Postcards from the Arctic: Documenting Ice Loss in Canada’s Rocky Mountains
By: Andrea Sparrow & Kerry Koepping
Canada opened its borders to US citizens in late summer. While Covid-19 continues to make travel challenging, the Arctic Arts team jumped through all the hoops and headed to the mountains in Alberta and British Columbia to see how this summer’s heat wave affected the many glaciers there. We are documenting the loss of ice in high alpine, Arctic and sub-Arctic regions around the world, for a new film on global ice loss. The changes in Canada’s Rocky Mountains are staggering. Years of steady degradation has shrunk nearly every glacier in the area. This summer, as temperatures reached record highs for days on end, the glacial melt was visible and visceral, to the people who spend their lives among the glaciers.
The team on this adventure consisted of Kerry Koepping, Andrea Sparrow and newcomer, William Orsua. William is an exceptional landscape photographer from Vancouver, British Columbia. His talents as a photographer and his can-do spirit made him indispensable to the project and a pleasure to work with. Kris Irwin, an alpine guide deeply familiar with these mountains, joined us for several days, to help us get into some more challenging areas. His knowledge of the mountains here, along with his passion and ease in alpine environments helped us see some of the glaciers up close. Kris was acutely aware of how much the glaciers have changed and stunned by the amount of melt that occurred over the summer months this year.
We based ourselves at the Columbia Icefield’s Glacier Lodge, 90 minutes north of Banff. From the lodge, the great Athabasca Glacier is front and center, with other, smaller glaciers falling from the surrounding mountains. We traveled far afield from this location too. Every glacier we saw has melted dramatically in recent years. The lateral moraines show deflation (decreasing thickness), and the tails of the glaciers are further and further from their terminal moraines.
The Crowfoot Glacier, which falls from surrounding mountains, has a Nunatak (a substantial rocky projection in a glacier) that has become more visible with recent melt. The Athabasca is retreating up its slope, to the Columbia Icefield from which it originates. Everywhere we went, newly scoured gravel or rock was revealed, as these glaciers shrink upward. Some, like the glaciers above Lake Louise, are nearly gone. A desolate landscape is left in their wake as it takes years for plants to begin to grow where glacial ice has melted.
We flew by helicopter into the upper Selkirk Mountains. Having the landscape laid out before you from the relatively low altitude of a helicopter is simply awe-inspiring. We could see the immense clear-cuts in the vast and remote forests here- another contributor to climate change. The endless peaks unfolded in a tapestry of snow, rock and forest. We flew to a remote valley where several glaciers once came together. The peaks here were ringed with stunning cloud formations, which make for incredible images! The glaciers are now miles apart. Where huge fields of ice once flowed from the mountains and saddles between them, the ice barely makes it over the edges now. The valleys are rivers, carrying the glacial melt to the lakes below.
One of the days, we hiked up a lateral moraine to the glaciers below Boundary Peak, near Mount Athabasca. Three glaciers flow up here and the area they once covered is now a mass of small rocks that were carried down by the ice. We hiked up high to see as much of the glaciers as possible. This gorgeous, desolate place distracted Kerry as we hiked down. Our first injury on an expedition, Kerry slipped and his lower leg was damaged when his body went downhill, but his leg caught on a large rock and stayed put. A slow, painful hike down and a quick trip to the emergency room, in Jasper, revealed nothing broken, but Kerry had to wear an air cast for the rest of the trip. Undaunted, he still walked as much as he could and continued to work.
This expedition was inspired by the recent United Nations IPCC report. It noted that the Canadian Rockies are one of earth’s fastest accelerating ice loss regions. They are a bellwether, showing the clear, accelerating effects of climate change on glacial ice. In a clear illustration of the worrying pace of global heating, the rate at which our planet is losing its ice skyrocketed from an average annual loss of roughly 760 billion tons of ice in the 1990s, to more than 1.2 trillion tons per year in the 2010s, according to a study published this summer in the journal Cryosphere. Currently the earth is losing over 1.2 Trillion Tons of Ice Per Year, a Nearly 60% Increase From 1994. This has far reaching impacts on global temperatures, drinking water for people and changes in ice-dependent ecosystems.
As the Arctic Arts Team continues to gather a visual record of the earth’s ice loss, both in North America and the world at large, we are reminded that we are witness to and educators of the world’s climate chaos. And by continuing to link the emotional power of visual art with the clarity of science, we can impart an understanding of the relevance of climate change to human lives everywhere. We seek to ignite widespread environmental stewardship in our communities, leading to committed action that will tackle the challenge of global warming in practical and meaningful ways. We hope you will continue to support our efforts, as we follow the science to share with you the global impacts of climate change.