On Thin Ice - Athabasca Glacier Expedition
LTE and Will Gadd descended into Alberta’s Athabasca Glacier to explore the effects of climate change on the glacier. The team was joined by Martin Sharp, a glaciologist from the University of Alberta who helped explain the impacts that climate change has had, and will have, on the area in general and the ice fields in particular.
Growing up in Calgary, Will Gadd often accompanied his geologist father to the Canadian Rockies to explore the most accessible – and perhaps most famous – body of ice in North America: the Athabasca Glacier. In addition to nurturing Gadd’s life-long affection for the outdoors, these father-son trips to the glacier cultivated his love of adventure and paved the way to his career as an award-winning, extreme sport athlete, a world-renowned adventurer, and a Red Bull-sponsored ice-climber.
In the 30 years since these boyhood trips, Gadd’s career has had its share of firsts including a world-distance paragliding record, and becoming the first person to climb the frozen waters of Niagara Falls. Despite these accomplishments, Gadd never predicted he would one day be a part of the first-ever scientific expedition to climb inside Canada’s Athabasca Glacier.
This historic climb was conceptualized and organized by the Canada Museum of Science and Technology’s Let’s Talk Energy team to help them learn more about the glacier, and foster awareness about the real-world impact of climate change in Canada.
“When I heard about this trip, it was one of the most exciting moments of my life because I was literally going somewhere no one had gone before,” says the 50-year-old Gadd.
For Gadd, The Athabasca expedition was different from his previous climbs. “I’ve been inside half a dozen glaciers, but none of them were like this,” he says. In 2016, Gadd attempted to explore inside a glacier in Greenland but the ice was too unstable and restricted his passage to only a few metres. “With the Athabasca Glacier, I had very little expectations going in; I really had no idea what to expect. That’s what was exciting about it. To be honest, based on my experience in Greenland I wasn’t expecting much.”
In December of 2017, Gadd successfully descending into the glacier as a member of a 10-person team of explorers, scientists, photographers, educators, and career adventurers assembled by the Canada Museum of Science and Technology.
The team entered through a moulin, a vertical tunnel in the glacier’s surface formed by water moving through cracks in the ice. Once inside and more than 100 m into the glacier, the team discovered a mini-ecosystem. Populated with flying insects and microscopic organisms called bio-films, the survival of these organisms within the ice challenges our understanding of the limits of life in colder spaces.
After the climb, Gadd reflected back on his boyhood trips to the glacier in the 1970s. He remembered how the walk from the parking lot to the Athabasca Glacier used to take just a few minutes. Today, the ice has receded so much that visitors must hike for an hour just to reach the outer edge. “A stark warning,” he says, “of the quickening pace of global warming.”
“If current trends continue,” says Gadd, “I don’t expect there to be an Athabasca Glacier in my lifetime, or my kids’ lifetime. In many ways, it’s already a dead glacier. To me climate change is obvious. Glaciers are disappearing at rates that are completely unheard of. This isn’t abstract, we’re talking about hundreds of meters of ice that has disappeared in my lifetime.”
While Gadd and his team were the first to successfully explore inside the Athabasca Glacier, a pair of British explorers made it to the surface more than a century ago.
In the summer of 1898, J. Norman Collie and Herman Wooley alongside a small team of climbers were hiking in a then largely unexplored region of the Canadian Rockies. On the evening of August 18, after a difficult day of climbing, Collie and Wooley reached the summit of Mount Athabasca.
In his 1903 book, Climbs and Exploration in the Canadian Rockies, co-authored with fellow climber Hugh Stutfield, J. Norman Collie recorded his experience of overlooking the icy landscape from nearly 12,000 feet above sea-level:
We stood on the edge of an immense icefield, bigger than the biggest in Switzerland—that is to say, than the Ewige Scheefield and the Aletsch Glacier combined —which stretched mile upon mile before us like a rolling snow-covered prairie. […] The view that lay before us in the evening light was one that does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers. A new world was spread at our feet: to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by the human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed and unclimbed peaks. (Collie and Stutfield 1903)
The vast “new world” that so captivated Collie was the Columbia Icefield. This ancient, geographic feature began forming more than 240,000 years ago – during the Great Glaciation, some 100,000 years before the Ice Age. Within the icefield is the Athabasca Glacier which accounts for one of six branches, also called toes, of the Columbia Icefield.
In the 120 years since J. Norman Collie and his fellow mountaineers made their historic ascent, the Athabasca Glacier has become significantly smaller. According to Dr. Martin Sharp, a glaciologist at the University of Alberta, the glacier has receded more than 1.5 km and shrunk to half its original size in that time.
When Gadd asked him to join the museum’s expedition, Dr. Sharp, who has studied glacial life-cycles for 40 years, agreed without hesitation. The expedition provided him a rare opportunity to investigate the glacier’s journey system. By studying the pathways of water moving from the top of glacier, through the moulins, and out the bottom, Sharp could better understand the glacier’s behaviour.
