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.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!