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Requiem for Canadian glaciers (and #climate #science)

April 9th, 2015 · 1 Comment

Wonder what your favourite glacier to ski or hike will look like in 20 or 40 years? A new study makes detailed predictions about how the glaciers in B.C. and Alberta will melt and shrink between now and 2100.

Nature Geoscience

The disappearing Penny Ice Gap

just published a sobering look at likely deglaciation in Western Canada during the 21st century with continued carbon emissions. The research team led by Garry Clarke of the University of British Columbia developed models that incorporate ice dynamics physics with existing surface mass models. Using global climate models to project temperature and precipitation projections with “business as usual” carbon emissions, the models indicate that glacial ice mass in this region will decrease by 70% from its 2005 footprint by the end of the century.

Retreat of mountain glaciers is a significant contributor to sea-level rise and a potential threat to human populations through impacts on water availability and regional hydrology. Like most of Earth’s mountain glaciers, those in western North America are experiencing rapid mass loss. Projections of future large-scale mass change are based on surface mass balance models that are open to criticism, because they ignore or greatly simplify glacier physics. Here we use a high-resolution regional glaciation model, developed by coupling physics-based ice dynamics with a surface mass balance model, to project the fate of glaciers in western Canada. We use twenty-first-century climate scenarios from an ensemble of global climate models in our simulations; the results indicate that by 2100, the volume of glacier ice in western Canada will shrink by 70 ± 10% relative to 2005. According to our simulations, 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. We project the maximum rate of ice volume loss, corresponding to peak input of deglacial meltwater to streams and rivers, to occur around 2020–2040. Potential implications include impacts on aquatic ecosystems, agriculture, forestry, alpine tourism and water quality.

Think of this as yet another chapter in the water crises that will be the hallmark of the 21st century. Climate change and unsustainable agricultural uses of water have conspired to put California into a drought with profound economic implications. Syria fell into civil war after a prolonged drought wiped out agricultural productivity in rural parts of the country. Blood shed in South Sudan and other sub-Saharan countries has become all too common during water shortages. Freshwater reserves in China are under pressure from climate change, industrial use, and pollution. Ditto in India. The list goes on. And on.

This is a DWG guest post.

The study predicts the death spiral of glacial ice in the region will likely occur in the near future (2020-2040). That means the hydrology across western Canada is about to undergo drastic change, with significant impacts on hydroelectric power, agriculture, and fossil energy development. A few lucky glaciers in coastal B.C. will “survive in a diminished state.

The Decker Glacier in British Columbia illustrates the terminal state of deglaciation.

decker-glacier-at-whistler-blackcomb-in-2014Glaciers in Canada and around the world are already melting rapidly, largely due to human-caused climate change. This photo taken on Aug. 17, 2014 shows a mostly blue-green lake where an icy white Decker Glacier near Whistler, B.C., used to be. (Jason Krupa) Credit: CBC News

For the scientists, this study was a labor of love. It took ten years to develop and test the models. Witness the supplemental materials, showing their work, so to speak.

The study took 10 years of work. In collaboration with researchers at the University of Iceland, the University of Victoria, the University of Northern British Columbia, he incorporated the “flow physics” of ice and snow into a computer model of western Canada and its glaciers.”It was much more complicated than we even imagined,” Clarke recalled.

When the starting point for the model was 2,000 years ago, it accurately predicted what the glaciers look like today.

“Then we subject them to the climate of the future and we see what happens to them,” Clarke said.

The study was funded in a bygone era. The Canadian government of Stephen Harper and his fossil friends have pulled the plug on federal funding of climate science, muzzled climate scientists, and labeled anyone opposed to expanding fossil energy extraction and transportation to market as an “environmental extremist.”

“It’s a bit depressing to actually be calculating losses the whole time,” he said. “I didn’t get into science to be that kind of person.”Even if he wanted to, the funding might be hard to come by — as it is, he thinks even the current study “would be pretty hard to put together now.” That’s because it started a decade ago and was funded by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which was launched under Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien and not renewed by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government when its funds ran out in 2011.

Attempting to blind scientific study of our rapidly deteriorating climate system deserves a special place in some special kind of hell. Sadly, Canada is not alone wanting pull the plug on climate science. Conservative politicians and fossil energy billionaires are demanding similar treatment for scientific funding in the United States. It bogles the mind, but we cannot teach evolution or climate science in a growing number of high school science classrooms.

It should be obvious that we either prepare for adverse climate impacts or suffer the consequences. David Schindler, a retired University of Alberta ecologist, commented on the study in the Edmonton Journal by citing some sobering statistics.

Schindler said Calgary will be among the first communities hit by glacial decline, since the Bow Glacier that feeds that city’s rivers is already mostly gone. In contrast, the Saskatchewan Glacier — the main source for the North Saskatchewan River that flows through Edmonton — will likely be one of the last to disappear, due to its large size.Still, communities along the North Saskatchewan watershed are sure to see growing impacts on water quality and quantity, which means the province and municipalities must find ways to better conserve water, he said.

That could include accelerated efforts to replace old, leaking water mains; forcing residents to replace their lawns and gardens with more drought-resistant plants; and using recycled water for toilet flushing. Cities may also need to build bigger reservoirs to store water from the spring flow, though this has a negative effect on fish populations.

“We are going to have to take some fairly expensive measures like that to eke out an existence on what water we have left,” Schindler said. “In a dry area like Alberta, maybe it’s also time to start thinking about how many people do we really want in Alberta.”

He goes on to remind the readers that future generations will pay for our short-sighted   policies favoring unsustainable energy and agricultural practices.

“It’s time people started thinking long term,” Schindler told the Journal on Monday. “In Alberta, as a society we have been masterful short-term thinkers … but our grandchildren will not be very happy if we don’t change that.”

You might think that would be obvious. And you would wrong.

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Tags: climate change · environmental · science

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