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article imageWestern Canada will lose 70% of its glaciers by 2100

By Karen Graham     Apr 7, 2015 in Environment
The loss of glacial ice in British Columbia and Alberta could profoundly affect not only local ecosystems but power supplies and water quality. As much as 70 percent of glaciers will disappear by the end of the 21st century.
There are over 17,000 glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta. Not only are the melt waters critical to hydroelectric power production, but they also contribute to our water supply and mining and agricultural production.
And while a number of studies have been done on the extent of glacial melt in the Canadian Rockies, a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia, in collaboration with the University of Northern British Columbia, the University of Iceland and the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium. has shed new light on the far-reaching effects of glacial ice loss.
The new study used observational data, climate simulations, and computer models to predict the climatic changes that may occur north of the 49th parallel in North America resulting from rising temperatures.
Dyurgerov, Mark B. and Mark F. Meier (2005).
Garry Clarke, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, and lead author of the study said in a telephone interview with the Washington Post that by 2100, western Canada will have lost 70 percent of its glaciers as a result of climate warming.
“Most of that is going to go, and most seems to be on its way out. Few glaciers will remain in the Interior and Rockies regions, but maritime glaciers, in particular, those in northwestern British Columbia, will survive in a diminished state," said Clarke. "Soon our mountains could look like those in Colorado or California and you don't see much ice in those landscapes."
Background of the research
The research team used the same greenhouse gas emission scenarios as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used to make their predictions. They found that increased emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will be the leading cause of increases in surface air temperatures in the future.
It was also pointed out by researchers that the recent cold winters in North America in no way disprove the continuing threat of climate change. Dr. Clarke also said the retreat of the Canadian glaciers is not entirely due to man-made climate change, although scientists say it does play a major role.
Clarke explained that while the rate of glacial ice melt has sped up and slowed along with decades-long climate cycles, since the 1980s the rate of melting has sped up considerably. In the Colorado Rockies, snowmelt is now three weeks earlier than it was in 1978, and Washington state's Cascades has lost 25 percent of its snowpack since the 1930s.
The impact of climate change on Canada's glaciers
Researchers say that British Columbia's glaciers now shed the equivalent of 10 percent of the flow of the Mississippi River every year due to glacial melt. And although the impact on the health of Canada's glaciers may not be evident at first glance, the glaciers are thinning at the rate of at least one meter every year.
"Most glaciers are only 100 to 200 meters thick," said Clarke. "They're losing volume but this loss we're seeing right now is a bit hidden. These glaciers act as a thermostat for freshwater ecosystems. 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.”
This study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience on April 6, 2015 under the title: "Projected deglaciation of western Canada in the twenty-first century."
More about Western canada, glaciers in interior, British columbia, Alberta, Climate change
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