Western Canada glaciers will lose 70 per cent of their volume by the end of the century, predict researches in a paper released Monday.
That's an average taken from the 17,000 individual ice masses found in Alberta and B.C. While the coast, where it is wetter, is expected to lose about half its volume, the drier Rocky Mountains could see near decimation of its glaciers.
"Worse case or business-as-usual equals 90 per cent ice loss in Rocky Mountains but reduction of greenhouse gasses (burning of fossil fuels) would equal 70 per cent loss," said Brian Menounos, a UNBC professor who co-authored the paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience.
But what does that loss look like?
First Menounos said it's important to understand that from 1985 to 1999 the glaciers lost 22 cubic kilometers of ice per year. A typical pick-up truck could carry one cubic meter of ice in its bed. So imagine 22 billion trucks of ice permanently lost each year.
In 1999, 2,530 cubic kilometers were left and by 2100, Menounos and his colleagues predict about 759 cubic kilometers should remain.
That will impact directly aquatic ecosystems, water quality and hydroelectric power generation, said Menounos, who is the Canada Research Chair in Glacier Change.
"Glaciers provide cool plentiful water to many small mountain creeks and rivers when seasonal snowpack has been depleted. They provide buffering capacity (thermal and quantity of water) for these rivers," said Menounos by email.
"When the glaciers are gone they can no longer provide this buffering capacity. Glaciers are important for hydropower in the Columbia Basin and provide up to 20 to 25 per cent of flows during August and September."
That becomes important during dry years or when snowpacks are low. It could also increase mining activity as new bedrock becomes exposed as the glaciers retreat.
"A loss of glaciers will negatively impact tourism and outdoor recreation," said Menounos, pointing to the popular Columbia Icefield and Glacier National Park.
Since 2005 the researchers have been examining observational data, computer models and state-of-the-art climate simulations to assess long-term change in temperature and precipitation - including a new way to account for ice dynamics.
"This is the first time that a study uses glacier flow models to assess future changes to thousand of glaciers in mountain environments," said Menounos of the research, which used a $2.1 million grant from Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Research that has sinced ceased operations when funding ran out in 2011 under the Conservative government.
"The largest uncertainties are really in how we as a society behave."
Menounos said he would like to see the work used by policy-makers, and planners and the public, who have the ability to reduce the ice loss by changing fossil fuel consumption.
"Of course that's not an easy task, but we need some federal leadership on greenhouse gas emissions," he said, calling that approach short sighted.
"Perhaps it is due to the fact that climate change doesn't happen on the temporal scale of election cycles. The problem is that continuing to ignore human-induced climate change is like not going to the doctor when you show symptoms of a severe illness," he said. "Ignoring the symptoms doesn't make the illness go away - and inaction on addressing climate change will make it vastly more expensive to deal with."
Losing 70 per cent of that by the end of the century would translate to a 0.5 centimetre rise in global sea level - but that's not the story, Menounos said.
"In B.C. and Alberta, the loss of ice is more about loss of this important natural resource."
Menounos worked with researchers at the University of British Columbia, the University of Iceland, and the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium on the study as well as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, BC Hydro and the Columbia Basin Trust.