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Scientists predict glaciers’ demise

“Coast Mountain glaciers are being hammered"

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By Lynn Martel

The Garibaldi glaciers are among the fastest disappearing glaciers in the world, says Dr. Shawn Marshall, University of Calgary associate professor in glaciology and climatology.

“The Coast Mountain glaciers are being hammered — what’s happening in the Canadian Rockies times two,” Marshall said. “That’s how much retreat is happening in the Coast Mountains.”

Marshall was one of several speakers at a two-day workshop held in Banff Oct. 10 and 11, titled Climate Change and its Affects on the Alpine. Organized by the Alpine Club of Canada as part of the club’s 2006 centennial celebrations, and running in conjunction with the general assembly of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), the workshop drew 40 participants from as far as Kimberley, Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal and even South Africa and the Netherlands.

“Glaciers in the Coast Mountains are really vulnerable,” Marshall said. “Even a small change in temperature can change snow to rain. Some have lost 70 per cent of their size in this century. The Helm, Sentinel and the Garibaldi glaciers are among the most threatened in the world.

“There are many more glaciers scientists know little or nothing about, he added. But they do know the glaciers are disappearing.

“Scientists are witnessing profound changes in glaciers around the world, and from what we understand, these changes can be expected to continue and accelerate,” Marshall said. “Bigger icefields should hang in for a while, but with smaller outlet glaciers, we can’t give a number. Every glacier has its own story. Some pocket glaciers might melt back quickly, then retreat into sheltered cirques that never see the sun, which could stall their retreat. Others could disappear altogether.”

While scientists still have plenty of questions about how much and how fast glaciers around the world are melting, most agree on two things — glacial retreat is global, Marshall said, in both mountain and polar regions, and humans have been instrumental in causing those changes.

While western Canada’s glaciers aren’t retreating as quickly as those in other mountain ranges, such as Russia’s Caucasus, Peru’s Andes or Patagonia in Chile, Marshall said, there are very few places in the world where increases in snow accumulation are sufficient to offset warming temperatures and extend the life of glaciers, and Canada is not on the short list.

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