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    Glacial tourism in the age of climate change

    A Mossback post card from Alberta's shrinking industry.
    Mossback's Knute Berger at the Athabasca glacier in Alberta

    Mossback's Knute Berger at the Athabasca glacier in Alberta Credit: Carol Poole

    It's not hard to see glaciers from Seattle — just look at Mt. Rainier. But it's another thing to stand on one.

    I was recently in Alberta, Canada on a travel writing assignment. Part of my stay was hosted by Travel Alberta, the provincial tourism organization. During the visit, we drove up the Icefields Parkway, a spectacular highway that runs through Banff and Jasper National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. On either side snowcapped peaks loom, including one long string of mountains called the Endless Chain Range. It certainly feels that way.

    We were up there to visit the Athabasca Glacier which flows from the great Columbia Icefield. The icefield system, including more than a dozen glaciers, encompasses about 100 square miles of snow and ice. This time of year, the mountains are still snow covered, the high lakes beginning to thaw. The Columbia Icefield's snowmelt makes its way into three oceans: the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic (via Hudson Bay) from a peak called Snow Dome. The landscape has a mammoth, fantasy-like, Game of Thrones-y feel.

    At the Columbia Icefield visitor's center in Jasper National Park, on the border with Banff National Park, you can hike or ride up to the Athabasca Glacier, which oozes down the mountain plateau icefield and ends near the highway. Between the road and the glacier's front edge are moraines and piles of gravel ribboned with streams flowing from the melting ice. It resembles a chaotic quarry, or perhaps a gray Martian surface when that planet still had liquid water. In addition to the Athabasca, other glaciers higher up on either side hang off adjacent slopes.

    Standing in this spot, you feel like you're at the center of a traffic circle of converging glaciers. And you can actually walk on one by taking an 80-minute tour on a huge, six-wheeled bus-like conveyance called a Snow Coach. It looks a bit like a hard-top Duck on super-sized, chest-high tires.

    These machines which, we're told, cost more than $1 million each, take you from the visitor's center through the moraines and up onto the surface of the glacier itself. From there, tourists can get out and tromp around on the ice. A Canadian flag flies and you feel a bit like you've just reached the North Pole. You get to see and touch the blue ice of the glacier, you can stoop to drink fresh meltwater, pick up crystal clear icicles and take endless selfless against the spectacular mountain backdrop.

    It's exhilarating, especially for those of us who are not glacier hoppers like John Muir and the other adventurers for whom bounding over the ice and its crevasses was or is a common experience. But it's a bit ironic too. For one thing, most people get up there by automobile or bus, as the parking lot attests. The company that makes the Snow Coaches (below), our guide/driver tells us, also makes heavy equipment for work in the northern Alberta tar sands. In the era of climate change, is it moral to drive up onto a melting glacier in a gas-guzzling machine?

    A couple of days after our visit, the Canadian park service reported the Athabasca glacier was disappearing at an "astonishing" rate. It has been in retreat for a long time, since 1843. Despite heavy annual snowfalls, the glacier has retreated about a mile since the turn of the 19th Century, and it is thinning out too.

    Overall, the Athabasca glacier is losing about 15 feet a year. That's not unique to the Athabasca, nor to many of the nearly 8,000 glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta, and most everywhere else.

    Many Athabasca tourists know about climate change, but visiting the glacier affords a rare chance to see the phenomenon up close and learn about its impact. Throughout Banff and Jasper parks educational displays explain the water cycle, how glaciers work, the ecosystems of ice and snow. The basic science of it all is there for anyone who chooses to read the panels or listen to the guides.

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    Posted Tue, Jun 3, 8:20 a.m. Inappropriate

    It's a beautiful and magical place! One that I would like to return to very soon.

    In the Seattle area, we were just told we live in a glacial valley, carved by a retreating glacier long-ago. I also like going to Mt. Rainier - especially Box Canyon, where you can stop and look at the power of glaciers leaving the marks of stones and larger boulders on an exposed boulder.

