Glacier melt in B.C. mountains reaches 'shocking' levels
See for yourself how quickly the Castle Creek glacier is melting — and what it means for the future
For B.C. glacier researcher Matt Beedle, returning to the Castle Creek glacier every year inspires a mixture of excitement and dread.
"I'm psyched on coming back to see it change," he told CBC News on a recent visit to the landmark, high in the Cariboo Mountains east of Prince George.
"At first, it's just exciting to see this brand-new landscape that wasn't here before it was exposed," says Beedle. "But then it's shocking … when we started coming here, it was so much larger than it is today."
You've heard about glaciers melting for years, but what happened last summer across Western Canada is different, because it's much faster — giving what one researcher calls a "sad window" into our future, where the glaciers are gone.
Losing centimetres a day
In the past decade, the bluish-white ice of the tongue, or terminus, of the glacier has receded over 200 metres, at a rate of roughly 15 metres a year.
This summer though, the melt rate accelerated dramatically to about two and half times that pace, says Brian Menounos, a geography professor and glacier researcher at the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George.
"This particular year has been quite a bad one," he says. "It's really a one-two punch."
"We had a warmer than average summer, and a much warmer spring for the southern part of the province, but we also had a record low snowpack."
Menounos's team has been charting the glaciers' retreat for the past decade by measuring ice thickness, using seven-metre poles sunk into the ice. The teams return the following year to measure how much ice has been lost.
Video: A future without glaciers
"On a hot sunny day … you can see the surface going down some 10 centimetres," says Beedle. "It's not building back up in the winter. That's the problem."
Uniquely in Western Canada, the Castle Creek glacier also leaves behind elevated ridges or moraines as it retreats each year, giving the researchers striking visible evidence of how quickly the melting is occurring.
"We've had average [distances between them] of about 14 or 15 metres per year. And the last two years have been 25 to 30 metres each," says Beedle.
What's happening here at Castle Creek, he says, is the norm for glaciers across Western Canada, especially in southern areas.
"It's demonstrating what pretty much all glaciers are doing in Western Canada. They are receding dramatically."
Blame 'The Blob'?
A giant pocket of warmer than usual water in the Pacific Ocean may be at least partially responsible for the more rapid glacial melt this past summer.
Nicknamed "The Blob," the water is about three degrees warmer than the rest of the Pacific.
University of Victoria climate researcher Faron Anslow believes it's having a dramatic effect on glaciers.
"You have all this energy out in the Pacific that's available to the atmosphere and it blows over those ocean waters and brings those temperatures on land, resulting in a lot of melt," Anslow says.
Projections for what B.C.'s climate will look like by 2050 mirror this past summer, he says, thanks to the effects of the warmer Pacific water of The Blob.
Menounos, the glacier researcher, says it's discouraging that much of Western Canada's 25,000 square kilometres of ice fields won't last the century.
"If you want a window into the future if you will — sort of a sad window — then this particular summer, at least in the southern portion of B.C., is a good example."
"Most recent work has shown that by and large the glaciers of Western Canada are going to be gone by the end of the century," says Matt Beedle.
"The biggest unknown in that study is what we do — what humans do. How we behave in regards to the atmosphere."
Slide the bar to see the change in the Bear Glacier, in northwestern B.C., from 1978 to 2013.
Interactive graphics by Tamara Baluja and photos by Matthew Beedle