Glacier National Park

Studying Glacial Recession

Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks are home to 147 glaciers. Current research shows that our glaciers are shrinking. In 2011 8.3% of the parks were glaciated—down from 9.5% in 2000. Between 2000 and 2011, the surface area of glaciers in the two parks decreased by 12.7%, or 19.4 km2.

North America’s First Glaciologists

black and white photo of man photographing glacier William Vaux photographing the Illecillewaet glacier in 1898
© Parks Canada

The study of glacial recession in Glacier National Park was started by the Vaux family over 125 years ago—North America’s first glaciologists! Siblings Mary, George and William Vaux of Philadelphia first travelled here as tourists in 1887. They photographed the Illecillewaet Glacier on their first visit and again on their second visit in 1904. They were struck by how much the glacier had receded in those seven years. For another decade, the Vaux family returned each year to monitor and photograph the glacial recession from a number of fixed locations—the earliest known glacier research in North America. Their photographs and notes continue to be invaluable to the study of glaciology and climate change today.

 

photo with text overlay showing the recession of the Illecillewaet Glacier from 1898 to 1931 The recession of the Illecillewaet Glacier, 1898 - 1931
© Parks Canada / Dan McCarthy, Brock University

The above image shows the recession of the toe, or terminus, of the Illecillewaet Glacier over time. The image was created using photographs taken by the Vaux family at the turn of the century.

Repeat Photography

In 2011, repeat photography was conducted in partnership with the Mountain Legacy Project to compare glacial changes over time. This repeat photography project involved comparing photos taken in 2011 to those taken in the past from the exact same location. In addition to photographs the Vaux family took, glass photo plates were also taken by early surveyors working for the railway in the late 1800s. By comparing new images to old ones, we can get a clear picture of glacial recession.

two photos of the toe of Illecillewaet Glacier, 1887 and 2011 Views of the toe of the Illecillewaet Glacier in 1887 (left) and 2011 (right)
© McCord Museum (left) / Mountain Legacy Project (right)


In the above image, repeat photography compares a view of the toe of the Illecillewaet Glacier in 1887, at left, to the bare rock face after glacier retreat in 2011, at right.

In the image below, taken below Abbott Ridge, significant glacier recession is observed.


two photos of Illecillewaet Glacier, 1902 and 1911 Illecillewaet Glacier in 1902 (left) and 2011 (right)
© Detroit Photographic Co. (left) / Mountain Legacy Project (right)

Measuring Glacial Meltwater

In 2009, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks supported a glacier mass-balance research project by Master’s student Jocelyn Hirose. This study looked at the net gain or loss of glaciers on the Illecillewaet glacier in Glacier national park. Jocelyn was able to measure and model glacier run-off during the summer months to determine how much of the run-off was from snow and how much was from glacial ice. Water chemistry was also analyzed to help determine the sources of run-off.

The study found that over the course of three years, glacier run-off during summers was on average 112,300,000 m3 of water—that’s approximately 44,920 Olympic sized swimming pools! Glacier melt-modelling and water chemistry showed that 34% of the melt water came from glacial ice and 66% from snow.

This indicates that if our glaciers disappeared, water volumes in the creeks and streams of this area could decrease by at least one third. It is likely that water volumes would actually decrease by more than this, because the loss of glaciers would also lead to a loss of snowpack, since glaciers act like fridges, helping to preserve the snowpack. A decrease in water volume would be accompanied by both an increase in water temperature and lower oxygen levels, affecting our fish, amphibians and invertebrates.

Read Jocelyn's findings here.

map of the glaciers of Glacier National Park The glaciers of Glacier National Park
© Jocelyn Hirose

Measuring Changes in Surface Area

Using satellite images, scientists measure the surface area of glaciers in our two parks. Approximately every 10 years, they compare images to get an idea of the growth or recession of our glaciers. This information was most recently recorded in the 2011 Glacier Inventory Report. The report found that surface area of glaciers in our two parks decreased by 19.4 km2 between 2000 and 2011 – this is a decrease of 12.7%.

image of Inverness Glacier with text overlay showing glacial retreat from 2000 to 2011
Inverness Glacier, Mount Revelstoke National Park, 2000-2011
© Parks Canada / 2011 Glacier Inventory Report

The image above shows that the toe of Inverness Glacier, in Mount Revelstoke National Park, retreated 119 meters between 2000 and 2011.

Larger glaciers (those 1 km2 or larger) were found to be losing more ice when compared to smaller glaciers (see the bar graph below).

More information on the 2011 Glacier Inventory Report. 

Glacier terminus retreat (2000-2011)

The table below shows the average distance of glacier terminus retreat from 2000 to 2011, for 11 glaciers in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.

Glacier Name Average Retreat
at Toe (m) 
Black Glacier 39
Deville Glacier 41
Geikie Glacier 48
Grand Glacier 54
Hermit Glacier 101
Illecillewaet Glacier 31
Inverness Glacier 119
Purity Glacier 35
Rogers Glacier 20
Van Horne Glacier 51
Woolsey Glacier 99

Absolute glacier loss by size class (2000-2011)

The chart and bar graph below show that larger glaciers (more than 1 km2) are shrinking in area faster than smaller glaciers.

Size Class
(km2)
0.01 - 0.10.1 - 0.50.5 - 1.01.0 - 5.05.0 +
Total Area Loss
(km2)
-0.689 -3.451 -1.980 -7.367 -5.916

bar graph showing absolute glacier loss by size class
Absolute glacier area loss (km2) by size class between 2000 - 2011
for Glacier National Park and Mount Revelstoke National Park

© Parks Canada / 2011 Glacier Inventory Report 

Measuring Surface Mass Balance

Mass balance measures the changes between annual ice accumulation and melt (ablation). A negative mass balance means a glacier is retreating while a positive mass balance means a glacier is growing. Winter and summer mass balances are measured on the Illecillewaet Glacier each year, long-term mass balance monitoring started in 2009 and results will be reported through Natural Resources Canada and to the World Glacier Monitoring Service.

Long-term glacier mass balance trends have been studied using the science of dendroclimatology. Dendroclimatology uses tree rings from old-growth trees to study long-term weather patterns. Changes in tree ring thickness were correlated with changes in weather patterns dating back to 1780. Research conducted by Lisa Wood and Dr. Dan Smith of University of British Columbia was published in 2012. Results indicated that of the 250 year time period studied, mass balance decline in the Columbia Mountains has been at its highest in the last 30 years.

Measuring Glacier Volume

In the coming years, ground penetrating radar will be used to determine the thickness of the Illecillewaet Glacier, giving rise to a 3-D digital image of the glacier.

With the image below, we can get a sense of the loss in thickness of the Illecillewaet Glacier since 1898.

photo with text overlay showing loss of thickness of the Illecillewaet Glacier Image showing loss of thickness of the Illecillewaet Glacier in 1898-99 and 1931-37
© Dan McCarthy / Brock University

References

  • Wood, L. & Smith, D. (2012, Sept). "Climate and glacier mass balance trends from AD 1780 to present in the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada." The Holocene 0 (0). Sage Journals, UK.
  • Svendsen, Jamie D. & Roger Wheate. 2011 Glacier Inventory. Glacier National Park & Mount Revelstoke National Park. Technical Report. Final report: October 2012.