Could a fatal glacial collapse happen in Alberta? It almost has.
Disaster in Italian Alps killed 9, experts warn it could happen in the Rockies
Days after a glacier collapse in the Italian Alps, search and rescue teams are still finding victims.
On Wednesday, Reuters reported the death count had risen to nine after the bodies of two more people were found. Three are still missing, with several more injured in the disaster.
Italy's prime minister linked the tragedy to environmental factors as parts of the country experienced record-breaking temperatures during a summer heat wave.
The impacts of climate change on glacial mountains are also raising concerns about potential catastrophes closer to home.
"We're at high risk of having this happen in the Rockies," said John Pomeroy, a University of Saskatchewan professor and Canada Research Chair of Water Resources and Climate Change.
"I've seen ice fall right onto the Athabasca Glacier, you know, a few hundred metres away from where the buses to there turn around."
According to Pomeroy, parts of the Canadian Rockies have warmed by 3.5 degrees since the 1960s, and ash clouds from forest fires are also causing glaciers to melt faster.
He says pieces of ice fall every year in Canada, often in remote locations or at night.
In past events, like the collapse of the Ghost Glacier in Jasper National Park in 2012, timing has been the only factor standing between Canadians and a potentially deadly disaster.
"Massive pieces of ice dropped into the Cavell Tarn and caused a mini tsunami that washed up a parking lot, and trails of floodwaters were metres high, kilometres downstream," said Pomeroy.
"Normally there are hundreds of people in there and that could have been a mass fatality event, but it occurred in the middle of the night in August, so just pure luck that that didn't turn into a large infamous fatality."
Changing climate increasing chances of collapse
Brian Menounos is the Canada Research Chair in Glacier Change and a professor at the University of British Columbia.
He explains that glacial collapse is a natural hazard, and the likelihood of someone being hurt depends on the presence of those people.
But with a warming climate, Menounos says, glacial collapses are likely to become more common.
"There are times that our beautiful mountains are hazardous places, and that's typically during or immediately following extremely warm events like the heat dome we had last summer," said Menounos.
"As we warm the average temperature, we have the likelihood of these events that are truly extreme becoming a little bit less extreme, unfortunately."
Menounos warns against travelling in steeply sloped terrain following rainfall, which can lead to both collapsing ice and landslides.
Pomeroy wants to see more early warning systems developed to warn people away from dangerous areas.
"These could involve time-lapse cameras, water level measurements on high alpine lakes," said Pomeroy.
"To prevent people from going up in there and getting hurt, and also to provide downstream warnings of high stream flows that are sometimes associated with these events."
The Alpine Club of Canada has taken the disaster as a wake-up call and an opportunity to review its own practices.
To adapt, the organization is funding research projects in the mountains and is considering changing the schedule for certain circuits.
"Extreme vigilance is very much necessary, and particularly for what we do, because we need to be prepared for this type of occurrence and anticipate as much as possible," said Carine Salvy, who serves as executive director of the mountaineering club.
"We need to have more flexibility in terms of when we open our huts for certain activities or be able to shut them down because the conditions have changed dramatically in a short period of time."
Salvy adds that the challenge is the unpredictability of potential disasters, which, as the experts warn, may only worsen as Canada's climate continues to change.