Alberta’s Athabasca Glacier is in danger of disappearing, experts say

Athabasca Glacier

Jasper National Park’s Athabasca Glacier, the most visited glacier in North America, is in danger of disappearing completely.

According to reports from Parks Canada, the glacier has steadily been shrinking for the past 150 years and is currently losing around five metres of ice each year, despite the seven metres of annual snowfall that the area receives.

The Athabasca Glacier is the largest of six ice sheets forming the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park, which is often deemed a “must-see” tourist destination in the Canadian Rockies. 

“Every year we drive stakes five metres deep into the glacier in the fall,” John Wilmshurst, Jasper National Park’s resource conservation manager told The Canadian Press. “We have to return and re-drill them in mid-summer because a lot of those stakes on the Athabasca Glacier…will be lying flat on the ice at that time.”

Markers positioned on the tow of the Glacier from 1890 show that the ice has already retreated 1.5 kilometres, and the meltwater from the Icefield flows into the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic Oceans. “Any growth is dwarfed by the amount it recedes,” says Wilmshurst.

Bob Sandford is chairman of the Canadian Partnership Initiative for the UN Water for Life Decade and published a book on the Columbia Icefield in 1994. “Even though this year we will have had a fairly substantial snow year,” Sandford told The Canadian Press, “What we’re finding is that, even with substantial snow years, the summers are warm enough and the fall is prolonged enough that all of that snow goes and we’re still losing five metres.” 

Wilmshurst estimates the Athabasca Glacier is approximately 300 metres deep, but is slowly disappearing. “It is hard to know in the long term what climate cycles mean to people,” he told The Canadian Press, but his prediction for this stunning and powerful attraction is not positive: “Absolutely the glacier will be gone. Not within my lifetime, probably, but maybe within my children’s lifetime.”