Athabasca’s disappearing act

Have you ever had a personal experience that made you palpably feel the effects of climate change? Perhaps a trip to a glacier is in order.

The Athabasca Glacier in Canada has been shrinking for years.  © Lauren Fuge (used with permission)

The Athabasca Glacier in Canada has been shrinking for years. © Lauren Fuge (used with permission)


In the middle of last year, I embarked on a road trip through western Canada and north-western USA. Rivers, forests, glaciers, mountains, and fantastically dark night skies — I was ready to see it all. Canada is stunningly well-endowed when it comes to both natural beauty and natural resources; and soon I became aware of the unfortunate intersection between the two.

At the end of July, I found myself strapping on crampons at the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta. The glacier is only a couple of hundred metres from the side of the road — so close that you can even experience it on Google Street View.

“Easiest glacier in the world to get to,” said our ice-walk guide. “But the walk’s getting longer every year.”

We were at the tour base by the carpark, getting kitted out in stunningly fashionable coats and snow pants. His foreboding tone didn’t hit me then, because I was too busy patting the other guide’s magnificent dog.

The journey begins

Soon after we set off, crossing a landscape of gravel and rock that felt like the surface of the moon. Every now and then, we passed little stone monuments with years on them — 1982, 1992, 2000 — markers where the glacier used to reach. Then suddenly, we were on the great river of ice.

I almost slipped straight away on the smooth surface, but learnt quickly how to make my steps heavy to crunch the spikes of my crampon into the ice. We climbed after our guide, awed by the glacier’s size, by the way the ice seemed to pour down and fill the valley, carving into the rock of the mountainsides. In every delighted selfie, my sunglasses shone bright with sunlight bouncing off the ice.

We hiked past stream after stream of meltwater. The little crests and valleys of the ice undulated like a miniature landscape with water flowing through it. We stepped across tiny rivers and jumped across larger ones. We even stopped to snap photos of the polished openings the water poured out of.

On one of these photo-breaks, our guide pulled a laminated map out of his backpack.

© Lauren Fuge (used with permission)

© Lauren Fuge (used with permission)


“Right now, we’re on the Columbia icefield,” he said. “It’s made up of six ice sheets. Athabasca is the biggest.”

Then he took out another laminated sheet: a sepia-toned picture of the glacier from the early 1900s.

“But it’s shrinking. Every year, as we warm the planet more and more, it retreats by about ten metres. Our records date back to 1890 — Athabasca has retreated about 1.5 kilometres since then.”

He pointed past the foot of the glacier, way out across the valley to the road. We gazed out at the barren landscape that was once blanketed in ice hundreds of metres deep.

Our guide told us that in winter, Athabasca Glacier gets seven metres of snowfall, but it’s not enough to stop the shrinking. In autumn, the national parks service comes out and drives stakes into the glacier, five metres deep. But in summer, they have to re-drill them because the ice around them melts away. Every single year, the glacier loses at least five metres.

A destructive cycle

As our guide talked, I watched the meltwater running down the glacier, cutting rivulets in the ice and ending up in the little glacial lake that we’d passed on the way up. His voice told me that the water streamed on into the Athabasca River and flowed relentlessly through the mountains, along icefields and through gorges. The river provides habitats for native wildlife along its shores, flows through more than half a dozen parks, and drains into the Peace-Athabasca Delta — a vast wetland home to large communities of indigenous people and a diverse range of species. It then flows onwards to the north, where it eventually meets the Arctic ocean.

© Lauren Fuge (used with permission)

© Lauren Fuge (used with permission)


But on its way to the ocean, the meltwater also passes through the Athabasca oil sands. This is one of the largest crude oil reservoirs in the world, containing about 175 billion barrels worth of bitumen: a thick, heavy form of oil that coats sand and mineral grains. This bitumen is buried beneath an area of boreal forest stretching over an area bigger than England — almost 150,000 square kilometres.

Most of the oil sands are buried deep underground. Large, open pit surface mines extract the bitumen just beneath the surface, and the rest is unearthed by in situ mining, in which hot water is injected into the deposit, causing the bitumen to thin out and flow into a well, where it’s pumped to the surface.

Extracting bitumen from oil sands is one of the dirtiest fuel extraction processes on Earth: up to 103 kilograms of carbon dioxide is released in the production of just a single barrel of bitumen.

But while greenhouse gas emissions are a huge concern, the industry also has a destructive impact on biodiversity and water resources. Open pit mining destroys the boreal forest that the bitumen is buried beneath, and although the industry is required to restore the land afterward, there’s no way to reconstruct the complex ecosystems that once thrived there. Then, after the bitumen is extracted from the earth, it undergoes a refinement process to separate out the sand and minerals, which involves using natural gas to superheat freshwater - water that’s taken out of the Athabasca river system, which is fed by Athabasca glacier and the rest of the Columbia icefield.

© Lauren Fuge (used with permission)

© Lauren Fuge (used with permission)


Up to four barrels of freshwater are needed to produce one barrel of oil from the oil sands, which adds up to a pretty staggering number when you consider that in the oil sands produce more than two million barrels of oil per day. The oil industry currently has approval to take 359 million cubic metres of water from the Athabasca River, which is roughly the water that the city of Toronto uses in a year. After refinement, the wastewater is dumped into enormous man-made “tailing ponds” on the banks of the Athabasca River, where some of the toxins find their way downstream.

It’s pretty dire stuff, with disastrous consequences for the ecosystems there, including the Indigenous communities who depend on the river for their livelihood.

To rub salt into the wound, the refined bitumen can then become gasoline, which is used to fuel the cars that bring the tourists to the glacier, cars that ironically contribute the greenhouse effect that warms the Earth and makes the meltwater flow freely in the first place.

I remember watching all-terrain tour buses crawl up the ice and up the cliffsides for a breathtaking view from above. I imagined the bus drivers inside, talking animatedly into their microphones about the glaciers and their rapid melt, all while crunching over the pristine ice and churning out carbon dioxide.

But then again, I was on the ice too, halfway through a road trip across this no longer pristine country.

The global glacier situation

As soon I had internet service, I began to read more and more about global glacial melting.

Glaciers have been retreating since before human-induced climate change became significant. The melt was natural until about 1920, when human contribution forced it to diverge from its natural trend and sped up the rate of ice loss. Right now we’re to blame for about two-thirds of the glacial melting.

And the Athabasca Glacier isn’t the only one rapidly shrinking. Glaciers are disappearing all over the world: from the Andes to the Himalayas. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, in the last 50 years alone we’ve lost over 8,000 cubic kilometres of ice — enough to create an ice sheet 2km wide and 1km tall stretching from Los Angeles to New York.

© Lauren Fuge (used with permission)

© Lauren Fuge (used with permission)


As the planet warms and ice melts, more water flows into the oceans, where it warms, expands, and contributes sea level rise. It’s estimated that by the end of this century, glacial meltwater will make up about a quarter of the increase in the volume of the oceans, and half the increase in ocean mass. Rising global sea levels will cause widespread destruction, including erosion, flooding, soil contamination, a loss of habitat for marine animals, and more extreme high tides and storm surges.

Back on the ice

After our sombre discussion of the rapid melting, we hiked up further, peered down into terrifyingly huge crevasses, and took silly posed pictures holding our guide’s ice pick. But all that time, I couldn’t shake this voice in my head that calculated that if this glacier gets five metres shallower each year, then every single day, 13mm of ice disappears off the top.

Every single step I took, the voice told me again and again: "This is the last time that anyone will stand exactly here".

Edited by Tessa Evans