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Disappearing glaciers in B.C. put tourism, watersheds at risk: scientist

Brian Menounos predicts most glaciers will disappear but warns against inaction
The Coquitlam Glacier, Metro Vancouver’s last remaining glacier, is disappearing fast. A Science study predicts some 80 per cent of B.C. glaciers will have disappeared by 2100. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Metro Vancouver

An estimated 80 per cent of B.C.’s glaciers are forecast to completely disappear and the impacts will trickle well beyond less beautiful vistas for British Columbians to look at. But any action to fight climate change can nonetheless help save glaciers in B.C.’s northern coastal mountains, one expert says.

Brian Menounos, professor of geography at the University of Northern British Columbia and a Canada Research Chair in Glacier Change, recently co-authored a study in publication Science, with research suggesting implications for tourism, watersheds and public safety.

Menounos said tourism is a big part of the provincial economy and many foreign visitors come to B.C. because they want to see ice-clad mountains.

“What is the value of that? I don’t know…but it is not a small amount.”

Glaciers cover about two per cent of B.C. and any watershed with glaciers will feel the effects of their disappearance.

“It depends on what you are using the water (coming off glaciers) for,” said Menounos.

While Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island rely on seasonal rain and snow-melt for their drinking water, communities on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains could see effects in their drinking water supplies.

Watersheds with even minimal supplies of water from glaciers do better than systems without them, he said. “Last year, we had exceptionally warm, dry conditions and those watersheds that had glaciers in them, they supplemented flows and they were okay,” he said.

Disappearing glaciers could also threaten the physical safety of British Columbians by leading to more landslides, impact fishing and threaten access to power. The Bridge River region helps supply hydro-power for the Lower Mainland adding power-generation in the Columbia Basin would also feel effects.

RELATED: ‘Glaciers can’t get a break’: How climate change is affecting Canada’s icy landscape

First Nations in British Columbia also attach spiritual importance to the landscape, said Menounos.

“More philosophically, what does it mean to lose most of our ice? How does that affect the long-standing relationship that Indigenous people have had with these mountains and the glaciers contained within them?”

The Science study is among the latest piece of research warning of the effects of climate change amid concerns humans won’t meet the goal of limiting the rise in average global temperature to 1.5 C. The global average temperature is already 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and the window for the 1.5-degree scenario, while still feasible, is closing.

But Menounos warns against inaction. A rapid reduction of emissions can help preserve much of the glaciers in British Columbia’s northern coastal mountains.

“Every degree of warming that we mitigate, does ensure that ice in those areas is around for a while,” he said. “Otherwise, they won’t be.”

A statement from the ministry of water, land and resource said provincial scientists continually monitor and research changes to glacial melt and snow packs, adding the province recognizes the vital importance of glaciers play in water security and ecosystem health.

B.C. is developing a watershed security strategy in partnership with First Nations, the statement concluded.

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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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