Scientists are fanning out across the Arctic and up the country’s highest mountains for an in-depth look at a critical resource: Canada’s share of the world’s remaining glaciers.
Scientists who study Canada’s glaciers say they are often in awe when standing atop the country’s iconic frozen formations, but the experience is especially striking when it is accompanied by an utter lack of sound.
“It can be extremely quiet,” said Gwenn Flowers, a geophysicist at Simon Fraser University who specializes in the dynamics of glaciers. “When coming up from the city, I find that for the first few days my ears kind of buzz from the absence of background noise. It’s as though your body has to recalibrate to the silence.”
This week, Dr. Flowers is undertaking a comprehensive check up of glaciers at her field sites in Kluane National Park in Yukon. The trip is the key event of her research year – a chance to chronicle the slow-motion pulsations of mountain ice. The exercise is akin to watching an action movie by studying one single frame at a time.
Across the country, glaciologists have similarly been heading north or west since mid-April to gather data and reconnect with the places that are at the focus of their life’s work. It is an annual ritual that begins when winter recedes and daylight hours lengthen.
Increasingly, it has become the time for scientists to quantify the previous year’s loss before summer heat, amplified by climate change, takes another bite out of what remains. In some cases, it means watching the disintegration of features that have been integral to the country’s landscape for tens of thousands of years.
It is a dramatic shift that is sending ripples around the world – literally. Canada has stewardship over about one third of the world’s glaciers outside of Greenland and Antarctica. As the century rolls on, the more those glaciers retreat, the more they contribute to rising sea levels.
Closer to home, the ice is a crucial reserve whose loss also carries important regional and local consequences for water resources and wild life. It even effects air quality, as bare ground formerly covered by glaciers becomes a source of airborne dust for communities downwind, Dr. Flowers added.
The need to measure and monitor the ice on a continuing basis is becoming more urgent as the pace of climate change accelerates. One of the reasons for the annual gathering of data is to recalibrate computer-generated forecasts that can tell scientists what lies ahead.
In 2020, the pandemic created a gap in Canada’s ice records when it prevented teams from travelling to their remote field sites. The data gathering resumed in 2021 but the amount of change that had occurred in the interim was profound. In some cases, aluminum measuring rods used to gauge the rate of ice loss melted out of the glaciers entirely and toppled over as ice retreated or lost too much thickness.
This year, The Globe and Mail spoke with four glaciologists, including Dr. Flowers, ahead of their departures for this year’s field season. They discussed their plans and their eagerness to return to the austere settings that form the backdrop to their scientific work.
“Some people would find it hostile and cold,” said Dr. Flowers, who is also president of the International Glaciological Society. “But if you see a raven fly over your camp or a cluster of flowers on a moraine, it’s very special. I think the starkness and the spare character of the landscape makes you appreciate every single detail about it.”
A fine balance
Canada’s largest glaciers are massive sheets of ice that sit atop the northern islands of the Arctic Archipelago. Among the highest is the Devon ice cap, whose summit is 1,800 metres above sea level, about 750 metres of which is solid ice.
This spring, David Burgess, glaciologist with Natural Resources Canada, is leading a team on Devon and four other High Arctic sites to take reference measurements and record annual changes in the total amount of ice locked up in the glaciers.
The data are supplied to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, based in Switzerland, and used to study the influence of climate change on the cryosphere – the collective term scientists use for the part of the planet that is permanently frozen.
That influence is no longer subtle, Dr. Burgess said. The key parameter he and his colleagues measure is mass balance. It is the difference between the amount of material the glacier loses every summer versus the amount it accumulates as snowfall the rest of the year.
To do this, he and his team are transported to their various study sites in Twin Otter aircraft that land on skis. They will then typically camp on the glacier and, travelling by snowmobile, visit a series of five metre-long poles embedded in the ice to record height differences from the previous year and collect data from weather stations erected along the way.
The trend clearly shows that the glaciers are losing more mass than they gain. Another indication of change relates to “fern,” the top layer of a glacier that consists of old snow from previous years. Fern has a rigid consistency like Styrofoam and as it ages it is gradually compressed by successive layers of snowfall every winter until most of the air is squeezed out and it becomes glacial ice.
But scientists are increasingly seeing layers of hard ice embedded within the fern. These are caused when melting creates pools of water atop the glacier that then refreeze and are covered over. The ice layers can accelerate mass loss by preventing water from percolating further down into the body of the glacier.
Early indications of the change began showing up in the 1990s and then became more frequent in the 2000s. Together with the mass-balance data, they point to a rapid transformation across all the Arctic sites that scientists monitor. Nothing else like it has been seen since Canada first began measuring its glaciers some 60 years ago. And there’s no trace of anything comparable in the glacial layers that accumulated in all the centuries before.
