Kokanee Glacier can’t be saved

It doesn’t look the way it used to, with ice sheets crashing against the rocky sheets that Jordan Carter played as a kid.

He can recall climbing as a family, walking along the edge of the glacier through the blue ice, the joy of his boots sliding down the snow. To tourists, Kokanee Glacier may look the same today as it has in decades past, but Jordan knows better.

The Carter family has deep roots in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park. Duncan Carter was an English horticulturist who visited the park in the 1930s to find samples of alpine plants. His son, John Carter, was the park’s first resident ranger in the 1970s.

Jordan Carter, one of John’s two sons, spent his childhood summers exploring the park while his father worked. John has written several books about hiking in Kootenay, and his family has followed along to scout the trails. Thanksgiving at the park is an annual family trip, and hiking to the top of the glacier is common.

Carter is 38 years old and has two children. His father died at the park in 1996 after causing an avalanche while skiing, but Carter continues to care deeply about the playground of his youth and still makes the same trips with his young family.

“It’s an authentic way and I feel like I can really relive my childhood. Kokanee is like our backyard.”

But that backyard is changing: One of Canada’s most iconic glaciers and a place of historical and cultural significance to the Kourtney family is rapidly melting.

Ben Pelto, a glaciologist at the University of British Columbia who has been studying the province’s glaciers since 2014 and makes annual trips to Kokanee, said Kokanee’s mass is in the About 16% lost in seven years.

Extreme temperature changes hastened its demise—during the 2021 thermal dome, the glacier shrunk by 6%, equivalent to nearly 2.5 meters.

At current rates of melting, Pelto estimates the glacier will disappear within 30 to 50 years. Compared to pre-industrial temperatures, if global warming can be kept below the Paris climate agreement’s 1.5-degree Celsius goal, Pelto thinks the glacier may still be covered with snow at its current location.

But he said the Kokanee glacier would be gone forever.

Carter also noticed increased melting of glaciers. Going ice hiking used to be a relatively easy day trip for him as a child. Now that the Kokanee Glacier had receded too far up the mountain for his own children to reach, he could only watch as an important place in the Carter family’s history slowly disappeared.

“It’s one thing for my kids’ kids. Maybe they won’t see the actual glacier.”

Jordan Carter stands near Gibson Lake in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park. Carter volunteers with Friends of West Kootenay Parks and grew up in the provincial park where his father, John, was a ranger.Photo: Taylor Harper

one two punch

Climate change is melting glaciers around the world, but in the past decade, the rate of melting in western Canada has accelerated sevenfold.

Brian Menounos, Professor of Geography and Canada Research Chair in Glacier Change, University of Northern British Columbia, Co-authored a study published in March The study used satellite imagery to map more than 14,000 glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta between 1984 and 2020. The study showed that the glacier’s mass was gradually decreasing and then accelerated suddenly in 2011.

An increase in wildfires covering glaciers covered in ash can be blamed in part, he said. The darkened surface amplifies the energy generated by sunlight. It melts the protective layer of snow that the glacier has accumulated on its surface during the colder months, and then erodes the glacier in its entirety.

Wildfires aren’t the only way glacier surfaces are darkening. As temperatures rise, snow becomes coarser and wetter, increasing energy absorption. Algae, which appear reddish in color, also grow on the snow and cause accelerated melting.

The polar jet stream, which transports precipitation over BC, also migrated south in 2010 and 2011, Menounos said. This leads to less rainfall and snowfall at higher altitudes where glaciers exist.

“You put all of that together and you get a one-hit-two hit.”

Glaciers are melting faster on Vancouver Island than anywhere else, but Menounos said that in the interior south, 80 percent of the glaciers will be gone by the end of the century.

“We’ve really sped up the geological time machine, and we’re witnessing the overall retreat of glaciers in our mountains. We don’t really have a good analog right now.”

Pelto returns to Kokanee Glacier in August. At the glacier’s tip — or toe — where the ice recedes into the rock, Pelto measured 125 centimeters of melt. That should be positive after 5 meters of toe melt in 2021.

But the melt season, which used to end after snowfall in mid-September, now doesn’t end until mid-October.

For the glacier to gain mass, Kokanee needs about 60 percent of its surface to be covered in snow, Pelto said. Snow cover on August 31 was only 36 percent. On the last snowless day of the melt season, October 19, snowfall was just 9 percent.

