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Glaciers BC Hydro's Melting 'Batteries'

Scientists are trying to figure out how rising temps will change the alpine run-off that helps power the province.



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Beedle says he and other scientists are just beginning to try and understand how this will impact hydroelectric generation. Modelling in this area is relatively new, says Beedle, and because no two watersheds are alike, models can't predict what's going to happen across the board anyway.

Long-term outlook not good

So how is BC Hydro responding the issue?

In a 2009 BC Hydro blog post, author Rob Klovance writes that "the long-term outlook is not good" for the province's glaciers.

He quotes Sean Fleming, a hydrologic modeller working on BC Hydro's Runoff Forecasting Team, who says that water lost from shrinking glaciers could either be compensated or aggravated by other climactic changes — like snow melt, temperature and precipitation.

"The question is how will these balance out to create a net impact on hydro power availability," stated Fleming.

BC Hydro's media relations department refused this reporter's repeated requests to interview a member of the Runoff Forecast Team about Bridge Glacier specifically. Neither senior media relations advisor Greg Alexis nor director Chris Brumwell would explain why.

Instead, they offered the following via email, to be attributed to Stephanie Smith, BC Hydro's manager of hydrology and technical services.

"BC Hydro is just beginning to understand the projected impacts to stream flows in the Columbia basin under climate change, where decreases in glacier melt are expected to be somewhat compensated by a projected increase in annual precipitation."

The email also states that, "BC Hydro has commissioned research into glacier impacts primarily in the Columbia River basin... more research remains to be completed to assess the impacts on water supply to more heavily glaciated watersheds in the Cheakamus and Bridge River basins. Similarly, further analysis of impacts on electric generation also remains to be completed and we anticipate this will be starting in 2012."

Meanwhile, decreased glacial ice and mountain snowpack is already having a "critical" impact on hydropower in countries like Bolivia, Peru, Columbia and Ecuador, according to the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

A 2009 study by Lausanne's EPFL technical university forecasted a decline in Swiss hydro generation from 46 to 60 per cent by the year 2035 as precipitation declines and total energy use increases. And that's based on a forecast runoff decrease of just seven per cent by the year 2049, and includes forecasted precipitation changes.

How we manage our water resources as glaciers dwindle over the next 50 to 100 years is key, says Beedle.

"You've got a lot of ice up there that in all likelihood is going to come down, as water, within the next century. And that's a lot of potential energy," says Beedle.

"But it's kind of a one-way road."

(Colleen Kimmett writes about the environment and the economy for The Tyee, The Tyee Solutions Society, and others.)