Western Canada’s glaciers will likely have all but disappeared by the end of the century, with associated knock-on effects for the region’s electricity generation, aquatic ecosystems and even its most iconic tourist destinations. This is the concerning finding of fresh research appearing this week in Nature Geoscience and involving by PICS’ sister organisation, the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium.
British Columbia and Alberta are home to roughly ten percent of the world’s 200,000 glaciers and in both provinces the glaciers are currently suffering volume losses of about one percent annually. However, most provious research had predicted that they would not lose more than half their volume by 2100. But much of this analysis has been based on a basic calculation that looks at the gap between the amount of snow that falls on the glaciers and the amount of water that runs off—a methodology that the scientists say oversimplifies the physics of glaciers. And so for the first time, the researchers actually considered the physical structure of a glacier over time and how movement and shape affect the melting.
The scientists, led by UBC’s Garry Clarke, fed into their model a variety of scenarios that set out different levels of greenhouse gas emissions over this century and found that for all of them, glaciers are melting faster than previous predictions. For all but the most ambitious scenarios –those based on aggressive emissions reductions–– glaciers in the Interior and Rockies experience losses of around 90 percent by 2100 relative to a 2005 levelsreference level. Coastal glaciers, the most resistant to climate change as a result of cooler summer temperatures and greater precipitation in the form of snow, come off a little better, losing 70 percent of their volume by 2100. Glaciers in the far northwest of British Columbia emerge from the models as the most resilient due to their higher elevation and greater volume of snow.
The findings mean a likely end to BC and Alberta’s world-renowned glacier tourism business. Glacier National Park will be largely glacier-free by century’s end, and there will be very little glacier sediment, or ‘glacial flour’, to turn mountain lakes such as Lake Louise their famous brilliant turquoise colour. Meanwhile, the researchers’ models project a spell of increased river flow, potentially briefly boosting hydropower capacity for a few decades. But this boon will then turn into a bane, as flows peak between 2020 and 2040 before declining later in the century and posing seasonal challenges for hydroelectricity production.
The findings have ramifications for glaciers around the world – all are governed by similar physics and will face with parallel consequences for glacier-fed river flow and future hydropower generation.
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