Should Alberta Legally Protect Its Glaciers?

A recent article in the journal Appeal by Jennifer Cox of the University of Calgary discusses the possibility of legislation regimes for the roughly 700 glaciers in Alberta, Canada. She reviews existing laws and considers alternative forms which might protect these valuable, rapidly-shrinking ice bodies.

Murray Fraser Hall, University of Calgary Faculty of Law (source: LSAC)
Murray Fraser Hall, University of Calgary Faculty of Law (source: LSAC)

Cox argues that existing laws in Canada do not protect glaciers, which she describes as sui generis, or unique. She asserts that Alberta should consider drafting legislation devoted to them, and explores how other countries— like Argentina, Kyrgyzstan, and Switzerland— have legally protected their own glaciers.

Cox begins by mentioning the important status of glaciers. Glaciers provide many ecosystem services and also have touristic and economic value for sightseeing, as well as ecological and scientific value. However, climate change is the greatest threat to Alberta’s glaciers. Since glaciers retreat and their water storage capacity diminishes, problems related to the legal rights of water resources will occur. Moreover, melting glaciers could also lead to possible floods,which some researchers think could be a major problem for Alberta.

Considering that glaciers can provide so many functions and but also spur conflict or disaster, Cox recommends that legislation for glaciers should be created in Alberta and that lawmakers should consider both the pitfalls and successes of laws in other countries first.

Cox raises a slew of questions about glaciers and the law:

As glaciers retreat and their incredible water storage is used up, who gets priority to the water? What happens to the riparian rights downstream when the primary source disappears? Who can tourist companies and national parks sue when one of their main attractions disappear? What if precious minerals, such as gold or copper, are discovered underneath Alberta’s glaciers? Who has rights to glaciers? Is there a right to glaciers? Can glaciers be removed and sold? If so, who gets the pro ts?26 What happens to borders, provincial or international, when the glaciers that differentiate them melt? Who will be liable in the case of a GLOF?

Moraine Lake Alberta Canada(Credit: Flickr)
Moraine Lake, Alberta (Credit: Flickr)

In order to answer the questions above, the author tries to articulate the current situation and to give some recommendations for Alberta from a legal perspective.

The Canada Water Act, the Canada National Parks Act, Alberta’s Provincial Parks Act,and Canada’s other federal and provincial climate change laws do not provide useful guidance related to the legal status of glaciers. The provincial and federal parks acts do not give a layer of direct protection for glaciers within their boundaries, and climate change regulations focus mostly on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. As for the Canada’s common law, water riparian rights are neither logically stated nor practically protected. Although international law could provide theoretical guidance, its principle is still legally inapplicable to the glaciers of Alberta. Thus, no legal regime on glaciers currently exists in Alberta.

Fort McMurray Wildfire in Alberta Canada Deemed Extreme(Credit: NASA)
Fort McMurray Wildfire in Alberta Canada Deemed Extreme (Credit: NASA)

“Alberta should look to create legislation that is aimed directly at glaciers,” Cox concludes. “Proactive legislation would protect this unique economic and environmental resource for Albertans and Canadians for decades to come.”

Meanwhile, wildfires continue to ravage Alberta and might take several months to extinguish. This unusually large set of wildfires reflects the influence of climate change, and points to the urgency of fighting climate change. As Cox shows, legal systems can be a crucial element in such fights.

Photo Friday: Glacier Illuminated by Aurora

This week’s photos feature the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta, Canada with Northern Lights in the background. Photographer Paul Zizka captured ice climber Stuart and Takeshi Tani hanging from the glacier when the Northern Light hits the sky.

Paul Zizka is a professional mountain landscape and adventure photographer based in Banff, Alberta. He has a passion for shooting alpine sports and capturing the unique features of nature. “My hope is that through my photography, people will rediscover the precious connection they can have with the wonders of our planet,” he said.

For more photos from Paul Zizka, please look here.

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Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at

Participation: The Key to Water Governance in Glacier Regions

To conserve dwindling water resources, government policies will need to ensure that communities which live near main water sources are involved in water management, according to a new study by Margot Hurlbert and Joyeet Gupta.