Once inside, Dr. Sharp noticed an abrupt temperature jump from –30 °C on the surface to just below zero. But he was completely unprepared for what he discovered next: colourful, microbial biofilms coating the glaciers icy interior walls.
“Anywhere there was any water it was colonized by microbial biofilms,” Dr. Sharp recalls. “If there was a thin crack in the wall and there was the tiniest seep of water out of the crack, it was colonized. If there were hollows in the wall of the floor that could collect water, there was a biofilm. And they weren’t all the same type of organism; there were red ones, there were green ones, there were purple ones—it was quite abundant.”
“Ultimately, it’s about what are the limits to life on Earth at the colder end of the spectrum? And what are the tricks that organisms come up with to get around them?” says Dr. Sharp. “If these things can exist, then it opens the door of possibility for similar organisms to exist on other planets or moons, like Europa [a moon covered in ice and orbiting Jupiter].”
A week after the expedition, Dr. Sharp sent a colleague back to the glacier with Gadd to collect more samples of the biofilms. These are currently being tested at a lab in Bristol, England.
While the climbing team was thrilled by their discovery, it worried them. Life forming inside a glacier was the result of warmer temperatures inside.
“What it tells us is that a lot of these glaciers are not long for this world. And they may go [melt] far faster than what we can imagine because there are dynamic changes happening that will make it easier to get rid of these glaciers,” Dr. Sharp explains. He added that, “As a result of climate change, glaciers are being starved of the level of snow they need to build themselves back up following the summer thaw. So, what that means is that they’re just going to sit there and waste away in situ. And that will happen much more quickly that it would if they were still being supplied with new snow coming from above.”
For the Canada Museum of Science and Technology, these dynamic changes to the Athabasca Glacier were the driving force behind our decision to mount this expedition and get Canadians talking about climate change.
“The Athabasca glacier is the most accessible glacier in North America,” says Jason Armstrong, Manager of the Canada Museum of Science and Technology’s Let’s Talk Energy program. “It’s been visited by countless Canadians, and is an iconic symbol of the Rockies. By showing how this glacier has really changed in the last 40 years, we hoped to bring the reality of climate change home. This is not something that is going to happen in the year 2100, it’s happening now.”
Beyond the loss of a legendary piece of Canada’s landscape, Armstrong explained that the melting of the glacier and icefields will have significant impact on society, the environment, and the economy both in Canada and around the world.
One clear impact is the threat to sea levels around the globe. As the largest icefield in North America, the Columbia Icefield feeds the Arctic, North Atlantic, and Pacific oceans. Increased melt-water from the icefield directly contributes to higher sea-levels around the globe. In time, the impact will even reach Alberta’s oil sands economy, which uses the glacier’s water in the oil extraction process.
Long-term impacts include a strain on the agricultural economy in western Canada, which currently relies on melt-water from the glacier to support agricultural production. According to Dr. Sharp, “If you lose that glacier melt, then essentially you lose the irrigation-based agriculture that relies on the late-fall water from the glacier.”
In addition, many First Nations communities in northern Alberta rely on fresh water from the Athabasca River, fed by the glacier, for survival.
But the biggest risk of all could lie with what Sharp calls “legacy contaminants.” These massive deposits of toxic materials have become trapped within the glacier’s high-altitude ice caps over the last century. As the glacier melts, these lethal contaminants – which include banned materials like DDT and PCBs – are released from the ice and reintroduced into the environment.
“A lot of these contaminants are volatile, which means they’re not very stable in their solid phase so if you expose them to a reasonably warm atmosphere they go on to a gas phase,” explains Dr. Sharp. “Then, they can get moved around the planet by atmospheric circulation.”
He points to Environment Canada tests confirming that fish in the Bow River contain legacy contaminants, as evidence of increased toxins being reintroduced in the food chain. Dr. Sharp also believes contaminants play a role in increased DDT levels found in Antarctic penguins, although the toxin was banned in most of the world in the 1970s.
The Athabasca Glacier has played a key role in supporting human and animal life for 240 millennia. What can we do to save it?
“You just have to stop global climate warming,” says Dr. Sharp. “That’s what’s driving all of this. I think we’re probably fairly close to a situation where if we took action on climate that could stabilize things where they are, maybe that would slow down the disappearance of the glaciers. But I don’t think it would be enough to reverse it; I think you would actually have to cool the climate to get them to come back to what they were 50 or 100 years ago. And the longer you wait to do that, the tougher it will be.”
For Gadd, staying positive and focusing on solutions are the way to face climate change. He believes that if we put our mind to it as a society, we can come up with a potential glacier-saving solution.
“I don’t see it as a doom and gloom situation,” he says. “I see it as a kick in the ass.”