“There’s a really strong signal of climate change going on in the Arctic and it’s not just anecdotal,” Dr. Burgess said. “It’s interesting to see how precisely it can be measured.”
For Mark Ednie, a physical scientist with Natural Resources Canada, nothing compares to the timeless feeling he gets standing atop the Bologna glacier deep in the rugged wilderness that separates the Northwest Territories from Yukon. The area is so off the beaten track that it is rare even to see the contrails of a jet passing overhead.
“It’s easy to imagine you’re the first person ever to be there,” he said.
Like his colleagues in the High Arctic, Mr. Ednie has been tasked with tracking changes in the same set of glaciers over time. The difference is that his field sites are all high up in the western mountains, from the barely known Bologna glacier in the north to the Columbia and Peyto glaciers of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains that are major tourist attractions. He also tracks two other sites on British Columbia’s coastal range.
In all five locations, his objective is the same: gain a deep insight into exactly what changes are occurring in the physical characteristics of each glacier, as well as how much water they are discharging into the environment. This in turn offers a broader understanding of what is happening to glaciers all across the Western Cordillera, a part of the country that is sometimes called Canada’s second Arctic.
Though they may appear immovable to the eye, mountain glaciers are made of ice that forms at higher elevations and then creeps downslope. Dancing between climate and gravity, they advance and retreat as they have done numerous times over the centuries, with the most recent advance evident in archival photographs from the late 1800s.
Now that dance has been replaced by a steady retreat that is shocking to those who are familiar with the sites. For example, Peyto glacier has melted back about 500 metres in the past decade, said Mr. Ednie, with close to half of that having occurred since 2020. It’s a pattern seen across the west, though there are big differences in how the trend is playing out at various sites.
“We’re seeing smaller glaciers melting at a faster rate,” he said. “The bigger ones are hanging on longer, but they’re still melting.”
The goal of the survey is not unlike watching a bank account as deposits and withdrawals are made. In this case, what is banked is the water that exists in frozen storage for as long as the glacier is present.
At the moment, the rate of melting ensures that a surplus of water is flowing from glaciers into rivers like the North Saskatchewan. But as time passes, Mr. Ednie said he expects a point of “peak flow” from each glacier followed by less surface water available to communities, agriculture and power generation.
While federal scientists monitor the same set of Canadian glaciers over many years, university-based researchers also play a role in revealing the history and dynamics of the country’s icy refuges.
One place that has become a special focus for Alison Criscitiello, director of the University of Alberta’s ice-core lab, is Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan. The interest stems from a mishap in 2017, after the lab took possession of a collection of ice cores from the Geological Survey of Canada. The cores had been carefully drilled out of glaciers in various locations and stored for further research.
But then a freezer malfunction caused some cores to melt, which meant that thousands of years’ worth of climate and atmospheric data that was formerly locked within the ice cores was now lost. The most serious casualty: an ice core retrieved from Mount Logan in 2002.
At that point, “Mount Logan just shot to the top of the priority list,” said Dr. Criscitiello, who took up a position at the ice-core lab just after the incident.
The reason is clear. Not only is Mount Logan Canada’s highest peak, it has a 20-kilometre-long plateau near the summit with a glacier that is more than five kilometres above sea level. The ice there is cold and long-lasting. It contains trapped air bubbles that carry information about the past state of the atmosphere.
The ice core that was lost in the freezer malfunction encompassed a 16,000-year period. Based on radar measurements she made last year, Dr. Criscitiello hopes to replace it with an ice core that reaches nearly twice that far back in time, to a period when Earth was deep in the grip of the most-recent ice age.
“There are not very many places on Earth outside of the polar regions that have all the right conditions for capturing really long climate records,” Dr. Criscitiello said. “Mount Logan is one of the few.”
Because of the high-altitude conditions, there is no easy way to travel to and work in such a spot. Instead, Dr. Criscitiello and her team are climbing the mountain to get to the plateau where they will attempt to extract their prize. A former U.S. climbing ranger and mountain guide who has drilled ice cores in both the Arctic and Antarctica, she is unusually well-qualified for the role.
“I’ve seen most of what can get thrown at you,” she said in an interview before leaving for the mountain. Even so, she added, much depends on weather and chance.
If all goes well, she expects to reach the summit plateau by May 12 and then call in a helicopter modified for high-altitude flight to deliver the drill in pieces. Then the real work can begin, coaxing the long-silent glacier atop Canada’s highest mountain to spill its secrets.
The Globe and Mail, May 8, 2022