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Disintegrating Rockies glacier sends ‘strong message’ on climate

Dr. John Pomeroy, second from right, of the University of Saskatchewan stands at the Columbia Icefield in the Rocky Mountains.

University of Saskatchewan

One of the world's longest-studied glaciers is melting so fast in the heart of the Canadian Rockies that scientists say it is "disintegrating" before their eyes, causing monitoring stations to collapse.

The Peyto Glacier in Banff National Park has long been regarded as a key global reference site for climate change studies. But the ice has started to crumble so quickly, says John Pomeroy, that clusters of scientific instruments mounted on poles drilled deep into the ice are toppling over and other data collection sites are flooding.

"Canada's glaciers are sending us a very strong message that we are in unprecedented climate change," said Dr. Pomeroy, director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan. "The glaciers are not coping. We are losing them within our lifetimes in Canada."

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He said Peyto Glacier, located along the Icefields Parkway, a spectacular scenic highway between Lake Louise and Jasper, is one of hundreds of glaciers in the Rockies that are melting away.

"The Rockies are literally coming out of the Ice Age and we are seeing this [happen now]," said Dr. Pomeroy. "Future generations driving down the Icefields Parkway will wonder why they named it that."

The Peyto Glacier, located about 90 kilometres northwest of Banff, has been intensely studied since the early 1950s, which makes it one of the longest scientifically observed glaciers in the world.

Each spring, researchers drill deep into the glacial ice to set up monitoring stations. But so much ice melted this past summer that the surface of the entire glacier dropped by more than five meters.

"We used to have three ice stations on the glacier and … all three have been destroyed by the ice melt being so fast that the poles come out of the ice and the stations fall over," Dr. Pomeroy said.

"Where we had stations in 2008 is now a lake … and the holes in the glacier are such that it's literally disintegrating. So it's becoming very difficult for us to study," he said. "I guess we're all used to melting glaciers these days, but this glacier is going so fast … we just can't keep up with it."

Dr. Pomeroy said the ice has retreated so dramatically in recent years that research huts built a few years ago near the ice are now an hour's hike away from the glacier's toe.

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And he said the Peyto Glacier is changing rapidly at the high end as well.

"At the top of the glacier, that's normally called the accumulation zone [because] that's where the snow falls, it doesn't completely melt every year … even that has melted down to bare ice," he said.

The dramatic collapse of the Peyto Glacier is not a local phenomenon, said Dr. Pomeroy, but "is part of a story that's going on around the world."

Interviewed as a United Nations-affiliated science conference began Thursday near Canmore, Alta., Dr. Pomeroy said record-high declines of glacier mass are being recorded around the world.

Glacial retreat is exacerbated in the Rockies, he said, because of low snowfall in recent winters and last summer's record drought in the West.

"And it doesn't look good for this year," said Dr. Pomeroy. "Right now I'm in the Rockies and there's no snow up to the highest peaks in the eastern slopes. In previous years, some of the ski resorts were getting ready to open by Halloween."

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Dr. Pomeroy said the International Network for Alpine Research Catchment Hydrology conference, which drew nearly 40 scientists from around the world, "will be directly informing the UN of our findings" in time for the upcoming United Nations conference on climate change in Paris.

He hopes reports on the rapid retreat of glaciers will catch the attention of politicians as they ponder what to do about climate change.

"It's good to have a warning. The alarms are going off and there is still time to save other things," said Dr. Pomeroy. "We need to take action immediately."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More


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