This year, 2015, is marked by a global focus on sustainable development and climate change. Currently, a new set of universal goals, named the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is being negotiated, building off the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Access to clean water and water security remains a top goal and is integrated into all 17 SDGs.

The new study suggests that effective stakeholder participation in water management and climate change requires organizational learning and social trust, as well as appropriate policy structures and levels of consensus among stakeholders.

A number of questions emerge from a review of successful cases in which stakeholders have been part of effective policy making. For example, how can stakeholder participation be promoted within regional policy making,  and under which circumstances the stakeholder participation will be important for policy making? The researchers use what they term a “split-ladder participation model” to study stakeholder participation and policy under different settings in South America (Mendoza, Argentina and Coquimbo, Chile) and Canada (Alberta and Saskatchewan). They build on an influential 1969 paper by Sherry Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” which has been cited over 1600 times.  They follow Arnstein’s image of a ladder which ascends from lower ground (less participation) to higher ground (more participation), and amend it by suggesting that the ladder has two split, or partially separated, sides, one with more tightly structured organizaitonal frameworks and one with less tightly structured frameworks. They draw on a set of case studies to document that both sides allow the climb upward to higher levels of participation, though with varying degrees of trust and social learning. The authors propose that this split-ladder approach can serve as a means to examine stakeholder participation in the formulation or implementation of  regional water policy.

Clear waters of lake and Andes Mountains in Mendoza, Argentine
Clear waters and mountains, Mendoza, Argentina (Photo: Flickr)

In the Mendoza region of the Argentine Andes (one of the four case studies presented in the study), local residents depend on glaciers for water supply. Many small communities manage water resources locally and independently in Mendoza. Access to water in this region is closely tied to land ownership, so individuals whose lands are close to the glacier control the meltwater. The authors argue that this control by local landowners allows residents to create sustainable policies and regulations, avoiding the domination of narrow special interest groups. This management, in turns, led to the creation of a Glacier Preservation Law to conserve glaciers as a valued resource. This law has gained public trust over the last couple of years, according to the study

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This image depicts the split- ladder model. (source: Hurlbert & Gupta 2015)

Water governance varies in the four cases. In Coquimbo, Chile, water is bought through a water market while in in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, water is licensed through government institutions.

In Coquimbo, a region also fed by Andean glaciers, water markets and water privatization structure current water management practices. Participation and water governance are monitored via involvement of The Chilean national government, regional government bodies and civil society organizations support participation, though privatization has limited water rights for some stakeholders, and the building of dams  has caused further problems for management of water resources.

Water management and participation are handled slightly differently in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, through the provision of government licensing and availability of limited water markets and through water policies in which technical experts and criteria are highly influential. Canada manages drinking water quality standards through a combination of legislation, monitoring and reporting. In Alberta, where glacier meltwater from the Rocky Mountains is an important resource, water conservation efforts are undertaken through the Alberta Water Act 2000 while the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency governs water in Saskatchewan. The levels and forms of participation influence the patterns of effectiveness of water governance in these provinces.

The Oldman River Dam (shown here is its reservoir) in Alberta, Canada is categorized as a successful example of quadrant 1 of the split-ladder model. (Photo: Flickr)
The Oldman River Dam (shown here is a glimpse of its reservoir) in Alberta, Canada is categorized as a successful example of the split-ladder model. (Photo: Flickr)

Elsewhere in the world, organizations such as ICIMOD and the Mountain Partnership have categorically found that stakeholder participation and development of local scale solutions are critically needed for long term sustainability of water resources in mountain regions, where glaciers are melting as a result of climate change. The use of water resources could range from drinking supply to hydroelectric power and provision of ecological services. The split-ladder model framework could be potentially used in these areas as well for assessing importance of local participation in policy making.

In sum, this study offers the split ladder approach as a promising avenue to assess the role of stakeholder participation in water resource governance.  Its broad scope invites researchers, managers and community members around the world to apply it in sustainable management of this critical resource.

For more details on water governance in these areas, visit these posts on Canada and Chile.










