Selwyn Mountains site of researchers' melting glacier study

A study that could help scientists understand changing water levels on the Mackenzie River is underway in the Selwyn mountains, near the N.W.T./Yukon border.

'The entire glacier, all the way up to its accumulation region, is melting,' says UVic's David Atkinson

Graduate student Eric Courtin works on Atkinson's weather station - re-erected - in Nahanni National Park Reserve. Atkinson is researching how events like major storms can effect glacial melt, a study that he says could have repercussions on things like the changing water levels on the Mackenzie River. (submitted by David Atkinson)

A study that could help scientists understand changing water levels on the Mackenzie River is underway in Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Selwyn Mountains, near the N.W.T./Yukon border.

It's the second year for the study, which is being led by the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). The GSC is collaborating with the University of Saskatchewan, the Nahanni National Park Reserve, and the University of Victoria. 

The UVic component is being headed up by David Atkinson, who is with the University of Victoria's geography department. Atkinson joined the project two years ago and is gathering information on what's causing a major retreat of ice levels and how it will effect the environment around them.

Though Atkinson's component of the project is only in its second year, it's already felt the effect of the changing climate — upon Atkinson's return to the area in 2015, he found his weather station on the ground.

"Both station's anchors had melted out enough that the stations fell over," he said. "We did lose, in terms of melt, probably 1.2 metres. About four feet of ice disappeared right up at the top."

Atkinson is studying how changing weather patterns are affecting glaciers and icefields. In particular, he's interested in how much impact a single event — such as a large storm — can have.

To demonstrate his point, he cites a recent study done on Ellesmere Island, in Nunavut.

"They observed a long chinook event that lasted a couple of days," he said, "and that one event over just a few days accounted for 30 percent of all the melt that occurred that season."

All the glaciers in the Selwyn mountain range have moved below the snowline, according to Atkinson, meaning all the snow will melt off the glacier in a given year.
Atkinson snapped this shot of the Selwyn Mountain range on the last day of his most recent trip. (submitted by David Atkinson)

On a recent visit to the glaciers, he was accompanied by Mike Demuth, the project's leader and a senior glaciologist with the GSC, who had been there a decade prior. Atkinson said that Demuth made a striking remark as the pair passed a large, rocky outcrop during a daily hike to the glacier's summit.

"He said: 'that wasn't there 10 years ago,'" said Atkinson, "and that thing must've been at least 20-plus metres high.

"The entire glacier, all the way up to its accumulation region, is melting."

Atkinson says that his study can be used to help answer questions about the extremely low water levels observed on the Mackenzie River in recent years. However, before he can start coming to conclusions, a few more years of data is needed.


  • This article has been changed from its original version to clarify the names and roles of parties involved in the study.
    Sep 03, 2015 11:59 AM CT