Around the Mountains: Shrinking ice provides less buffer to drought |

Around the Mountains: Shrinking ice provides less buffer to drought

Allen Best
special to the daily

GOLDEN, B.C. – Professors have been out to the towns on both sides of the Continental Divide in Canada recently to talk about the shrinking of glaciers. It is, they say, a serious challenge, as the hydrological cycle that local communities have come to depend upon will be changing.

But ice in both places has been shrinking-with much more rescission likely. At a forum in Golden, B.C., Kindy Gosal, director of water and environment for the Columbia Basin Trust, explained that the glaciers matter because “they are our banks and reserves of water. And really, we don’t have a good idea what’s happened in those bank accounts of water and what the future impacts might be as those bank accounts become depleted, or how fast we’re depleting their funds.

The greater concentration of glaciers can be found in the Columbia River Basin. Compared to the glaciers on the east side of the Continental Divide, near Jasper and Banff, there is twice as much ice coverage, in a smaller geographic area. Upstream from Golden, 287 glaciers in the catchments of the Columbia and Kicking Horse Rivers cover 247 square kilometers.

Computer models suggest the disappearance of many glaciers during this century, although not all. Shawn Marshall, from the University of Calgary, said he guessed “by the end of the century there will still be glaciers.”

But if glaciers remain, the flows will be very different. The loss will be little noted much of the year. The most pertinent time is late summer, when glaciers contribute as much as 12 to 13 percent of streamflow, said John Pomeroy, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

In Alberta, the Columbia Icefield has been shrinking since at least 1843, near the end of what was called the Little Ice Age, a cooling period that lasted several hundred years.

But the shrinking, an average of 10 meters (32 feet) per year, has been accelerating, leaving tree stumps exposed that may have been covered for 8,000 years, notes the Rocky Mountain Outlook

As in British Columbia, scientists say that having less water from melting glaciers in years ahead to augment the native river flows from snow and rain will create duress in late summer.

“Whatever the cause of these changes in glacier cover, they will have significant effects on the flow volumes, the season flow patterns, plus water temperatures and water quality, that will impact human activities downstream (irrigation, water supply, and in some cases, power generation) and also on stream ecology,” stated Dr. Brian Luckman, a geography professor at the University of Western Ontario who specializes in alpine environments and glacier fluctuations.

SOUTH POLE, Antarctica – Although wind and cold might grab your attention more readily, the elevation of the South Pole might have you huffing and puffing if you’ve arrived from sea level. The South Pole lies at an elevation of 9,300 feet, owing to how much ice there is. Atmospheric pressure, however, can be equivalent to being at anywhere from 10,800 to 13,200 feet.

AVON, Colo. – When the Great Recession arrived like a backed up sewer and the real-estate sector of ski towns slowed to the pace of a nursing home, predictions soon began of a mass exodus of people dependent upon real estate and construction.

That was in late 2008, and it may happen yet. But, so far, there is no evidence of streets suddenly vacated, as has happened in the past when energy and mining booms in the West have suddenly gone bust.

In fact, enrollment in public schools of the Eagle Valley – an area that includes Vail, Avon, and Eagle – grew substantially this year. That may have included some students who had previously been attending private schools in the valley, but the Vail Daily notes that the programs designed for children of immigrants who don’t speak fluent English grew by 250. Total enrollment increase was 450. Enrollment has increased every year since 1997.

The Vail Daily talked with a consultant, Denny Hill, of Strategic Resources West, which projects enrollment for school districts. Hill told the newspaper that he suspects people haven’t left because there’s really no compelling reason to do so. Every other place out there is in just as bad a shape. While living costs remain higher in mountain valleys, residents may tend to hang on just a little bit longer for fearing of losing money when they sell houses and condominiums.

But there are evidences of decline. Births last year at Vail Valley Medical Center declined by about 100, to 620. Automobile registrations in Eagle County dropped by nearly a thousand, to about 52,000.

What does the future bode for the Vail area and other mountain valleys? “I wish my crystal ball was clear, but this economy has me scratching my head,” says Hill. “There were some places that I didn’t expect to grow, but which did, and some others that declined a little bit more than I had expected.”

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