Glacial tourism in the age of climate change

A Mossback post card from Alberta's shrinking industry.
Crosscut archive image.

Mossback's Knute Berger at the Athabasca glacier in Alberta

A Mossback post card from Alberta's shrinking industry.

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.

Crosscut archive image.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?

Crosscut archive image.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.

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.

At the Athabasca, our guide — without editorializing — put what's happening in terms that are strikingly simple. Only two and a half percent of the world's water is fresh water. Of that, 70 percent is stored in glaciers, icecaps and "permanent" snow. If we look at "warming" as a fresh water crisis then climate change takes on greater urgency. Sea level rise we can deal with. But if unabated climate change eliminates key sources of water for drinking, farming, fishing and power generation, now that's a huge problem. The melting of the Athabasca highlights this for us Cascadians because these mountains are the headwaters for the Columbia and Fraser River tributaries and other systems. Our economy is absolutely dependent on Rocky Mountain ice. 

Alberta's economy, unsurprisingly, has some built-in contradictions.The province makes big money both from the glaciers and from oil. It is widely regarded as the Texas of Canada and there is no shortage of SUVs on the road, to say the least. Many of the people we met there were connected in one way or another to the energy industry. No wonder. The scale and impact of the business is mind boggling. In the next 25 years, oil sands revenues are expected to generate $350 billion in royalties for the province and $122 billion in tax revenues. 

At the same time, the Canadian Rockies and their glaciers are critical to a nearly $8 billion annual tourism economy. And the province is investing in it too. The Alberta tourism promotion budget for 2014 is estimated at more than $56 million. In other words, they take tourism very seriously. People come from all over the world to see the Rockies and relish the wilderness, the scenery, the skiing. The questions then: To what degree are their energy and tourism futures at odds? Can the people of Alberta have their glaciers and greenhouse gases too, and if so, for how long?

Strange as it was to rumble onto a glacier in a giant ice terrain vehicle, I would recommend that excursion to everyone who makes it up to Banff or Jasper. You might enjoy it simply because it's exhilarating fun, albeit a bit politically incorrect, as most fun is. But it is also eye-opening in terms of what's at stake. You get a close-up look at a diminishing resource — glaciers are a kind of endangered species central to our entire way of life. You get a glimpse of a comparatively hidden aspect of a key element that makes the region tick. After the glacier excursion, you'll probably come away more committed to — or at least conscious of — trying to sort out our critical climate dilemma. Think of it as a beautiful outing that provides a cold slap in the face about global warming.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.