Calgary

Alberta ice climber to go inside a glacier to measure climate change effects

The first person to ice climb Niagara Falls now has his sights set on going inside the Athabasca Glacier to get a snapshot of how climate change is progressing.

'You can see how the glacier has receded over the years, just in our lifetime'

Will Gadd hopes to climb into a glacier to get a sense of how much it has receded vertically. (Christian Pondella/Rafal Andronowski/willgadd.com)

The first person to ice climb Niagara Falls now has his sights set on going inside the Athabasca Glacier to get a snapshot of how climate change is progressing.

"It does kind of sound crazy and there may be element of that but it will be interesting, that is for sure," Canmore-based ice climber and athlete Will Gadd told The Homestretch this week.

"We are going to try and understand how melt water moves through a glacier by going there ourselves. It should be a pretty neat project."

The National Geographic adventurer of the year in 2015 says the project involves getting inside the glacier through a moulin, a frozen stream that disappears into a large hole in the ice.

"How that melt water on the surface moves underneath the glacier in the summer is it melts and goes into the cracks on the glacier, thaws and expands and breaks more cracks. Eventually it actually makes sort of a cave system underneath the glacier," said Gadd.

"When you are walking across the glacier in the summer, you have got to watch out for these things called moulins, which is where a stream is going across the surface and then vanishes down a great big hole in the glacier. You wouldn't want to fall into one of these things.

Meltwater pouring into a moulin on Greenland. (J. Box/European Space Agency)

"In the winter, we can down the hole and follow the water, only there won't be any water there, and hopefully kind of go through the caves that are left over and see how far down we can get."

He's not going alone.

"We are partnered with the National Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Parks Canada and I think Discovery is now coming along too," Gadd said.

"We have got a good crew that are going to go at this."

Gadd said he's seen the glacier melting with his own eyes.

"If you have been travelling up the Icefields Parkway at all, you can see how the glacier has receded over the years, just in our lifetime. When I was a kid it was a five minute walk from the road and now it is miles back there, it is a long way. That is obvious, but what is less obvious is how much it has receded vertically. If we can go down into the glacier we can also measure that vertical recession or thinning of the glacier."

Not his first rodeo. Will Gadd has many years of ice climbing experience. (Christian Pondella/Rafal Andronowski/willgadd.com)

Few people have done what Gadd and his team hope to do.

"The first drop is about 20 metres straight down and you land on an icy floor. Then you walk for about 50 metres, we don't know what happens after that point. It goes down another hole, we don't know how deep it is. I don't think anyone has been intentionally very far below the surface of a glacier," Gadd said.

"Nobody has really done very much of this. It is an environment with a lot of unknown, unknowns so we will be proceeding pretty cautiously, biting off small pieces rather than trying to go really big all at once."

As for planning, he says it's about tapping smart people and taking it slow.

"You try and get the best, most knowledgeable people… and then you go off your past experiences but most importantly, you take small steps and learn about the ice. I have spent a lifetime ice climbing and working with ice, so I have some ideas but the steps need to be small so if things do start getting weird you can retreat quickly," Gadd said.

"The first mission is that everyone comes back hearty and healthy at the end of the day."

And the first mission begins Tuesday, if the weather co-operates.


With files from The Homestretch

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