After 100 Years of Glacier Loss, Alberta Braces for Erratic Water Flow

Overlooking the town of Banff, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, with Bow River flowing across the town. Taken at the top of the Sulphur Mountain. (Photo: Yuanrong Zhou)
Overlooking the town of Banff, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, with Bow River flowing across the town. Taken at the top of the Sulphur Mountain. (Photo: Yuanrong Zhou)

When I travelled to Banff National Park in Alberta last summer, I was impressed by the high white peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Locals joked that those who want to see the snowy, icy mountains should hurry, because such beautiful landscapes may soon cease to exist due to global warming. Sadly, what the local people said is true. A recent study suggests that glaciers along the eastern side of the Canadian Rockies will lose 80-90% of their volume by 2100.

“Temperature rise isn’t something you can see. But a glacier melting is something everybody can see,” Michael Zemp, director at the World Glacier Monitoring Service told National Geographic magazine in 2006, when discussing glacial loss in the Alps.

The majestic snowy crowns I spied in Banff form the Peyto glacier, situated at the headwater of the Mistaya River, which merges with the North Saskatchewan River at Saskatchewan Crossing. It happens to be a reference site for the World Glacier Monitoring Service, a Zurich-based organization which gathers and distributes standardized data on glacier fluctuation. In its latest report WGMS noted that Peyto is losing 3.5 million cubic meters of water every year. That kind of volume of water can sustain a city with a population of 1.2 million, such as Calgary, for one day. Cumulatively, 70 percent of the Peyto Glacier ice mass melted since the mid-19th century, when scientists first began watching it.

Peyto Glacier at 1896, taken by Walter Wilcox. (Source: PARC Project P55 Report)
Peyto Glacier at 1896, taken by Walter Wilcox. (Source: PARC Project P55 Report)

Meltwater from glaciers on the eastern slope of the Canadian Rockies, including Peyto Glacier, supply both the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, which flow into the Canadian Prairie Provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, to support municipal, industrial, as well as agricultural usages. With the dramatic retreat of glaciers along the east side, like Peyto Glacier, the two Saskatchewan River basins have seen significant declines in flow. In particular, the mean annual flow of Bow River at the South Saskatchewan River basin, which passes through Alberta, has decreased by 11.5 percent since 1910.

With melt season occurring earlier and earlier each year, spring floods have become more common, while water supply is low during the summer months, just when it is most needed. Specifically, the spring flow in Bow River has increased by 15.2 percent since 1910, though the annual flow has declined. Consequently, Alberta has experienced severe floods successively in June 2013 and June 2014 due to intensive precipitation as well as early snowmelt.

Heavy rain combined with earlier glacier melt into both the Elbow river and the Bow river flooded Calgary, Alberta in late June 2013. (Wayne Stadler/Flickr)
Heavy rain combined with earlier glacier melt into both the Elbow river and the Bow river flooded Calgary, Alberta in late June 2013. (Wayne Stadler/Flickr)

“In the last twelve years, the Prairie Provinces have seen the worst drought and the worst flooding since the settlement of western Canada,” John Pomeroy, director of the Center for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan, told Yale Environment 360 earlier this year.

To adapt to future changes in water flows, new water management systems have been implemented in Alberta. In 2010, the Bow River Project was launched to analyze the Bow River System. Ultimately, scientists on the project recommended developing integrated management of the water system. Most recently, in March, the Bow River Project submitted its final report, Bow Basin Flood Mitigation and Watershed Management Project, which recommended measures that might prevent devastating floods in the region. In particular, the report proposed wetland storage and restoration of natural rivers to prevent future melt-related floods like those recently seen in Alberta.

But these are measures of adaptation rather than prevention. They won’t do anything to stop Peyto and glaciers like it from disappearing. Keeping these glaciers alive will take a different kind of effort, though I may not be around in 2100 to see what happens.


Photo Friday: Banff National Park

Founded in 1885, Banff National Park in Alberta is Canada’s oldest national park. Flickr user Adam Fagan features pictures of his 2012 trip to the national park.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at

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