Glaciers in the Rockies could shrink 90 percent by 2100

Athabasca Glacier

Every spring and summer, tourists from around the world flock to Jasper National Park to see the pristine frozen tundra of the Athabasca Glacier. A part of the Columbia Icefield—the largest mass of ice in the Rocky Mountains—the Athabasca is the most visited glacier in North America. But according to a new study, it could nearly disappear by 2100.

Published earlier this week in the journal of Nature Geoscience, the study predicts that thousands of glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta will shrink 70 percent by 2100, depending on the state of human-caused climate change.

According to the study, glaciers in the Rockies, which are drier than the coastal mountains, could face “ice and volume losses” that “exceed 90 percent.” The glaciers in coastal northwestern B.C. will “survive in a diminished state.”

If Canadians want to reduce how quickly the glaciers are retreating, including the Athabasca, we need to take action now.

Garry Clarke, co-author of the study and a professor emeritus in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia, says that if emissions are lowered, it could have a huge effect on the longevity of the glaciers. And for Clarke, he hopes that the study sheds light on a problem that’s “dead serious.”

“If you look and say, ‘Here’s a glacier that you ski on right now and here’s what it will look like 20, 30, 50 years in the future’ and they can see the consequences, I think it’s a stronger message. It works a little bit more viscerally for people who are not scientists,” said Clarke in an interview with the CBC.


What the Columbia Icefield, which is where the Athabasca Glacier is located, could look under a low-emissions scenario. Courtesy of Garry Clarke / University of British Columbia
What the Columbia Icefield, which is where the Athabasca Glacier is located, could like look under a high-emissions scenario. Courtesy of Garry Clarke / University of British Columbia 


Last spring, John Wilmshurst, Jasper National Park’s resource conservation manager, told the Canadian Press that he also predicted the Athabasca Glacier will disappear.

Wilmhurst noted that experts track the growth and shrinkage by placing markers along the glacier’s edge. Markers placed in 1890 show that the Athabasca Glacier has receded by 1.5-kilometers, losing about five-meters each year.

“Absolutely the glacier will be gone,” said Wilmshurst, in an interview with the Canadian Press. “Not within my lifetime, probably, but maybe within my children’s lifetime.”