Melting glaciers, climate change making mountain tourism more dangerous, guide says

Those who work in Alberta’s mountain-tourism industry say climate change isn’t just changing the face of the province’s parks — it’s also impacting how they do their jobs. 

Canmore, Alta. tour guide says she’s watched Rocky Mountain glaciers shrink dramatically

Mountain tourism industry forced to adapt as climate changes, Canmore guides say

8 months ago
Duration 1:04
Ecologists say climate change is causing lakes in the Canadian Rockies to lose their famous turquoise lustre, and forcing glaciers to recede at an alarming rate.

Those who work in Alberta's mountain tourism industry say climate change isn't just changing the face of the province's parks — it's also impacting how they do their jobs. 

Ecologists say climate change is causing lakes in the Canadian Rockies to lose their famous turquoise lustre, and forcing glaciers to recede at an alarming rate.

This year the historic Abbott Pass Hut in Yoho National Park was dismantled due to the effects of climate change, Parks Canada said. 

A large glacier hugs the side of a mountain against a blue sky.
Crowfoot Glacier in Banff National Park in Alberta. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

As Canada's climate changes, the mountain tourism industry is also being forced to adapt, said Evan Stevens, assistant technical director of Canmore, Alta.-based Association of Canadian Mountain Guides.

"Climate change impacts our safety and our choices of objectives and itineraries with our guests on a regular basis. We are dealing with slightly rising temperatures, so changing snow lines, changing freezing levels," he said. 

This has an impact on how much snow accumulates on glaciers in the winter, and can affect ski-guiding and backcountry skiing. 

Things have just melted out too much, and things are too dangerous.- Evan Stevens, assistant technical director of Association of Canadian Mountain Guides

The effects aren't just being felt during the winter, he said. In the summer, alpine climbing and glacier treks have been affected by glacier recession, leaving behind unstable broken terrain, which is tricky to navigate and can be unsafe. 

"We have to be very proactive and reactionary to how everything is changing. We are changing the time of year when we go to certain places, and then certain times of year classic objectives are just no longer possible," Stevens said.

"Things have just melted out too much, and things are too dangerous." 

He noted that there is "100 per cent increased danger for rockfall and loose rocks with glacial recession" out in the backcountry.

The effects of climate change are being felt in mountainous areas across the world. Glaciers in Europe's Alps are becoming more unstable and dangerous as rising temperatures linked to climate change are reawakening what were long seen as dormant, almost fossilized sheets of ice.

Stevens said this reality needs to guide decision-making for anyone going out into mountain areas. 

"We're seeing this similar glacial recession. We're seeing increased users and numbers heading out into these places," he said. 

"Some of us are going to be around in the mountains when these things happen."

Lynn Martel lives and works in Canmore, Alta. She says she's seen the glaciers melt away over the years. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

Lynn Martel lives in Canmore and works as an interpretive hiking tour guide in Yoho, Banff and Kootenay national parks. She says she's watched the area, specifically the glaciers, change over the 40 years she's lived there. 

"They're a lot smaller than they were, they're smaller on the sides," Martel said. "It's like watching a friend who's sick and not doing well and not gonna get better."

She said climate change doesn't make the areas where she provides tours more dangerous, as she typically stays out of the backcountry and on the main trails. But Martel has noticed visible differences compared to when she first started. 

"It changes what we see, but if you only come once, you're not going to know you're not going to see any difference," she said. 

She added that the changing climate is top of mind for many. 

"Our visitors ask us a lot about glaciers, and if they're melting, and they have questions about climate change. This is just such an obvious place to see how that change is happening." 


Jade Markus

Digital journalist

Jade Markus is a digital journalist at CBC Calgary.

With files from Axel Tardieu, Thomson Reuters