on many miles in a year, but where they go may predict the climate future for all of us because that future is found in melting Pleistocene ice.

“As our scientific awareness grows, we now understand the importance of the Columbia Icefield as a climatic thermostat and water tower for western North America,” writes United Nations climate specialist Robert William Sandford in The Columbia Icefield. He adds, “Over the last three decades the glaciers of the mountain West have been shrinking faster than at any other time in recorded history. If the world continues to warm and all this ‘water in the bank’ disappears, the West, and our entire continent, will be a very different place.”

We stepped down out of an Ice Explorer onto the Athabasca Glacier and a landscape of snow, ice, and a small stream of flowing pure blue water gurgling down to rivers below. Our guide had warned us to stay within the boundary area designated by poles and a thin chain. Crossing the top of a glacier without an experienced guide can expose novice hikers to dangerous crevasses, cracks, and a slippery, constantly changing surface.

Visitors to Canada’s Athabaska Glacier walk and romp in a designated area on the ice field and often sample the clear blue melt water. Canadian glaciers are shrinking just as they are in the American West. In Montana’s Glacier National Park 113 of the 150 glaciers that existed in the park are now gone. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

We saw dramatic icefalls at the head wall or top of the Athabasca Glacier but stayed safely within bounds. Excited guests took dozens of photos, hugged each other, posed with a Canadian flag mounted on a flagpole, and felt the cold air rushing downhill all around us. After an all too short twenty minutes, we were back on the bus headed down to the Columbia Icefield Centre which has viewing decks, multiple restaurants, lodging for summer workers, and a requisite gift shop and film viewing area. I had to wonder if visitors taking selfies on the ice realized that they were also taking selfies of climate change in a unique historical moment.

We had lunch at the Centre with other members of our Denver-based Treasure Box tour. Just as I was refilling my tea, a crush of patrons flocked to our fourth story glass windows to look out at the sprawling parking lot and an adjacent mountain hillside. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about until I saw the black bear being pursued uphill by a trio of workers, one carrying a rifle to fire rubber bullets. As I finished my lunch, I learned what I had missed.

The bear I saw was one of two cubs. The 800-pound mother grizzly had been higher on the ridge and now the threesome were becoming problem bears. They had previously been relocated and were again too close to summer visitors. Climate change continues to move animals because of record heat. “It has been determined that 73% of the alpine tundra in the western United States can no longer be classified as such. Since 1987, the continental United States has lost three-quarters of its alpine regions to global warming,” warns Sandford.

Pity the poor pika or rock rabbit that tends to die of heat stress. It can only go so high and now even on the summits of mountains in our Colorado Rockies rising temperatures may make it impossible to survive. Then there’s the hoary marmot, the largest member of the squirrel family. These curious fat fellows are coming out of their Colorado burrows 23 days, or nearly a month, earlier than they were in the 1970s, but with less to eat because plants aren’t grown. Sanford explains “starving marmots in Colorado are coming out of hibernation to discover that the salad bar isn’t open and won’t open for some time – and then they are dying.” Is it any wonder that a grizzly sow and her cubs were near a visitor center looking for handouts?

The Columbia Icefield Skywalk is a dramatic loop of steel and glass that stretches out high above the Sunwapta River with views of the Athabaska Glacier beyond. Interpretive signs describe the impact of climate change on the Columbia Icefield which has lost one-third of its glaciers since the 1990s. Without the cooling effect of glaciers, wildlife, rivers, and seasonal temperatures will be severely affected. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

We left the ice field for the Glacier Skywalk and a massive stretch of rusty metal walkway poised atop the whitewater rapids of the Sunwapta River 918 feet below. I don’t much like Ferris wheels above the ocean, and I was frightened with only plexiglass between me and the river rocks. I hung on to the edge as I got a better look at the huge Athabasca Glacier shimmering in August heat several miles away. The skywalk made me fearful, but no more so than the thought of melting glaciers turning up the continent’s thermostat.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.