Once the Glaciers Disappear, We Can’t Get Them Back

My parents took me to see the Athabasca Glacier as a kid. By the time my children grow up, it could be gone.

Photo by m01229 via WikiMedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Alberta’s Athabasca Glacier

My first in-your-face experience with climate change was the summer I turned 9. It was the mid-‘90s, and my family was visiting the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta’s Jasper National Park.

The Athabasca is the best-known of the six “toes” of the Rocky Mountains’ massive Columbia Icefield. If you drive the world-famous Icefields Parkway, you’ll see it on the west side, around an hour south of Jasper. As of 2020, the icefield is a sprawling 200 hectares of rock and ice, straddling the Alberta-BC border.

To get to the ice, you either pay a not-insignificant sum to ride a special bus equipped with giant, off-roading tires, or you walk up a rocky but well-trodden path. My family chose the path. As we hiked, we passed small trailside markers, each showing a different year.

These signs, my father said, indicated how far the glacier’s icy terminus had previously reached. A quick glance showed that since 1890 — the first year marked — the glacier had steadily retreated. This was happening, my father explained, because humans were warming up the Earth, speeding up the melting of the ice. If we kept doing what we were doing, the planet would get hotter and the glacier would be gone.

Since the mid-1800s, the Athabasca Glacier has receded around 1.75 kilometres.

You know where this is going: The ice has continued to melt. Since the mid-1800s, the Athabasca Glacier has receded around 1.75 kilometres. Depending on summer temperatures and other factors, as much as 20 metres of horizontal ice is lost each year, alongside as much as 6.5 metres of vertical ice.

Glaciers do naturally recede. Over 11,000 years ago, Alberta was covered by ice that has since retreated. But what we’re seeing with the Athabasca isn’t normal melt, explains Bob Sandford, the water and climate security chair at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

Sandford — a lifelong Albertan who’s lived in the Rockies for decades — has personally watched the Athabasca recede year after year. He’s also seen the data. He explains that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published five reports that all looked at whether glacier melting is just cyclical. “And every time,” he says, “the answer comes back in a more complete and refined way, suggesting irrevocably that it’s increases in carbon dioxide that are causing this.”

I’ve always thought the Athabasca Glacier represented Alberta more accurately than Instagram-perfect Lake Louise. Just like the province, the glacier is impressive and demands your attention. It’s rugged yet also surprisingly accessible; Parks Canada says it’s the most-visited glacier in North America. And, like Alberta’s, its fate is interwoven with the fossil fuel industry.

I was born in rural Alberta and lived there until I was 18. Then — with an acceptance letter to a Toronto university — I left, knowing I would never return to live. But I did, and still do, look back. And, too often, my home province fills me with frustration, bewilderment, and even anger.

I left Alberta during the era of the Kyoto Protocol, in which Canada committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. When Kyoto was ratified in 2002, nearly 75% of Canadians — including my immediate family — supported it. But for the most part, it was blasphemy in Alberta, where the conservative provincial government campaigned against it.

The author’s first child, photographed in front of the receding Athabasca Glacier

Sometimes I wonder: What if Alberta’s turn-of-the-millennium government had taken a different path? Acknowledged that oil was a crucial part of the province’s past, but couldn’t be its future, then focused on a methodical transition to a low-carbon economy that could have served as a model for the entire world.

Instead, most subsequent provincial governments have continued to promote the fossil fuel industry’s expansion with policies that will see the province dragged in the history books. The current United Conservative Party government is particularly aggressive, cancelling its progressive predecessor’s made-in-Alberta carbon tax, creating a “war room” to promote a pro-fossil fuels agenda, and launching an inquiry into the already debunked theory that foreign-funded environmental groups are sabotaging the province’s energy sector.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Alberta is a beautiful place full of talent, promise, and an economy nearly as complex as my feelings about the province. Yes, oil and gas is still the biggest industry, but in 2017, that sector’s contribution to the GDP was 16%! Too often, the province’s leaders and residents treat Alberta as some kind of disconnected bubble that exists primarily to feed the bottom line of the energy sector, regardless of consequences.

