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Glaciers in Western Canada to Shrink 70 Percent by 2100

Apr 06, 2015 02:20 PM EDT
Crowfoot glacier
Crowfoot glacier in Alberta, Canada.
(Photo : Flickr: Andy S)

As a result of climate change and warming temperatures, glaciers in Western Canada are to shrink a staggering 70 percent by 2100, according to new research.

This could potentially create major problems for local ecosystems, power supplies, and water quality in the region, which rely of these massive slabs of ice.

While warming temperatures are threatening glacier ice in Western Canada - including British Columbia (BC) and Alberta - not all glaciers are retreating at the same rate. The Rocky Mountains in the drier interior, for example, could lose up to 90 percent of its glaciers, whereas the wetter coastal mountains in northwestern BC are only expected to lose about half of their glacier volume.

"Most of our ice holdouts at the end of the century will be in the northwest corner of the province," researcher Garry Clarke from the University of British Columbia said in a statement. "Soon our mountains could look like those in Colorado or California and you don't see much ice in those landscapes."

During the study, researchers used observational data, computer models and climate simulations to forecast the fate of individual glaciers in the future. They took into account a range of greenhouse gas emission scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their most recent climate assessment.

An increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, released from fossil fuel combustion is the main factor that will cause a surge in surface air temperatures in the decades ahead. And with greenhouse gas levels reaching a record high in 2013, it seems likely that Western Canada's glaciers could disappear by the end of the 21st century. Even the Arctic's sea ice is expected to completely disappear in our lifetime.

(Photo : Flickr: Eric Danley)

And though it may not be obvious at first how climate change is impacting glacier health - the surface area covered by the glacier may not be changing - rest assured the glaciers are thinning at a rate of about one meter per year, researchers say.

"Most glaciers are only 100 to 200 meters thick," Clarke explained. "They're losing volume but this loss we're seeing right now is a bit hidden."

There are over 17,000 glaciers in BC and Alberta and they play an important role in energy production through hydroelectric power. The glaciers also contribute to the region's water supply and are essential to mining and agriculture as well.

While these issues are a major concern, increased precipitation due to climate change could help compensate for glacier loss. The greatest impact, Clark suspects, will be on freshwater ecosystems. During the late summer, glacier melt provides cool, plentiful water to many of the region's headwaters.

"These glaciers act as a thermostat for freshwater ecosystems," he said. "Once the glaciers are gone, the streams will be a lot warmer and this will hugely change fresh water habitat. We could see some unpleasant surprises in terms of salmon productivity."

But glaciers in Western Canada aren't the only ones suffering. Glaciers that make up the Greenland ice sheet - the second largest body of ice on Earth - for instance, are currently vanishing faster than previously thought. In the face of climate change, if it were to melt completely, it could raise our oceans by a whopping 20 feet.

Not to mention that Tibet's glaciers are at their warmest in the last 2,000 years, melting glaciers in Iceland are causing the region to literally rise up, and massive glacier melt is pouring into the Gulf of Alaska, potentially resulting in a drastic impact on both marine life and global sea level.

And now with glaciers in Western Canada expected to shrink 70 percent by 2100, it seems that these beautiful landscapes will be a thing of the past unless we take action against climate change sooner rather than later.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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