Glacial melt is no worry for Yukon Energy

The glaciers that feed the mighty Yukon River are melting. But new research suggests the territory’s power grid has little to worry about.

The glaciers that feed the mighty Yukon River are melting. But new research suggests the territory’s power grid has little to worry about.

It turns out glaciers, like the giant Llewellyn near Atlin, B.C., don’t contribute as much to the river system as many may think.

In 30 years, from 1981 to 2011, runoff from glaciers only made up about 23 per cent of upper Yukon’s flow, said Jeffrey Kavanaugh, an assistant professor with the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta.

Kavanaugh is working on a project with the Northern Climate Exchange at Yukon College. So far, the work has been funded by the Yukon Energy Corporation.

The project began with a conversation Kavanaugh had with Yukon Energy’s president and CEO, David Morrison.

“We were just talking about what it is that feeds the Yukon River and how much knowledge, for YEC, there was around some of those inputs,” said Lacia Kinnear, manager of the Exchange.

The two biggest gaps surrounded glacial knowledge and knowledge about climate change, said Kinnear.

“We realized that there wasn’t a lot of information available,” said Janet Patterson with Yukon Energy. “Obviously, we know that there is climate change, and because the Yukon River and that whole system supplies so much of the water that we use to produce electricity for Yukoners, we knew it was really important to better understand what was going on with climate change in terms of the glaciers and the snowfall and the rainfall and that kind of thing in that whole area.”

Kavanaugh’s team and the college wrote up a report on their findings so far, which points out that the majority of the water that goes into the Yukon River system comes from snowfall.

“About 60 percent of the river flow through Yukon is due to snowfall,” said Kavanaugh. “It is the dominant player.”

In the Atlin area, the temperature has warmed about 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius per decade, and there’s been about a five per cent increase in precipitation, said Kavanaugh, referring to another 2011 Northern Climate Exchange report.

Warmer weather and more rain may be bad news for the glaciers, but they could be great news for Yukon Energy.

“It could mean greater river flows, and it might mean a change in timing to that flow,” said Kavanaugh. “When the water flows through Whitehorse may change a bit.”

Glaciers are really good at naturally adding to water flow at times when other sources are tapping out, said Kavanaugh.

More precipitation and warmer temperatures could disrupt that natural rhythm by causing a faster melt of the glaciers and more water flowing into the river overall.

But this could help out the territory’s energy needs, which become greater in the winter months, when the river’s flow freezes up.

Kavanaugh’s team and the college, with Yukon Energy’s cash, have put up two monitoring stations and have plans for three more, all at different altitudes and places around the river’s basin and the glaciers that help feed it.

The results of that monitoring will help give some short-term forecasts on what to expect and, if funding from the federal government comes through, will eventually help build a model to understand much longer forecasts for the region as well, said Kavanaugh.

But even without that data, the outlook for glaciers like the behemoth Llewellyn are pretty grim.

GlacierChange.org shows the Llewellyn shrinking from 471 square kilometres in 1991 to 458 square kilometres in 2011. That’s a loss of 13 square kilometres, or nearly three per cent of surface area.

“The glaciers in this area – it doesn’t sound like they’re doing great – but they’re not as immediately threatened,” said Kavanaugh. “They’ll likely continue wasting away for several decades and even then, they’re not as dominant players in the hydrology.”

“I just don’t want people to feel that the glaciers are going to dry up and we won’t have any water to produce electricity,” said Patterson. “We’re fine for many years into the future, but it’s something we need to be looking at and educate ourselves.”

Losing the Llewellyn is “not realistic, especially in our lifetime or our children’s lifetime,” said Kinnear. “But Yukon is seeing changes.”

Nearly everything – from melting permafrost preparations to food security – impact the water systems and are impacted by it.

This is why trying to understand what is going on now, and finding out what more we need to learn, said Kinnear.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at roxannes@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read