True, the oil industry has taken some positive steps. Between 2000 and 2017, operational greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands were reduced by nearly 30%. But they still pump out approximately 70 metric megatonnes of greenhouse gases a year. (By comparison, in 2017, the roughly 6.9 million residents of Massachusetts produced just over 73 metric megatonnes.) And the industry wants that number to grow; the Oil Sands Advisory Group has proposed allowing emissions to reach 100 megatonnes, at which point they would be capped. The Athabasca is already receding 200 times faster than normal, and its home province is willing to allow its demise to happen even quicker.

Mark Ednie, a scientist with Natural Resources Canada who monitors the glacier, explains that glaciers are a reflection of our past emissions: “What we’re seeing now is what the climate was like from 20, or even 50, years ago.” He says that even if the world went zero-carbon tomorrow, the glaciers would continue to melt as our air temperature is higher now than it was decades ago.

When I ask if there’s any way to save the Athabasca, Ednie replies without hesitation, “There’s nothing we can physically do.” Based on the models he’s seen, “The glacier will probably disappear between 2040 and 2100.” The higher altitude parts of the Columbia Icefield should persist for much longer, though.

Sandford’s research is a bit more optimistic. While the Athabasca will be “much diminished within a generation,” he believes some part of the glacier will continue to overlook the Icefields Parkway into the next century.

Both men agree glaciers are vanishing. They point to research by the University of British Columbia, which concluded that by 2100 up to 90% of Alberta’s glaciers could be gone. “They’re on their way out,” says Sandford, with audible sadness.

When glaciers are lost, roughly one in four Albertans could face seasonal water shortages.

The loss of the Athabasca will hurt tourism — those specialized glacier buses won’t have any ice to rumble over — but the biggest impact would likely be on the province’s water supply. Last August, a study by UBC scientists was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. It found that retreating glaciers in Alberta and BC — including the Athabasca — will cause Alberta’s various glacier-fed rivers to have “substantially lower” flow during the summer. Without additional measures, over 1 million Albertans (roughly one in four residents) could face seasonal water shortages. It also noted the communities most at risk; one of them is Hinton, my former hometown.

The study’s lead author, Sam Anderson, told me that Alberta’s Environment and Parks ministry has reached out to him about his work. But while government employees might care about the province’s glaciers, there’s little evidence of that sentiment among its leaders. After not finding any provincial government statement about the Athabasca, I reached out to Alberta Environment and Parks. A staffer told me they would try to get a comment, but ultimately, my request was met with silence.

“The Alberta government doesn’t care about climate change,” Sandford told me without hesitation, adding he feels embarrassed to be Albertan. I can’t help but nod in agreement.

My struggle with Alberta isn’t just that it too often resists science, but that it’s being economically foolish. We’re approaching “peak oil demand,” when the world’s thirst for oil will reach its highest point, then begin a permanent decline in both consumption and pricing. In 2017, Shell predicted we’d reach this stage in the early 2030s. Now, changing market conditions have BP, one of the world’s energy giants, saying we’ll hit it sometime this decade.

Already, many billions of investment dollars have been diverted. Withdrawal of capital has hit the Alberta oil sands especially hard, presumably due to the high cost of getting their product to market, and its reputation for being dirtier than other sources of fossil fuels. Alberta oil patch revenue for 2020–2021 may not crack C$1.3 billion; in 2014–2015 it was over C$7 billion. According to public policy research centre Parkland Institute, the industry has shed over 53,000 jobs between 2014 and 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the ugliness of its politics, Alberta is a stunning place that should inspire the fight against climate change.

Alberta is attempting to diversify its economy somewhat. But the provincial government is undeniably most active when protecting an industry that’s not only killing the planet, but is itself dying. This focus is so disconnected from reality, I can’t help wondering if we’ve entered some kind of final phase of grifting that will end with a handful of people getting rich while ordinary Albertans are left with few jobs, a gutted economy, and a rocky slope where a glacier once stretched in Jasper National Park.

I hope to return to the Athabasca Glacier next summer, with my toddler. I want to recreate photos I took a few years ago with my first child, with the glacier in the background. The photos will be proof my children saw the Athabasca before it was reduced to a mere sliver of the Columbia Icefield.

They will also remind me that, despite the ugliness of Alberta politics, the province is a stunning place that should inspire the fight against climate change. While we might lose the Athabasca Glacier, we can still honour it by advocating for policies that will keep the rest of the natural world from the same fate.

Asparagus depends on readers.

Support our work by subscribing, donating, or buying sustainable swag.