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 May 12, 2020
How a melting glacier could redefine the Alberta--B.C. border

 High up in the Rocky Mountains sits a glacier that is draped over the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia.

Surrounded by towering giants, the Haig glacier is a sight that can take your breath away. The sky frames the saw-toothed peaks as the ice descends into the valley below.

It's one of many glaciers following the Continental Divide, which cuts through much of North America and runs between Alberta and B.C. As glaciers along the Rockies shrink and shrivel over the next several decades, those icefields are changing.

One longtime researcher of the Haig believes it's also shifting the border. It all has to do with runoff, which affects hundreds of thousands of people and animals that rely on glacier-fed streams and rivers as a water source.

When the provincial boundary was plotted more than a century ago, it followed the hydrological divide --- that is, the spot where a raindrop at the highest point either falls west into B.C. or east into Alberta.

But as the glaciers melt, some runoff that would have gone one way could start flowing in another direction, essentially shifting what was thought to be the boundary as more rock is exposed.

The divide was always sort of blurry. Surveyors who trekked through the mountains 100 years ago weren't able to do a proper survey because the glaciers covered the divide.

It's causing some to ask whether the boundary needs to be redrawn.

It's no longer a question of if the glacier melts. It's already happening --- a heartbreaking outcome for those who work and play there, and have witnessed the change with their very own eyes.

The big melt

The Haig, as it's known, hovers around 2,700 metres above sea level.

On the Alberta side, it's within Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, wrapped inside Kananaskis Country, just over an hour from Calgary as the crow flies. In B.C., it's in the Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, east of Radium.

It's a special place for many, including Shawn Marshall, who was initially drawn to the Haig for its summer skiing. Marshall grew up in Timmins, Ont., a small mining town that he said has a glacier-like landscape.

Now an ice ages and climate dynamics expert and geography professor at the University of Calgary, Marshall has travelled to the Haig every year for the last two decades.

"It's the place where I feel really at home," he said.

He likes to say that Calgary was under a kilometre of ice just 15,000 years ago. Geologically speaking, he said, it was "just yesterday."

In 2000, he set up the first of many weather stations on the Haig as part of research he and his students were doing on how the glacier is being affected by climate change.

Major ice loss

Since he started his work, Marshall said the Haig has lost about 22 metres of ice in thickness, roughly a metre every year. He's now confronting what appears to be an irreversible course for the Haig --- total extinction within 80 years.

80% of mountain glaciers in Alberta, B.C. and Yukon will disappear within 50 years: report

Marshall, who is also a science advisor to Environment and Climate Change Canada, has studied glaciers in the Rockies, Greenland and Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, and said the fundamentals of the changes are similar.

Glaciers around the world are in trouble.

Every year he notices changes at the Haig. Last summer, the high point that determines which way the water flows seemed to have shifted.

Canada's surveyor general, Jean Gagnon, doesn't dispute a change in the direction of the water flow, but said it's too early to say whether the boundary has moved --- since the divide was buried under ice.

"To us, it's irrelevant. The boundary is the divide and as the glaciers melt, we expect this boundary will be mapped more accurately in the future," Gagnon said.

"The boundary is the line of watershed, wherever it is over time. This boundary may only be fixed in time if the boundary is surveyed and if the respective governments adopt legislation to fix it as surveyed."

Gagnon says that's why the divide has mostly been surveyed where there's significant work taking place in the mountain passes --- like in mining or timber --- to know which province is responsible for regulations.

The impact on water

Marshall said his research shows some of the glacier melt has reversed course and is now coming into Alberta, and not into B.C. joining the Kootenay River.

This may seem like a benefit for the City of Calgary, which relies on glaciers as one of the water sources for its 1.3 million residents. But it's predicted to dry up.

The glaciers that drain into the city's two main water sources, the Bow and Elbow rivers, only contribute between two and three per cent of the total water supply.

However, their importance grows significantly in dry years. During a late-summer drought period, the city's reliance on glacier melt can increase to as much as 20 per cent.

Glaciers "become kind of the only game in town when we have extended dry periods," said Frank Frigo, the head of Calgary's water resources team, who also noted "extended dry periods are expected to increase in frequency and severity with a changing climate."

Marshall said changing water flows also concern those on the B.C. side who rely on it for hydro power generation. Even the local fish could feel the difference from a lost glacier --- if the ice-cold water stops feeding creeks, streams and rivers, water temperature could rise in their spawning habitats, he said.

The history of the Continental Divide

When the Rockies were surveyed by a team of adventurers more than a century ago, in theory at least, their task was straightforward.

Surveyors simply had to trek through forests and streams, rivers and ponds, climb hills and mountains to reach the highest peaks along their approximately 900-km journey to determine precisely where the boundary should be set.

The plan was to follow the Continental Divide from the Canada--U.S. border to the 120th meridian, the straight line that separates the northern sections of B.C. and Alberta.

The Great Divide is a hydrological division, splitting the water drainage basin along the Rocky Mountains in half --- either west to the Pacific Ocean or east onto Hudson Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Beginning in 1911, it took surveyors Arthur Wheeler from B.C. and Richard Cautley from Alberta, along with their crews, 12 years to make their way through the Rockies, from the 49th Parallel to the present-day "elbow" in Alberta's western boundary west of Grande Prairie.

