Vancouver Island’s glaciers are disappearing — and fast.
About 40 of the ice packs exist — on average, about a third of a kilometre in size along the long mountainous spine of the Island — but none of them will last much longer, says a glaciologist.
“They are receding before our eyes,” says Brian Menounos, a professor of Earth sciences at the University of Northern B.C. who has extensively studied glaciers on B.C.’s coast.
Menounos estimates all of the Island’s ice packs will be gone by mid-century, including the iconic Comox Glacier, a symbol of the valley that is slowly, but surely, receding year after year.
Rocky outcroppings have been appearing across its spread in recent years, with a bare peak emerging from the centre of the glacial mass. Exposed rock absorbs heat, accelerates melting and eventually fragments the ice pack.
“Soon,” said Menounos, “it just won’t be there.”
Glacier melt is accelerated because the Island glaciers are small to start with, and recent events like this summer’s heat dome and sustained temperatures above 30 C have put their demise on fast-forward.
But “human-induced climate change” is the real culprit, said Menounos, as increased amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere alter weather patterns and temperatures.
He says increasing surface temperatures and changes in precipitation — less snow and more rainfall during critical winter months — aren’t allowing the Comox Glacier to replenish its ice and store water.
And so it continues to shrink in area and mass.
Retired logger Fred Fern has been taking photos of the Comox Glacier every year since 2013, and the receding ice mass is easy to see in the images.
Using Google Earth, Fern has calculated the Comox Glacier lost 15 vertical feet after this summer’s heat — and as much as 120 vertical feet since his first photo in 2013.
“This summer’s loss was the worst I’ve ever seen,” said the 64-year-old, who has been living in the Comox Valley since he was 15. “That’s vertical feet loss — thickness. It’s not only melting on the outer edges, but now inside out with exposed rock.”
He said the Comox Glacier “is almost unrecognizable” from past years, adding the area between Mount Albert Edward and Comox used to have 25 smaller glaciers, but is now down to four or five.
“It’s climate change, no question,” he said.
A study by the University of Northern B.C. found that between 1985 and 2005, the glacier surface on Vancouver Island dropped from 18.2 square kilometres to 14.5 square kilometres, a loss of 20 per cent. The losses since then are estimated to be much higher.
The average size of Island glaciers was about 0.3 square kilometres, much smaller than the provincial average of 2.11 square kilometres.
There are 17,000 glaciers across British Columbia, and most are facing demise.
Glaciologists estimate 22 billion cubic metres of water are lost from the province’s glaciers every year. That’s enough to fill up B.C. Place Stadium 8,300 times.
Menounos said the link between rising carbon dioxide levels and melting ice is clear, with many of the province’s glaciers not expected to survive to the end of the century.
One winter might be colder and receive a lot of snow. But the long-term trend points in one direction — continual melt.
“Envision walking up a sand dune. Every step you go forward, you slide one step back,” said Menounos.
In a recent study co-authored by Menounos, researchers found 21 per cent of sea-level rise can be traced back to glacial melt.
The loss of that slow trickle of ice-cold water into mountain streams is predicted to have consequences for B.C.’s salmon populations and the web of life that relies on the cooling effects of glacier runoff.
“The change in the last 150 years, some of it is so fast we haven’t seen it in the last 10,000 years,” said Johannes Koch, a glaciologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University who spent the past 20 years studying glaciers in Garibaldi Park and the Pemberton Icefield. “Most ecosystems are good at adapting to things, but they need time.”
So do people. By August, about a quarter of the water in mountain rivers comes from glacier melt in many B.C. watersheds, including in the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan. If we lose them in the summer, Koch said that’s bad timing for agriculture.
Menounos said that’s one of the effects of the disappearance of glaciers: a loss of buffering in the late summer against warmer, dryer periods.
In the Comox Valley, the glacier helps fill Comox Lake, the source of drinking water for about 50,000 residents of the valley.
The watershed is 461 square kilometres and reaches to the top of the Comox Glacier and the mountains surrounding Comox Lake. Within the watershed, there are multiple sub-basins named for the creeks and rivers that flow through them, including Upper Puntledge, Cruikshank, Boston Creek and Perseverance Creek.
Water that hits the ground as snow or rain anywhere in the Comox Lake watershed eventually flows into Comox Lake.
The reservoir is controlled by B.C. Hydro for power generation. Spokesman Stephen Watson said the glacier accounts for only a small percentage of the water in the lake, saying most of the volume is from rainfall and melting snow.
He noted, however, that four consecutive years of drought have had a dramatic effect on the glacier, and the utility continues to model operations of its hydroelectric dam in the area with detailed forecasting.
As for Fern, he worries “overbuilding” in the Comox Valley will eventually put more pressures on water supplies as climate change continues to bear down.
He said people should be aware of ailing river systems like the Columbia and Colorado that are being depleted by over-development through the western United States, and said water and climate change should be key considerations when expanding communities.
“There is going to be shortages of water … we don’t need a disappearing glacier to see climate change,” said Fern. “Lytton burned to the ground this summer, 500 people died in heat waves … anyone debating this … I just don’t know.”
On the mainland, Doug Washer has been guiding people in the mountains for three decades. Since 2013, that’s meant flying in tourists to explore the electric blue ice cave of the Pemberton Icefield.
“What we do in those ice caves is take pretty pictures. But from a guide’s perspective, we’re recording change over the years,” he says. “There’s nothing like monitoring climate change like sitting there and watching an ice cube melt.”
Washer says his team has documented an average of 26 feet of vertical ice loss every summer. That’s pushed them to move to higher elevations.
“We simply cannot travel through there with guests. The crevasses are too big, sinkholes have opened up. It’s just too dangerous,” explains Washer. “It changed so much, so fast.”
Mike Douglas remembers first skiing the Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb Mountain in 1988, when it seemed like “something that would always be there.”
As a pro skier, Douglas says he cut his teeth on the glacier through the first half of the 1990s. At the time, he would see up to 2,000 people and 20 summer ski camps a day on the glacier.
“Flash forward 33 years, that glacier is almost gone to the point they had to take the T-bar off last year. It’s like a bowl of milk,” he says. “That’s something that happened right before my eyes.”
— With files from Stefan Labbé, Glacier Media