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The world’s melting mountains

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UN: Global warming affecting alpine, polar communities

Taking the conservative view, global warming and climate change are not that bad – research shows that world-wide temperatures have increased just 0.6 degrees Celsius on average in the last 100 years.

What that statistic doesn’t tell you is that in some areas, notably our polar and alpine regions, the average temperature has increased a lot more than half a degree.

"It doesn’t sound like much, but we’ve seen a profound impact in alpine areas with that half a degree," said Ian Bruce, the project director of the David Suzuki Foundation’s Melting Mountains Awareness Program. Bruce was in Whistler last week to present "Melting Mountains – Global Climate Change and Mountain Environments" at the monthly AWARE meeting.

In the Rocky Mountains, the average temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees over the last century, while the mountains in B.C.’s Interior have seen an average increase in 1.1 degrees. The Coast Mountains of B.C. have followed the global average, mainly because the Coast Range is more affected by ocean climates than other ranges. Some arctic regions of Canada have seen an average increase of eight degrees, which is affecting species like the polar bear.

As a result of this warming, glaciers are shrinking, the snowline is retreating further up the mountains, and snow packs have been reduced by 10 per cent. Not only does this affect mountain resorts that depend on snow for tourism, it’s contributing to rising water levels and to changes to alpine environments that are impacting on the species that live there.

According to Bruce, this is the start of a downward cycle. As the concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to build, the planet traps and holds more solar radiation in the form of heat.

"Mountains are our best barometer of climate change. Looking at the mountains gives us an early glimpse of what may come to pass in the environment," said Bruce.

"The reason is that climate change is amplified in the alpine. Alpine snow and ice has reflective properties, and a lot of the energy and heat to fall on alpine areas gets reflected back out.

"When the snow and ice melt, it exposes dark ground which does the opposite, absorbing more heat and provoking more melting. That’s why alpine areas have to be on the front lines of the climate change debate."

Bruce’s presentation in Whistler coincided with the release last week of a United Nations Environment Program study on alpine warming.

That study looked at data from ski resorts in Canada, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Australia and the U.S.

According to climate scientists, alpine areas are facing temperature increases from 1.4 degrees to 5.8 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. By that time, snow levels in Europe are expected to retreat to 1,300 metres, the altitude of Raven’s Nest on Whistler Mountain.

Even the most conservative estimate of 1.4 degrees would leave lower elevation ski resorts without natural snow.

Other resorts will have to focus on operations higher up the mountain, and will have to depend more on snowmaking to get through shorter seasons. The International Olympic Committee is concerned that only a handful of ski resorts may be able to offer enough vertical for downhill skiing competitions, reducing the number of cities that can bid for the Winter Games.

If the study is correct, ski resorts in Australia won’t be economically viable after 2070. Resorts in North America will have to increase artificial snowmaking by 48 to 187 per cent in the same period to maintain current levels.

In Switzerland, an estimated 15 per cent of ski resorts are reporting unreliable levels of snowfall. Up to half of all Swiss resorts could be experiencing the same conditions within the next few decades.

The study was released in advance of the UN conference on the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse emissions that is taking place in Milan, Italy from Dec. 1 to 12.

According to Bruce, the world is experiencing higher concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) than at any time in the past half million years, with temperatures and GHGs spiking higher than during any previous warming trend.

"The glaciers are sending us a strong message, as melting rates are accelerating – melting has doubled roughly since the 1980’s," said Bruce. "Every year (Canada) is losing more fresh water than we use in six years, including homes, agriculture, everything."

About half of the people in the world rely on alpine runoff for fresh water. Approximately 30 per cent of Canadians get their water from alpine runoff. The majority of Whistler residents still rely on runoff, although the number of wells is increasing.

The impact of melting glaciers will be felt in the prairie provinces, where farmers and ranchers depend on snow melt for irrigation. The coast will also have problems as salmon runs are altered by higher water levels.

Globally, the increased snow melt has resulted in a situation where thousands of people are at risk of flooding as alpine lakes start to overflow. Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro could lose its ice cap within the next 15 years.

"The danger and trends are different in different parts of the world, but they’re there," said Bruce.

It’s not too late to reverse the trend, said Bruce, but we have to take it upon ourselves because governments are having a hard time forcing changes.

"It’s a challenge. We have to do a lot to start making changes in our daily lifestyle," he said. The two biggest areas for change are energy efficiency and transportation, with transportation accounting for the largest percentage of our combined greenhouse gas emissions.

"There’s a lot we can do at home. Turn down our hot water heaters, install high efficiency insulation, lighting and appliances. Just weather stripping our doors saves 30 per cent on energy bills," said Bruce.

"That’s only part of it. To make a real change we have to look at transportation. Unfortunately the trend is that people are driving more and buying less efficient vehicles – that’s something we have to change."

Hybrid vehicles are a good start, reducing fuel consumption by 60 to 70 per cent for drivers already in smaller cars. If you drive a Hummer, which gets less than 16 kilometres a gallon (3.79 litres), a hybrid could cost you up to 500 per cent less to operate.

Another priority, according to Bruce, is to keep Canada in the Kyoto protocol, even if we fall short of our commitments at first.

The David Suzuki Foundation has also started a new campaign against urban sprawl, which puts more strain on public transportation and encourages people to use their cars.

Lastly, Bruce suggested that people sign up and take the Nature Challenge with the David Suzuki Foundation, a step-by-step progression to reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Kyoto Protocol.

For more information on the Melting Mountains program, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Nature Challenge, visit www.davidsuzuki.org.