The harsh winter climate, treacherous conditions and physically demanding work shortened their schedule to just four or five months a year, between May and October.

Once they established the high points, the surveyors set the boundary, determining whether you're in B.C. or Alberta. When they finished in 1923, they had not only surveyed the land but constructed and set in place concrete markers.

Wheeler and Cautley were celebrated. Cautley got a mountain named after him, while Wheeler, who named a mountain after himself, was honoured by the Alpine Club of Canada with a hut that bears his name in B.C.'s Rogers Pass.

A shifting border

Marshall said that if you base the border on the hydrological divide, then yes, Alberta has grown a bit, while B.C. is losing territory.

"As this melts and collapses the height of land, the high point is also shifting," he said, adding that it's shifting a bit to the west.

"So Alberta is slowly nibbling into British Columbia right now up at the Continental Divide, the Haig and probably the Columbia Icefield."

B.C. historian Jay Sherwood says even Wheeler and Cautley's work from 100 years ago acknowledged the water lines could change one day.

A former surveyor and history teacher, Sherwood has written several books about historical surveys like the one defining the B.C.--Alberta line.

He said that before Cautley and Wheeler determined Punch Bowl Lake was in fact a summit lake, the two surveyors wanted to clarify that the conditions at the lake could change, ultimately affecting the direction of water flow.

Cautley and Wheeler agreed the streams from the lake "could easily become dammed or affected by rockfalls from a steep mountain that rises above the lake," Sherwood wrote in his book Surveying the Great Divide: The Alberta/B.C. Boundary Survey.

"I think that same principle would probably apply for Haig glacier," Sherwood said.

Water flows constantly changing

The Alberta--British Columbia Boundary Commission told the CBC that this part of the border was never surveyed and the boundary follows the sinuous natural line of watershed.

The commission says it will not re-survey the area as the border depiction on maps only provides an approximate location of where the Continental Divide is located.

Marshall agrees, saying now it's a matter of metres. He thinks the commission should wait until the glaciers fully melt to make it official.

For the love of it

While a modified border is one thing, the people who love this area are feeling the effects of glacier melt on a more personal level.

The shrinking of the Haig glacier is already impacting some of Canada's top winter athletes. For example, it's used as a summer training spot for members of Canada's cross-country ski team.

Kevin Sandau knows the Haig glacier better than most people. He started going up there at age 15, as a member of Canada's cross-country ski team. In the last decade and a half, he's noticed the glacier's retreat, which has exposed more rock faces and crevasses --- not exactly ideal conditions for skiing.

Sandau said the glacier's disappearance would be a blow for Canada's winter athletes, but also said "if the Haig glacier melts in 80 years, I think that may be the least of our concern."

A winter's future

Will Gadd, a world-renowned ice climber and paraglider based in Canmore, shares those worries.

He's been climbing in the Rockies since he was a teenager, but some of his familiar spots have either melted away or are now too dangerous to climb.

"The hazard is just too high," Gadd said. "The melting ice reveals a lot of unstable rubble."

Luca Ribetti said he's noticed the changes to the landscape while flying with his helicopter business out of Springbank, just west of Calgary. He often flies film crews into the backcountry to get iconic Rocky Mountain vistas.

"We get more wind. We get more summer rain, because these storms are way more, you know, violent. So it seems like somehow that nature is balancing itself," he said. "That's definitely affecting the watershed, because if we have more water in the summer, it will be faster and more devastating."

Glacier melt impacts the world

While Marshall predicts the Haig glacier may no longer exist by the year 2100, he fears other climate-related events could accelerate glacier extinctions across the Rockies.

"You really see, year to year, the changes, and you know that some of these glaciers are just disappearing and won't come back and our kids or grandkids won't see the Rockies the way we've experienced them," he said.

He said a recent heat wave in Greenland this past year sent the equivalent of three and a half Columbia icefields gushing into the ocean in just 10 days.

"What's happening in the Rockies now will be very apparent in Greenland over the coming few centuries, and that's going to be a permanent change to the world's geography, to the coastlines," he said. "It's going to be very disruptive."

It can be reversed

Marshall said ashes from wildfires in B.C. have settled on the glacier in recent years, which gives the ice a darker shade and could accelerate the melting.

"These glaciers are really out of balance and they're going to continue to retreat even if we kind of level off [carbon emissions], which we're not doing right at this time at least," he said.

"So we're probably looking at pretty grey Rocky Mountains, more like Colorado or something without the snow and ice that we have now."

The trend could be reversed.

"If we do reduce emissions and say, by mid-century, you get down to some sort of place where we are stabilizing the climate, it's going to take a long time, but it will stabilize," said Marshall.

But the future is also unpredictable. For example, he said volcanic eruptions, and the ensuing haze, could cool things off for a couple of decades.

Marshall said he's been criticized for offering such a bleak assessment, but he's not ready to turn his back on the Haig, which has meant so much to him.

"There's a lot to cry about," he said, adding the glacier's like an old friend. "It's where they'll scatter my ashes someday."