Unexpected warmth inside shrinking Athabasca Glacier

The toe of the Athabasca Glacier has shrunk 250 feet feet since 1991. This is what it looked like at dusk on an October evening in 2010. Photo/Allen Best

In bowels of shrinking Athabasca Glacier, the air was eerily warm

JASPER, Alberta — If you drive north from Lake Louise for an hour and a half, you will come to the Columbia Icefields, a sprawl of glaciers along the Continental Divide with fingers reaching out into the valleys. One of them is called the Athabasca Glacier.

Earlier this month, ice climbing legend Will Gadd—he was the first to ice climb Niagara Falls—rappelled down a moulin, or frozen stream, to inspect the interior of the glacier. What he found puzzled him and the scientists who accompanied him.

“The first thing we discovered as we popped out into this amazing passage, which was just like a beautiful sandstone canyon made of ice, was the temperature gradient. It was plus-one (degree Centigrade) underneath the glacier,” Gadd told the Jasper Fitzhugh. “It was really weird.”

Too, there was water, not ice, within the glacier, similar to the pools you might find in a sandstone canyon.

Altogether, the tentative conclusion drawn by Gadd and his scientific companions is that the glacier’s interior may be reflecting globally warming temperatures in myriad ways.

What is readily obvious is that the glacier has retreated “massively” since Gadd was growing up nearly 50 years ago in nearby Jasper, located an hour and 14 minutes away.

It is, noted Skeptical Science in a 2014 article, probably the easiest glacier in the world to access by car. You can park within a few hundred metres of the ice, but the glacier has been retreating 10 metres (about 33 feet) per year, altogether more than 200 metres since 1992.

Recording climate change in a Crested Butte exurb

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — billy barr – his preference on spelling – has become an Internet sensation. He’s been a go-to source for some years for various media, including Mountain Town News, because of his long-record keeping at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

He’s the sole winter resident at the laboratory, which is located at the old mining camp of Gothic. In summer, it’s about 15 minutes from Mt. Crested Butte, the slope-side town, and perhaps 20 minutes from Crested Butte.

He got there in 1972, and he’s been there ever since, measuring the temperature and snow, eventually providing one of the better longer-term data sets about global warming in a mountain location. The hamlet has an elevation of 9,485 feet.

The Crested Butte News reports that barr has now become the subject of a short film called the End of Snow produced by a local filmmaker, Morgan Heim. The film was submitted to the Film4 Climate global video competition, and it came in second among 900 films. Since then, it has gone viral. The video has been viewed just over 50,000 times alone on the website of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

barr makes for an interesting character on film. He has a long beard, now streaked with gray, and is a fan of Bollywood films, which he watches nightly in his solitary cabin in Gothic.

But there’s also the climate change documented by his methodical research: Normally, there might be 4 or 5 record high temperatures in any given winter. But last winter there were 17. The winter before, there were 36.



About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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