    The study of glaciers is a wonderful hobby and we since we all live in an "inter-glacial period" we have the unique ability to see what Earth looked like during the last Ice Age in the Canadian Rockies - yet many of us live in a old glacial valleys! I am always humbled in the fact that Earth has been here a very long time and seen many periods of Ice Ages and hardly no ice at all! (parts of Greenland were actually really green!)

    So thank you for a wonderful article about the glorious wonders of Alberta and how the Earth is always changing around us - and if we don't watch out, it will change before our eyes.


    Posted Tue, Jun 3, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

    In the era of climate change, is it moral to drive up onto a melting glacier in a gas-guzzling machine?

    Why wonder at that point, Knute? You've already done your worse with your flight.


    We have met the enemy and they are hypocrites.


    Posted Tue, Jun 3, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

    Jesus, Mary, and Harry. Is there anyone so pure that they fly this banner of hypocrisy every time an article like this is posted. At the very least you're supporting server farms by typing away, unless you generate your own power by pedaling and prosing at the same time.

    We've met the enemy and it is us. Unless you're head is too far into the sand to recognize we all live in glass houses on this issue.


    Posted Tue, Jun 3, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    I did fly back, but I took the train up to Banff. Highly recommended!

    And yes, hypocrisy is bad; denial even worse.

    Posted Tue, Jun 3, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    hypocrisy is made of denial


    Posted Tue, Jun 3, 12:30 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Global warming, it seems to me, suffers from bad branding. For many people, a warmer Earth sounds more habitable, a good place to get a tan. But the phrase "climate change" is too general, too tepid. There is no sense of consequence."

    Try armageddon: • a dramatic and catastrophic conflict, typically seen as likely to destroy the world or the human race. Apple Dictionary, Rev. 16:16.


    Posted Tue, Jun 3, 3:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    I think we need a jingle.


    Posted Tue, Jun 3, 9:04 p.m. Inappropriate

    One thing that has benefited from climate change/global warming is glacier archeology. Those folks are following the retreating glaciers as fast as their feet will allow, and they are finding a lot of stuff. Obviously we've been this warm before or they wouldn't bother.


    Posted Tue, Jun 3, 10:33 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yes, I learned recently that the Earth has been much warmer in past! Greenland was actually green and they could grow grapes and oranges in England. The ocean was also much higher with water levels higher as well.

    What I learned in my Geology class is that the Earth goes through periods of warming and cooling - with the cooling periods being called "Ice Ages". The period we are in now - in long geological terms at least, is called the "inter-glacial period". A time between the last ice age and a warming planet.

    What I am most surprised at and like to tell my friends and family is that the Earth (despite what they said and think) has NOT always been like it is today. But because we can see (and I live in one!) old glacial valleys, that glaciers have been advancing and receding many times before. The Earth is always changing! So go and view and enjoy the Earth before it changes yet again!


    Posted Wed, Jun 4, 7:23 a.m. Inappropriate

    Yea. Hello - anybody in there? Yea - there have been changes in earth's temperature - but, duh! not caused by the hand of man.. I'm not sure if comments like this are tolls or just showing the state of ignorance of science these days. Either way it's quite a performance. Carry on.


    Posted Thu, Jun 5, 12:57 p.m. Inappropriate

    I suggest that you improve your own scientific background.


    You can substitute your own preferred field of study, then get back to us when you really understand what the scientific method is, how it's used, and the limitations of scientific simulations using computer models.

    Meanwhile University of Washington have published documentation about the success of the Clean Air Act. Find it here http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140411091840.htm

    Climate change from the past? Find it here http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130123133612.htm


    Posted Tue, Jun 10, 11:36 p.m. Inappropriate

    I visited the glacier in Juneau Alaska in 2005 and a guy showed me a stick they place at the mouth of the 'ice river' showing how much it recedes every year. It's like 100ft. My reaction was: IT'S ONE HUNDRED FEET. EVERY YEAR. But the guy just shrugged. Everyone just shrugged. The locals in all these places have known about this stuff for decades. I just do not understand why 'reality' gets so little reaction.

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