Melting glaciers and drought in Alberta's future

Receeding glaciers and lack of rain are already having an impact on local waterways, but there's more bad news to come.

Hydrologist warns of hotter, drier times with lack of mountain snow

Tourists walk on the Athabasca Glacier, part of the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park, on May 7, 2014. Alberta's glaciers are under threat from a changing climate. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press )

Receding glaciers and lack of rain are already having an impact on local waterways, but there's more bad news to come. 

"Up in the Athabasca Glacier, we measured three metres of ice melt already this year, up until July," said hydrologist John Pomeroy.

"If you look at the glaciers down in K-Country and up through the Bow Valley, they tend to have very limited or no snow at all at the higher elevations, which means that there won't be any recharge of the glaciers this year from the snow accumulating at the top, which is very bad news for them."

Pomeroy says this year is fairly extreme, but builds upon last year's declines and is visible in the disintegration of Peyto Glacier's lower reaches in Banff.

Low rivers

Those receding glaciers help feed Alberta's rivers, and combined with a lack of rain in many parts of the province, it creates a troubling picture, with the Bow River at 40 per cent of normal in Calgary and some mountain streams bone dry.

"It's record drought, still, over parts of the prairies, and some areas in the mountains are over 120 millimetres below normal this year," says Pomeroy.

He says in addition to the current problems caused by a changing climate, there's also a powerful El Nino that will hit us in the fall and winter, "and that means abnormally warm and dry" weather.

"So you add that to this drought that we already appear to be entering and you add that on top of the fact that our winters have warmed up about four or five degrees in the mountains over the last 50 years," said Pomeroy.

"We may see unprecedented warm, dry weather this winter. And that's going to really stress our water supplies."

Pomeroy warns that with the amount of carbon dioxide we've already added to the atmosphere, we've already assured "massive glacial decline and substantial warming over this century," and will have to deal with the consequences.

So is it unmanageable?

"Hopefully not," he said.