How climate change is changing the border between Alberta and B.C. as the glaciers melt

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 ice, covered in heavy snow this past February, snakes up the
incline on the right, caged in by Mount Maude, Mount
Jellicoe, Mount Robertson, Mount Sir Douglas and Mount French. Two other glaciers, named
Robertson and French after the
peaks they run alongside, are also in the area. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
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
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.
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
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
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.
The white dashed line shows the route of Haig glacier runoff
moving toward Calgary. The Haig is just one of many
glaciers feeding into the Kananaskis River, which joins the Bow River east of Canmore. (Kristina
Miller/Google Earth)
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
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.
This undated group photo of the Alberta–B.C. survey crew
includes an axeman, monument builder, cook, chainman and a
first and second packer. Dominion Land Survey lead Richard Cautley is kneeling at the front
right. (Photo
A8088/Provincial Archives of Alberta)
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.
R.W. Cautley and A.O. Wheeler proudly stand in front of this
marker in 1924. (Photo e011166448/Library and Archives
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
soil threatens this historic site, but Parks Canada won’t say it’s because of climate change
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
Divide, the Haig and probably the Columbia Icefield.”
These lakes are popular stomping grounds for backcountry
enthusiasts. From the Alberta–B.C. border looking north, it’s
Upper Kananaskis Lake on the left and Lower Kananaskis Lake on the right. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
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.
Lawson Lake sits at the bottom of the Haig glacier, with Mount
Beatty looming at right and Mount Black Prince at left.
The view is looking south from the lower end of Turbine Canyon. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
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
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.
On a beautiful sunny day on the Haig in 2017, Kevin Sandau takes a ski with fellow athlete Gareth Williams. The skiers
hike up 20 kilometres from Upper Kananaskis Lake to a ridge on Mount Jellicoe for the training centre there, where a
propane-powered snow cat grooms the trails. (Submitted by Kevin Sandau)
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
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
The top of the Haig glacier looks like a winter wonderland in
February. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
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.
The Rocky Mountains are well known for their splendour. This snow-capped ridge is on the Alberta-B.C. border on the
south end of the Haig. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
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.
As many who have lived through the West’s smoky summers know, the air can feel apocalyptic when forest fires are raging
nearby. (Submitted by Kevin Sandau)
“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