Losing glaciers, but not sleep … yet

One of the largest rivers flowing into Atlin Lake has run dry. "That river has been there for hundreds of years," said longtime Atlin summer resident Brad Thayer. "It's carved out canyons and created a huge alluvial fan. In early July, Thayer and his wife boated to the end of Atlin Lake.

One of the largest rivers flowing into Atlin Lake has run dry.

“That river has been there for hundreds of years,” said longtime Atlin summer resident Brad Thayer.

“It’s carved out canyons and created a huge alluvial fan.”

In early July, Thayer and his wife boated to the end of Atlin Lake and set off on one of their favourite walks – a 90-minute hike up to the Llewellyn Glacier.

Not far into the hike, they heard the usual roar of the river that runs from the glacier to Atlin Lake, and they followed the river up to its source – a moraine lake full of floating icebergs.

Less than two months later, the couple decided to do the hike one more time before the end of summer.

But as they neared the river, the forest remained quiet.

“We came out of the trees, and what was normally this huge river was gone,” said Thayer.

Stunned, the couple walked across the wide, dry riverbed and made their way up to the glacier.

At the river’s source, the couple were in for a second shock.

The moraine lake had dropped more than 50 feet and its icebergs were sitting high and dry.

“We were able to walk through the icebergs on the dry lake bed,” said Thayer.

“They were dripping and melting all around us.”

Back in town, speculating with friends, the couple suspected it had to do with the glacier receding due to climate change.

After renting a plane a couple days later, their fears were confirmed.

The glacier used to stretch to a promontory of land, creating two moraine lakes with a river flowing from each.

But this summer, the glacier retreated enough to break its seal with the promontory.

As a result, all the water from the one moraine lake flowed into the other, leaving what once was the larger of the two lakes, virtually dry.

“This is just another indication of global warming,” said Thayer.

“There is no way that lake and river will ever return, unless the glacier starts growing.”

The chances of that happening are microscopic, said University of British Columbia glaciologist Garry Clarke.

Melting glaciers are not just an early warning symbol of climate change, he said.

“They are a lagging symbol.

“We are already well into it, and the glaciers are not in balance with the climate we’ve already got, or they’d be smaller.”

For the next 30 to 50 years, glaciers are going to be playing catch-up with climate change, he said.

“And there won’t be many glaciers after that.

“They’re getting really whacked by climate change.”

We are doing little to mitigate it, added Clarke.

To truly combat climate change, we’d have to cut our carbon down to a very small fraction of what we’re using today worldwide, he said.

“But I don’t see the political will to do that right now,” said Clarke.

“So we’re left with a situation we don’t like and no one very interested in taking corrective measures.”

It’s frustrating, he said.

“Because I don’t think there’s an argument about what’s happening.

“I don’t think it’s a question of climate scientists swimming in a bath of money and feeding off sending bad news to people.

“It’s really the opposite.

“We’re having a very hard time getting funding in Canada right now, especially with the economic interest in northern development and oil.”

Eventually, we’re going to run out of fossil fuels to burn, he said.

But knowing this and acting on it are two very different things.

“It takes a kind of courage to decide you’re not going to go for short-term gains,” said Clarke.

And we’re not seeing that courage right now, he said.

“It’s discouraging.”

Now, with the global economy limping around, there is even less political will to invest in renewable energy, he said.

“If the economy was doing well, then we could have said, ‘Let’s do something sensible, like limit carbon and convert to different fuel sources.’”

But all that costs money, he said.

“And it takes political capital too.

“We might have managed something like that 10 or 15 years ago. But I can’t see it happening now.”

Clarke doesn’t carry a lot of hope for the future.

Maybe China will set an example, because it is already investing in renewable energy, he said.

But it is also building more coal plants, he said.

Even if we stopped pumping carbon into the atmosphere today, it would take 10,000 years to back out of this, said Clarke.

Part of the problem is that the oceans act as huge carbon dioxide sinks.

“That’s why we don’t have more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere right now,” he said.

But if we start getting it out of the atmosphere, it will then start leaching back out of the oceans.

There is little hope the climate will ever return to what it is now, said Clarke.

“We will have a different climate, which will force us to have a different economy as well.

“Agriculture will have to be revised, and fisheries … a whole bunch of things.

“We don’t quite know what it’s going to be like.

“It’s going to be very chaotic for awhile.”

We’ve been setting fire to the house after we finished paying rent, said Clarke.

“And this has to change.

“We have to get people to start paying attention and thinking on a larger scale, about future generations.”

Losing a glacial river and lake in Atlin, BC is only the tip of the iceberg, said Clarke.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com