Radar surveys on multiple glaciers in the Columbia River Basin found ice to be much thicker than previously estimated, according to a recent study from the University of Northern British Columbia.
Researcher Ben Pelto and his colleagues skied more than 180 km across glaciers pulling sleds loaded with radar equipment to capture tens of thousands of measurements for determining ice depth. On average, they found the glaciers to be 38 per cent thicker than expected.
“It wasn’t surprising that it was thicker, but it was by how much,” said Pelto.
The data showed ice volume to be 23 per cent higher than previously shown by computer modeling estimates.
Glacier data in the study was obtained from the Kokanee, Conrad, Nordic, Zillmer, Haug, West Washmawapta Glacier, and Illecillewaet, near Revelstoke in Glacier National Park. While glaciers are important in the Columbia River Basin both economically and ecologically, little is known about them.
|From the summit of Mount Conrad at 3290 meters looking into Bugaboo Provincial Park. The Conrad Glacier occupies the lower left of the image, with (left to right) Osprey Peak, Vowell Peak, Bugaboo Spire, Pigeon Spire and Howser Spire. (Photo by Ben Pelto)|
Pelto’s study was to advance the current ice thickness database for Canadian glaciers and provide better data for understanding the impacts of climate change on the landscape.
“It’s nice to know how much ice we have up there as glaciers act as water towers,” he said. The ice provides drinking water for communities, for example the Illecillewaet Glacier feeds into the headwaters for Revelstoke’s water supply. Glaciers also keep streams cold, which is important for many fish and plant species.
While Pelto said it’s good news that the glaciers are thicker, it won’t change their fate.
“They’re still doomed.”
The study predicts most glaciers will disappear from the basin within 80 years. Pelto said it’s possible some glacier scraps may persist, such as on the Illecillewaet. However, overall there will be a pitiful amount of ice left in western Canada compared to today.
The extra thickness, only means glaciers will be around for a couple extra decades, said Pelto.
“Even if we all went to Mars tomorrow and there were no more emissions, most glaciers are going to blink out.”
|Ben Pelto, Alexandre Bevington and Jesse Milner taking radar measurements while towing the radar high on the Nordic Glacier, across the “Angel’s Traverse”. Nordic Glacier is the ski terrain of Sorcerer Lodge. Ice thickness here was around 60 m. (Photo by Jill Pelto)|
There are approximately 200,000 glaciers in the world, 17,000 of which are in B.C. and Alberta.
In the study, the Conrad Glacier had the greatest depth measured at almost 320 metres and Illecillewaet was second at 260 metres. On average, all seven glaciers had an average depth of 92 metres.
BC Hydro supported the study as the company relies on glacier melt to power the province through hydroelectricity.
The company said it’s important for it to have a better understanding of the glacier mass left in the Columbia Basin in particular, as glacier melt can account for up to 30 per cent of the late summer inflow to streams and reservoirs in the Upper Columbia watershed, including the Mica and Revelstoke dams.
More than 40 per cent of the hydro power generated in the U.S., is from the Columbia River Basin.
The study will help the company with its long-term planning on how climate change will impact hydro operations.
Parks Canada also supported the study and said understanding the long-term effects of shrinking glaciers on the ecosystems in Glacier National Park will also help guide future conservation and restoration efforts in the park and throughout the Columbia Mountains.
The agency is in the process of drafting a new management plan for Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks that will likely use glaciers as a measurement of health for the alpine environment.
Long term Parks Canada data shows glaciers in Glacier National Park are overall declining and the most significant loss has occurred over the last 30 years.
Glacier National Park currently has 129 glaciers, down from 337 in less than 40 years.
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