Global warming is melting the Columbia Icefields, a vital source of fresh water for North America. The glaciers that comprise the Columbia Icefields are receding more each year, and the annual runoff to the major rivers they supply has declined dramatically in the last half century.
The Columbia Icefields straddle the top of the North American continent like a great crystalline mother embracing her children. Massive amounts of pure, century-old ice and snow lie packed in around these peaks, in some spots 750m (2,500 ft.) thick. Covering some 325 sq. km (125 sq. miles), this is the world’s largest nonpolar ice mass, a vast frozen dome mantling the eastern face of the Canadian Rockies. But the ice mother’s arms seem to clutch her children ever closer, as the edges of the ice field recede an ominous 10m (30 ft.)Columbia Icefields.per year. And what this means for the North American watershed is anybody’s guess.
Whereas the Arctic and Greenland ice caps are made of saltwater, the Columbia Icefields are freshwater ice. Melt from its outlying sections creates what’s known as a hydrologic apex, a major source of water for North America, eventually flowing into three different oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic). It’s true that the ice field is so massive, it’s not going to vanish however, may already be critically compromised. The melt at present is ancient snow, free from modern pollutants, but once the melt reaches 20th-century snows, its water quality may be drastically different.
The most accessible section of the ice field is the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park, where the Icefield Visitor Center is set in a valley that was buried in the glacier a century and a half ago. An outdoor timeline here demonstrates where the ice edge lay at various milestone dates in the past. Rocky debris left behind by the melting glacier lies in all-too-evident scraggy piles. From the lodge beside the visitor center you can book a 90-minute ride onto the surface of the glacier with Brewster Snocoach Tours (© 403/762-6735), which uses a specially designed bus with balloon tires. Hiking on the glacier’s surface is the highlight of these tours, a literally dazzling opportunity to stand on a glittering expanse of solid ice and feel its frosty exhalations.О The Burren
The drive to get here is spectacular in itself: the 287km (178-mile) Icefields Parkway, a majestic stretch of highway between Banff and Jasper national parks that climbs through deep river valleys; beneath soaring, glacier-notched mountains; and past dozens of hornlike peaks shrouded with permanent snowcaps. Along the way, visit the jewel-like resort town of Lake Louise, set on a vivid turquoise lake cupped in a dramatic bowl of glaciers. Don’t panic when you see the unearthly greenish color of the lake; it’s not caused by pollution, but rather by the way that minerals deposited by glacier melt refract the sunlight. This beautiful land of ice transforms everything.