What on Earth

Glaciers could become 'an endangered species' unless we take swift action, says federal science adviser

A new study shows glacial lakes have increased by 50 per cent since the 1990s due to climate change and glacier retreat. As the effects of glacier melt are being felt by communities downstream, glaciologist Shawn Marshall says we need more decisive action on climate change.

COVID-19 showed that Canadians have 'capacity to really do things differently,' says Shawn Marshall

Shawn Marshall did not expect to focus on climate science when he got into the study of glaciers. But he says the effects of rising global temperatures on his research subject have become impossible to ignore. (Submitted by Shawn Marshall)

Much of the Canadian landscape — the Great Lakes, the Prairies, and the Rocky Mountains — has been shaped by glaciers. Their gradual movement has helped define the features of our planet for thousands of years. 

This state of flux is what drew University of Calgary geomorphologist Dan Shugar to study glaciers in the first place. But in the recent years, these changes have been too rapid and drastic to be the cause for excitement. 

"Almost everywhere where we have glaciers, they are retreating. And there have been a few studies in the past couple of years showing unequivocally that the glacier retreat is due to human-exacerbated climate change," Shugar told What on Earth host Laura Lynch. 

A 2019 Changing Climate report projected that, under current conditions, glaciers in western Canada's mountains will lose 74 to 96 per cent of their volume by the end of the century.

The report, which is led by the federal government's Environment and Climate Change Canada team, says that due to Canada's northern geography, warming is occurring at nearly double the global rate

To put it another way: "If [glaciers] were alive, they would be endangered species right now, because they just can't tolerate the warming that we've been experiencing in the world," said glaciologist and University of Calgary professor Shawn Marshall.

Marshall, who is also the departmental science adviser at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), didn't expect to focus on climate science when he got into the study of glaciers. But the effects of rising global temperatures on his research have become impossible to ignore.

"I kind of came into the world of glaciology thinking of these as permanent features in the landscape. And the idea that they'll disappear this century, maybe, does make me feel a little wistful," he said.

That's why he's temporarily traded his glacier field work for the Ottawa offices of ECCC, in hopes of making a bigger difference.

"After 20 years at the University of Calgary, I feel like I'm talking a little bit to the same people all the time and publishing in scientific journals that aren't likely read," he said. "Here in Ottawa … is where it needs to be more clearly understood and communicated, and the urgency of it needs to be addressed."

The Klinaklini glacier, B.C.'s largest glacier, has thinned over 400 metres near its toe between 1949 and 2016, according to Brian Menounos, Canada Research Chair in Glacier Change and a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia. 

Marshall's role with the ECCC, he said, is to help governments sift through the vast amounts of climate science to develop practical and realistic climate change policies, and ensuring that scientific evidence is front-and-centre in their discussions.

Halfway through his two-year appointment, Marshall said he is sometimes frustrated.

"I have always been concerned that there are not enough scientific voices in Ottawa, so the scientific urgency and environmental lens always gets pushed to the background," Marshall said.

He says it's still not too late to slow the glacier melt — but there is no time to waste.

A desert where a river used to flow

Because of the vital role glaciers play in sculpting the landscape, their retreat can bring about drastic consequences.

In a study published last week in Nature Climate Change, Shugar and his colleagues found that the volume of water in glacial lakes around the world has increased by about 50 per cent since 1990. This increase could pose a higher risk of floods, damage infrastructure and disrupt ecosystems downstream. 

"These lakes are dammed by either the glacial ice itself or by moraines, which are basically piles of debris [and] rubble that the glaciers leave behind when they retreat," Shugar explained.

"And both ice and the moraines can be a little bit unstable. They are impermanent structures, and the end result then is that these lakes can burst their banks and flood downstream catastrophically."

People of the Kluane First Nation in the community of Burwash Landing, Yukon have experienced the devastation caused by glacier melt firsthand. Melting glaciers have changed the waterways around the nation's territory in recent years, causing Slims River to dry up and drastically decrease water levels in nearby Kluane Lake.

"It was a shock to see our lake levels eight feet lower than what it should have been," Kluane First Nation Chief Bob Dickson said. "We're looking at docks that aren't sitting in water anymore. We're looking at 100 feet of beach line in the lower levels of water, and we can't have access to the lake anymore." 

The dried-up conditions have led to dust storms, with dust building up so thick on the highways around Burwash Landing that snow plows were deployed to remove it. 

"Our own little desert [is] being created here in our own backyard," Chief Dickson said. 

He added that the changing landscape is affecting traditional practices like hunting and fishing around Kluane Lake, as animals change their migration and habitat with new climate conditions.

After studying glaciers for 2 decades, Marshall said it's difficult not to get attached to the landscape. 'You're seeing it melt under your feet,' he said. (Submitted by Shawn Marshall)

Pandemic pause for reflection

Marshall says the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that Canadians can adjust their behaviours in a crisis.

"We saw this capacity to really do things differently," he said, adding that this shift in mindset could help achieve the swift action needed to address the effects of global warming in Canada.

In a statement to What on Earth, ECCC said that the federal government is working on an enhanced plan to ensure the 2030 Paris greenhouse gas emission reduction targets are met post-pandemic.

"Just like science is guiding us in our response to COVID-19, science will continue to guide us in our fight against climate change," ECCC spokesperson Moira Kelly wrote.

Bob McDonald, host of CBC’s Quirks & Quarks, answers viewer questions about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on climate change. 6:01

As the pandemic shut down borders and reduced air travel, a 17 per cent drop in daily global carbon dioxide emissions was reported in May compared to the same period last year. But climate scientists warned against too much optimism about the drop, and urged Canadians to consider more sustainable lifestyle changes in the future. 

Marshall hopes to see this as well. 

"Suddenly the idea of investing in renewable energy or driving an electric vehicle instead of a gas-powered vehicle doesn't seem like a radical change," he said.

"These kind of generational changes that are needed might not be as hard as we thought they were. So I'm hoping we get a bit of courage from this."

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