THE MELTING REMINDER, PRESENTED BY GURU
It would be an understatement to say that ice and snow factor heavily into our lives here at Protect Our Winters Canada. We are lucky to support a large network of athletes, scientists, creatives and activists across the country, with a diverse range of passions and expertise. But the common thread among us all is our love for winter.
That’s why when we see the rate glaciers are receding around the world, we take notice (and yeah, maybe the removal of Whistler Blackcomb’s Horstman T-Bar due to glacial melt REALLY made us take notice). But the shrinking of glaciers goes beyond closed t-bars and dangerous backcountry terrain. The rate at which our glaciers are receding is having a heavy impact on ecosystems here in Canada and around the world; worsening the climate crisis by disrupting biodiversity and contributing to rising sea levels.
Searching through pages of Google results for ‘melting glaciers’ can be a little overwhelming. There’s a whole lot of dense or conflicting information out there. So we spoke with Ice-Core Scientist Dr. Alison Criscitiello, and Karson Sudlow, a Master’s of Science student studying glacier loss and alpine stream ecosystems, to get their thoughts on glaciers, what gives them pause and what gives them hope.
POW Canada (POWC):
Can you tell us more about your recent Mount Logan expedition, and why this sort of research is crucial to not only understand our past, but also to predict our future?
Dr. Alison Criscitiello (AC):
The Logan story - while about a specific climate record from a specific region on the globe - is one that shines a light on the pervasiveness of change, and the interconnectedness of systems within the natural environment. Despite being the highest peak in Canada, within the largest non-polar icefield in the world, Mount Logan’s summit plateau is not immune to change. Warming rates can be amplified with elevation, such that high-mountain environments experience more rapid temperature changes than environments at lower elevations. This elevation-dependent warming has the ability to accelerate the rate of change in high-mountain, cryosphere, and hydrological ecosystems, and also can intensely impact surrounding and downstream biodiversity.
You’ve spoken of the interconnectedness of our natural environment, what role do these glaciers play in keeping the balance of our ecosystems?
Karson Sudlow (KS):
Glaciers are critical for maintaining biodiversity in the alpine and throughout landscapes below. Meltwaters produced by glaciers, like those on Mt. Logan, feed many cold and fast flowing mountain streams. These frigid waters provide habitat crucial to the survival of many highly specialized alpine algae, insect, and fish species across Canada and around the world. Glaciers themselves are home to diverse ecosystems, despite their extreme conditions. However, widespread glacier loss reduces the supply of meltwater downstream and shrinks ice coverage, decreasing habitat availability for species that depend on glaciers. These changes can ultimately cause the loss of unique alpine freshwater and glacier biodiversity.
In recent years we’ve seen a significant amount of glacier melt worldwide. Sometimes it can feel a bit hopeless. How would you respond to people who feel we may be past a global tipping point?
While we’re committed to a certain amount of change and warming due to our greenhouse gas emissions to date, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions moving forward is integral to the determination of how quickly we will lose ice. This rate of loss has huge implications on many globally-important issues such as sea level rise. Ice mass loss rates also impact the health of glaciers and icefields that act as water towers - masses of ice that serve as drinking water sources for communities downstream (e.g., the Columbia Icefield) and river water sources to diverse downstream ecosystems.
Our relationship with glaciers does not need to be over. If we take action to address climate change, we can slow glacial loss. In doing so, we can help preserve the remarkable playgrounds, homes, cultures, and biodiversity reliant on glaciers.
You both sound cautiously optimistic about the future of our glaciers. What in particular gives you so much hope?
Limiting future warming will reduce glacier mass loss, allowing parts of our cryosphere to survive the 21st century. And, we have a roadmap to success. The most recent IPCC report outlines the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (versus 2°C above pre-industrial levels). Of the many take-home messages of the IPCC 6th Assessment, this is one of the most salient:
“Climate-related risks for natural and human systems are higher for global warming of 1.5°C than at present, but lower than at 2°C. These risks depend on the magnitude and rate of warming, geographic location, levels of development and vulnerability, and on the choices and implementation of adaptation and mitigation options.” To remain in the 1.5°C scenario, we must do more than make changes within our own lives to reduce our carbon footprints. This is needed, but we must also band together in an unstoppable movement to create policy-level change.