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B.C.’s iconic Kokanee Glacier in rapid decline, says B.C. scientist

‘The Kokanee is in a death spiral,’ says Ben Pelto, a UBC researcher, who contributed to the latest World Meteorological Organization’s report on climate change.

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B.C.’s “iconic” Kokanee Glacier is showing signs of rapid decline, says a B.C. scientist who contributed to the latest World Meteorological Organization report on climate change.

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The State of the Global Climate 2020 report, released Wednesday, found that four key climate change indicators — greenhouse gas concentrations, sea-level rise, ocean heat and acidification — set new records in 2021.

Ben Pelto, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of B.C. who contributed to the section of the report on exceptional glacier mass loss in Western Canada, has been studying the Kokanee Glacier, located north of Nelson, for about nine years.

He said the glacier, which is a popular destination for backcountry enthusiasts, has been losing mass every year since 2017. But last year was the biggest loss in mass scientists have seen yet, with the glacier losing five to six per cent of its total volume, said Pelto.

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“It was the worst year I’ve seen at the Kokanee Glacier,” he said. “It was like the equivalent of taking a two-and-a-half-metre slice off the entire glacier.”

Ben Pelto, a glaciologist and UBC researcher, is holding a snow corer on the Kokanee Glacier, used to take snow cores to measure the density of the snow, Also pictured are Tom Hammond and Micah May. Photo credit: Jill Pelto.
Ben Pelto, a glaciologist and UBC researcher, is holding a snow corer on the Kokanee Glacier, used to take snow cores to measure the density of the snow, Also pictured are Tom Hammond and Micah May. Photo credit: Jill Pelto. jpg

Pelto said since 2017 the glacier has lost just over 11 per cent of the total volume.

“So in those five years, about half of the mass loss happened in one single year,” he said, adding that B.C.’s record-setting heat dome in June significantly contributed to the loss in 2021 — not just at the Kokanee Glacier but at many of B.C.’s glaciers as well.

June is the month when the snowpack just begins to melt in B.C. so if it melts rapidly earlier in the year and the snowpack is gone sooner, that exposes the darker glacier ice which can speed up the process, said Pelto.

“So if we had that heat wave in August I think it would have been less impactful because you are already getting closer to the end of the melt season … stripping that snowpack off earlier in the summer is harmful for the glaciers,” he said.

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Ben Pelto, a glaciologist and UBC researcher, pictured on top of the Zillmer Glacier near Valemount, B.C. Photo credit: Erica Tung.
Ben Pelto, a glaciologist and UBC researcher, pictured on top of the Zillmer Glacier near Valemount, B.C. Photo credit: Erica Tung. jpg
Researchers camp on the Kokanee Glacier in the first week of May 2021 to conduct mass balance measurements, Photo credit: Ben Pelto.
Researchers camp on the Kokanee Glacier in the first week of May 2021 to conduct mass balance measurements, Photo credit: Ben Pelto. jpg

The Kokanee “is in a death spiral,” he said, with an estimated 50 years left before it disappears.

“That’s a best-case scenario,” he said. “It’s really the loss of an iconic glacier and the namesake of the Kokanee Glacier Park. It has so much significance to the people of B.C.”

The WMO report found the ocean has warmed to a new high in 2021, and is expected to become even warmer, while it’s also now its most acidic in at least 26,000 years as it absorbs and reacts with more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Sea level has risen 4.5 centimetres in the last decade, with the annual increase from 2013 to 2021 more than double what it was from 1993 to 2002.

It also listed individual extreme heat waves, wildfires, floods and other climate-linked disasters around the world, noting reports of more than $100 billion in damages.

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The report follows after the latest UN report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that warned that humanity must drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions and stop burning fossil fuels to prevent more and intense climate-driven disasters, like the deadly heat wave last June or B.C.’s catastrophic floods and landslides in November.

“Our climate is changing before our eyes. The heat trapped by human-induced greenhouse gases will warm the planet for many generations to come,” said WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas in a statement. “It is just a matter of time before we see another warmest year on record.”

Following the WMO report, the UN secretary-general called for a global coalition to speed the deployment of battery technology, urging countries to ease intellectual property constraints to hasten the transition from fossil fuels and combat climate change. Antonio Guterres said the global energy system is broken and bringing “us ever closer to climate catastrophe.”

— With files from Reuters

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