Tag Archives: glacier

Taking Stock of Glacial Loss in Garibaldi Park

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure to run into a pair of glaciologists performing research in Garibaldi Provincial Park. They let us tag along and see what a day of glaciological fieldwork entailed.

Their focus was the Helm Glacier, a slender icefield four kilometres southeast of Black Tusk most commonly accessed from the Cheakamus Lake trailhead.

Jason Vanderschoot and Mark Ednie arrive at the day's jobsite. Jeff Slack photo.

Jason Vanderschoot and Mark Ednie arrive at the day’s jobsite. Jeff Slack photo.

Helm Glacier is important because it has a solid baseline of data; it has been continuously monitored since the late 1960s. Moreover, multiple photographs taken by mountaineers as far back as the 1920s help give an even better indication of the glacier’s change over time.

This change has been consistent: rapid retreat. Between 1928-2009, Helm Glacier lost an estimated 78% of its mass, and it has shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, in a database of sixteen North American glaciers with extensive and comparable datasets, Helm has experienced the most rapid melting of them all.

The two glaciologists, working for the Geological Survey of Canada, were measuring vertical surface loss, that is, the extent to which the glacier’s surface has dropped since the previous summer. This is done by drilling six-metre long metal poles vertically into the glacier, then returning the following year to measure how much of the pole has become exposed. The drills are human-powered; all the drilling and the hike to the glacier and back makes for a long day of hard, physical work.

Fascinating caverns and tunnels are emerging along the edges of the fast-retreating glacier. Jeff Slack photo.

Fascinating caverns and tunnels are emerging along the edges of the fast-retreating glacier. Jeff Slack photo.

Last year’s results indicated that the glacier’s surface had lowered an average of 4 vertical metres on the lower glacier, and roughly 3.5 metres higher up. Numbers still need to be crunched, but preliminary data for this year suggests smaller losses, roughly 2.6 metres at the bottom and 2.2 metres at the top.

This is not surprising, as two winters ago our region experienced historically low snowpack levels, followed by a long, hot summer (remember those massive forest fires?). Last winter, Whistler Mountain measured a slightly above average snowpack, and this summer has been closer to average as well. Still, on September 29th (the day we were up there) there was hardly any seasonal snow left on the surface of the glacier. This year was not as hard on the glaciers as last, but we still lost a lot of ice.

Hand-drilling five metres down into the glacier is low-tech hard work, but these gus weren't complaining. Jeff Slack photo.

Hand-drilling five metres down into the glacier is low-tech hard work, but these gus weren’t complaining. Jeff Slack photo.

After the Helm Glacier research was completed, the pair headed up to their research station on the Place Glacier, north of Pemberton, to conduct further studies. When compared to similar data from hundreds of other glaciers around the world, this research is creating a fuller understanding of past, present, and future environmental change. Much thanks to these intrepid scientists for the work they do, and for letting us tag along for the afternoon!

rocks1.jpg

Where’s Waldo, glacier-style.

Helm Glacier Panorama. Jeff Slack photo.

Helm Glacier Panorama. Jeff Slack photo.

Whistler Under Ice: A Look at the Glaciation Effects on Whistler

Earlier this year, Sarah (Executive Director and Curator) and I (Assistant Archivist Trish, here!) went on a ziptrekking adventure. As the wonderfully informative guides toured us around the heights of Fitzsimmons Creek, one of them began explaining how the last Ice Age affected the mountainous terrain that we know and love today.

Immediately intrigued I decided to dig a little deeper into the geology of Whistler – most enchantingly, the effects of glaciation on our town. In short, ice sheets and glaciers are vastly recognizable within Whistler’s topography, as they have essentially shaped our entire landscape. From quarrying out the alpine basins we ski in to producing the series of ridges that define our skyline, ice sheets and glaciers are the key culprits to the rocky grounds and heights we’ve become so familiar with.

Whistler's oldest rocks are found on Fissile Peak

Whistler’s oldest rocks are found on Fissile Peak

Whistler Bowl, West Bowl, Horstman Glacier Bowl, Harmony and Symphony Basins have all been molded into their present states by glaciers that have plucked at the bedrock, while carrying and grinding loose fragments into smaller pieces with the movement of ice sheets. The bowls were all created during the initial stages of the build-up of the Cordilleran ice sheet. The Cordilleran ice sheet periodically covered large parts of North America (including British Columbia) during glacial periods over the last 2.6 million years. Approximately 15,000 years ago, it covered all but the highest peaks of Whistler.

Noticeably, mountain peaks in Whistler range from jagged to more rounded. These physical traits are so interesting in that they can identify the height of the Cordilleran ice sheet. Essentially, a peak that is jagged was above sheet level, whereas more rounded peaks are so because they were under ice. This is endlessly fascinating as you can scan Whistler’s landscape and notice each peak, visualizing the height of the ice that once covered our land.

Blackcomb from Whistler Bowl.

Blackcomb from Whistler Bowl.

A prime example of the ice sheet elevation levels is evident when comparing Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain. Plucked features and striations (effects of glaciation) can be found on the summit of Whistler Mountain (2160m) but not above the Horstman Hut (2252m) on Blackcomb Mountain (2437m). Therefore, the surface of the ice in this area was likely just below Horstman Hut.

Next time you’re wandering about in the valley or ascending in a gondola up Whistler or Blackcomb Mountain, imagine how Whistler would have looked 15,000 years ago. Imagine our ice-filled valley and our jagged mountain peaks peering out from under a massive sheet of ice, while large glaciers pluck at bedrock and carry pieces to new terrain.

1973 aerial of Wedgemount Glacier terminus in lake basin. The trimline marks the former extent of the glaciers circa 1895, with various stages of recession also marked. Interpretation by Karl Ricker.

1973 aerial of Wedgemount Glacier terminus in lake basin. The trimline marks the former extent of the glaciers circa 1895, with various stages of recession also marked. Interpretation by Karl Ricker.

For an excellent resource on the geology of Whistler, visit http://www.whistlernaturalists.ca/