A canary in the coal mine for the peril facing all of Earth’s glaciers, Banff National Park’s Peyto Glacier is melting faster every year, boding ill for its survival and for the communities that count on it for water.
When University of Saskatchewan hydrologist John Pomery visited the glacier last summer, icebergs were still floating in the glacial lake that continues to grow as the ancient slab melts to water. But this August, the bergs were gone—and a brand-new river and waterfall had formed at the glacier’s base, writes CBC News.
Deteriorating since 2000, Peyto’s melt is accelerating, thanks to “a combination of low winter snowfall, prolonged, unseasonably hot weather, and falling soot from wildfire smoke,” the news story states. These factors created a “death spiral” for the glacier this year, Pomeroy said.
In just the last 12 months, the Peyto Glacier has melted 6.5 metres, a rate on par with the previous record melt year of 2021, when an extreme heatwave scorched much of Western Canada.
“It has also retreated 80 metres horizontally, around four times the long-term average retreat of 20 metres,” writes CBC.
Confirming that he expects Peyto and other glaciers in the Rocky Mountains to disappear completely within the next few generations, Pomery warns that downstream communities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba should be preparing now for hydrological droughts that will be “more severe than any we’ve experienced.”
The Bow, North Saskatchewan, and Athabasca rivers will all see their volumes drop once the glaciers are no longer there to feed them.
But it’s not too late, at least for larger glaciers like Athabasca. Peyto’s fate is very likely sealed, but with “very strong policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, starting right now,” some of the region’s iconic ice cathedrals may yet be saved, Pomery said.