1 – Alaska, Canada : Abundant freshwater and glacier melting

Hi everybody,

 

This is the very first article of our series on freshwater. In this episode we are going to discuss a crucial issue: global warming and glacier melting in Alaska and Canada, areas where there is plenty of freshwater!

 

These areas are located above the fiftieth parallel and they receive lot of water from the rain (from 300mm/year to 3000). But mostly these areas are covered in snow and ice which guarantees free storage of the resource ! There are many glaciers and lakes all over those places (Canada counts over 30,000 lakes of at least 3km², plus all the hundred of thousands of smaller ones) that makes freshwater omnipresent there.

 

Freshwater insufficiency is not really an issue for Canadian and Alaskan people, but Grégoire and I have noticed some other big concerns about freshwater over there. It is sometimes difficult to get access to the sources of water. Lot of places are very isolated and far from the water supply services. In Fairbanks most of the people have to go to a public water tank in the city to fill up their own reserve of water. In some other remote places, like in Kamloops, British Columbia, the people we met could use a pump to get free, drinkable water.

 

An icerange in Kluane National Park
An icerange in Kluane National Park

 

In Vancouver, we met Adrien Gilbert, glaciologist at Simon Fraser University (SFU) to learn a little more about the way Canada deals with these huge amounts of freshwater. Adrien told us that the little droughts that Canada has been facing recently are not threats for agriculture or for people, given the stocks of freshwater available. However, they represent a real risk for the vast Canadian forests across the country. In summer, the foam that covers the ground gets dry quickly and if it does not rain frequently enough, wildfires can appear and light up entire areas of forest, endangering the species that live there. As a result, the little droughts in the country, as the one Vancouver is facing for a few months, are leaving permanent marks on the landscapes. It is difficult to predict the spread of those wildfires and difficult to fight them. The areas to protect can be as huge as France’s territory, so most of the time the only option is to let the fires spread as they also have natural virtues for the regeneration of some species of trees. The problem is that global warming is making those fires more frequent and more unpredictable which in the end can disrupt the natural equilibrium.

 

Interview with Adrien Gilbert, Glaciologist at SFU
Interview with Adrien Gilbert, Glaciologist at SFU

About global warming, Adrien is categorical. We cannot deny that humans have a direct influence on the last variations of temperature. Even though our planet has been through long cycles of glaciations, then warming up to the beginning of another glaciations era; the recent rise of temperature is too important to be considered natural! In one century, temperature has risen of 2°C… that is huge compared to the natural cycles of variations! 

Adrien is studying Barnes ice cap, a 15,000 year ice cap in the North of Canada that used to recover half of the North American continent. This ice cap is melting really fast and will probably disappear in a couple of hundred years. However Adrien does not give way to a prevailing pessimism. In the short term, real losses for Canada and Alaska are the changes of the landscapes and disruption of the ecosystems. In the long term, it is much more difficult to predict anything because of the number of factors at stake here. Changes on streams, on wind, on precipitations… Everything is connected and so everything is possible, even the beginning of a new glaciations era. The only thing Adrien is sure about is that all North American glaciers are quickly going to melt, given the pace of the last decades.

 

Adrien in is laboratory at SFU
Adrien in is laboratory at SFU

During our trip, Grégoire and I have noticed the consequences of global warming on Canadian ice fields. Margaret, an Alaskan resident we met in Anchorage, told us that glaciers of Katmai have been considerably moving back since she was born. Ourselves, we observed when going to the Salmon Glacier in British Columbia, the decrease of this ice field. We had to drive for an hour in a valley the glacier used to occupy, before we could see the toe of it. Every year, thousands of salmons swim upstream the torrent to reach the place they were born and where they are going to lay their eggs before dying. The journey of those fish is incredible. Every salmon female lay about 2,500 eggs, but after a long adventure downstream, into the sea and then upstream again, only 2 salmons will remain to lay another 2,500 eggs.

Every year, local grizzlies and black bears depend on those salmons to survive if they want to amass enough fat to survive the winter. They take a spot along the river and they fish with their powerful claws the salmons swimming upstream. We didn’t have the chance to see any bear fishing with Grégoire, but we did see a lot of dead salmon in the river, proof of bear presence! For swimming upstream and finding the place they were born, salmons call on a lot of factors, but one of the most important one is the saltiness and the temperature of the torrent. With glacier melting, the chemical composition of torrents is changing and who know which impact this could have on the entire Canadian ecosystems!!

 

Salmon glacier take steps back every single year
Salmon glacier take steps back every single year
Salmons swimming up the torrent
Salmons swimming upstream

The most ironical part of our study came when we visited Glacier National Park in the US, Montana. Given the name of the park, we were expecting to see a lot of glaciers and ice fields, but in fact almost all of them have disappeared, and the remaining ones are shrinking. The visitor centre gives us clear information: by 2020, all the glaciers of the park will be gone.

An information board in Glacier NP
An information board in Glacier NP

 

One of the only left icefields in Glacier NP...
One of the only icefields left in Glacier NP…

Consequences of climate change and glacier melting are still rather unpredictable. We are not experts scientists to give you a clear prophecy of what is going to happen in the years to come, and even scientists cannot really tell. However it was important for us to give your our feeling on the subject. Disruption of the biosphere, changes of the landscapes, and melting of antiques ice caps gave us food for thought, and we hope you will now consider the issue on a different perspective!

Thanks for following us and see you soon!

 

Antoine

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