Flying high above the Illecillewaet Glacier, the once mighty toe of the ice field looks insignificant compared to the rock field it’s shrinkage has left in its wake.
The former “Great” Glacier that attracted thousands of tourists to Glacier National Park a century ago is a shadow of it’s former self. Now, a study is nearing completion that is looking at the loss of glacier ice and its impact on the Illecillewaet River that flows out of it.
“Our objective is to monitor the glacier and be able to watch what happens and adapt. We know there are implications for it,” said Gregg Walker of Parks Canada. “Our interest is in knowing what’s happening with this body of ice and how to adapt.”
Jamie Ryga of Selkirk Helicopters is the one charged with flying Parks Canada staff, researchers and the media to the the snow field at the height of the glacier. The trip was organized by Parks Canada in order to present us with a first hand look at the work going on there – without the pains of a full day of hiking.
The study of the Illecillewaet Glacier was start in 2009 by Jocelyn Hirose, a masters student at the University of Calgary. She is following a legacy that dates back to the late-19th century when the Vaux family from Philadelphia, frequent visitors to the park, noticed that the glacier was shrinking.
Hirose, an avid mountaineer and backcountry skier chose to study the Illecillewaet Glacier after numerous adventures in the area. She spent the summer of 2009 living at Rogers Pass, conducting field studies on the glacier and has been working on her thesis since then. Parks Canada has picked up the field work where she left off.
Steve Bartolo, Andrew Jones and Andrea Kortelko of Parks Canada were flown up to the glacier before us. When we arrived, they were probing the ground for crevasses and digging a snow pit next to a large measuring stake. The snow was still more than a metre deep and a cool wind blew across the glacier while the sun was slightly obscure by a thin cloud cover. Mount Sir Donald towered to the east and Mount Cheops and the Hermit Range towered to the north.
There are several stakes set up along the glacier, lined up in a straight line from the toe to the summit of the ice field. Hirose and the Parks Canada staff use the stakes to measure the snow depth – once in the spring when the snow is at its highest and again in the fall when it’s done melting. Snowfall is elevation dependent, so the measurements can be extrapolated for the surrounding area, said Hirose.
Those measurements, along with snow density, are used to take a mass-balance measurement of the snow of the glacier (mass balance is the difference snowfall and snow melt. If more snow melts than falls, than the glacier will shrink a little bit and vice-versa.
“With mass balance measurement you know how much snow and ice you have on the surface and then you know how much is lost throughout the summer,” said Hirose.
They are combined with weather readings to see the relationships between mass-balance and weather conditions.
“The higher the temperature, the more melt,” she said. “You develop a relationship and you potentially take that relationship and apply it somewhere else to get a good idea it’s melting somewhere else under those same variables.”
Glaciers around the world have been in retreat since the late-19th century. The Illecillewaet Glacier is no exception – it has shrunk by two kilometres since Glacier National Park was established in 1886. The retreat is attributed to global warming.
The impacts of the melting glacier are numerous, said Walker. Water flow along the Illecillewaet River, water quality, fish habitat, vegetation and wildlife habitat are all impacted by the reduction in glacier ice.
“The glaciers contribute quite a bit of streamflow late in the summer so that’s going to change once the mass of ice gets smaller in the next few decades,” said Hirose. “That’s going to influence water resources.”
Hirose expects to hand in her thesis by next winter. In addition to looking at the changes in the glacier and its impacts downstream, she also hopes to create a model that can predict future change under different climate scenarios. “Under these scenarios I can hopefully tell you how much the Glacier will change in the next 25 years,” she said.
Ultimately, she would like to get an understanding of glacial change in the entire Columbia Basin.
“Glaciologists do have pet glaciers and I do have an attachment to this one,” she said of the Illecillewaet. “I’m really interested in getting a better idea on the whole Columbia basin in terms of its influence on glacier change. North of the basin and south of the Illecillewaet are much different. The climate is much different too. Having two other monitoring sites north and south of the Illecillewaet would probably improve our monitoring process.”