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.
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.
“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.