Past years have seen more snowfall, with Kokanee seeing an increase of 10-30 centimeters, but Pelto said the average annual decrease was 50 centimeters to a meter in thickness.

“You can think of it like a bank account. You save $100 this year, but if you’re a few thousand dollars in debt next year, it doesn’t matter in the end.”

Ben Pelto drilled into Kokanee Glacier in August 2022. Behind him are the rock formations under the ice when he started visiting the glacier in 2014. Photo: Heather Shaw

Ben Pelto drilled into Kokanee Glacier in August 2022. Behind him are the rock formations under the ice when he started visiting the glacier in 2014. Photo: Heather Shaw

100 years of history

A trip to Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park defined the direction of Dave Hickey’s life.

Heagy was in high school when he went hiking in the park for the first time. He spent the night at the Slocan Chief Cabin and was so inspired by a meeting with rangers that he started working at BC Parks in 1978.

He was transferred to Kokanee two years later and spent more than half his career as a ranger or supervisor.

“It’s an iconic park, and when we think of wilderness parks, that’s the type of park we think of,” said Heagy, who still works at BC Parks as regional director for nearby Nelson.

The park was established in 1922 on land that was once a gold and silver mining site. In 1897, a newspaper first described the glacier as Kokanee, derived from the Colville-Okanagan Salish word kəkn̓iʔ For Kokanee salmon, the name stuck. When the park opened to the public, the Nielsen Daily News described it as “the Switzerland of North America.”

Opened in 1922, Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park has attracted a lot of visitors as a relatively easy way to experience the mountains.  In 1925, two unidentified women were captured on a glacier.Photo courtesy of Nelson Museum, Archives and Galleries

Opened in 1922, Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park has attracted a lot of visitors as a relatively easy way to experience the mountains. In 1925, two unidentified women were captured on a glacier.Photo courtesy of Nelson Museum, Archives and Galleries

Kokanee Glacier isn’t the largest of its kind in British Columbia — at 1.7 square kilometers, it’s nothing more than a snowflake compared to Klinaklini Glacier’s 470 square kilometers — but it’s arguably the most famous.

It’s the same name as Kokanee beer, which features a glacier on its label. Nancy Greene Raine and the Canadian National Ski Team used the glacier for summer training in the 1960s. In 1998, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s younger brother, Michel, was killed in an avalanche.

In West Kootenay, images of the Kokanee Glacier are common in photographs and art. No studies have ever been conducted to determine the park’s economic impact on the region, but its tourist appeal remains strong. One tourist even became a part-time resident.

Public space design artist Petra Hekkenberg first came to Canada in 2015 from the Netherlands. She was looking for wilderness and found it in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park in 2016 while hiking alone.

In 2021, Hekkenberg found a seasonal job at the Kokanee Glacier Cabin as a caretaker and passed the time by drawing detailed pen illustrations.

“It’s really hard to express your love for the mountains because you can’t give them a hug and they don’t give you a hug back,” she said. “I even want to share it with myself, remember it, and capture those moments.

This year, Hekkenberg published a book with her illustrations and notes, as well as a documentary short on the hill. She found peace in the park, but struggled to adapt to the effects of climate change.

“We really love the beauty around us, and we want to hold on to it the way we know it. But we can’t.”

Illustration of Kokanee Glacier, courtesy of Petra Hekkenberg

Illustration of Kokanee Glacier, courtesy of Petra Hekkenberg

A future without the Kokanee Glacier

What happens when glaciers disappear?

Heather Shaw, project manager for Living Lakes Canada, began a research project this year at the Kokanee Glacier to study how high-elevation water bodies respond to climate change. Melting glaciers flow into nearby Clown Lake, which in turn flows downstream into several creeks before merging into Kootenay Lake.

During the dry months, glacier water volume is important. Back then, larger bodies of water like streams and Kootenay Lake, which is used to power four hydroelectric dams and increasingly to fight wildfires, depended on melting glaciers.

“Glaciers are big storage houses,” Shaw said. “So without that storage, they don’t replenish or refill the lake.”

Reduced meltwater and rising temperatures can also harm local wildlife.

One of the signs of a stream’s health is its population of macroinvertebrates, such as mayflies and mosquitoes. As global temperatures rise and streams evaporate, lower-elevation insects migrate to higher ground, while other insects adapted to cooler alpine habitats die. That would reduce food sources for fish and birds, Shaw said.

The geology near the Kokanee Glacier is also changing.

Shaw noticed a small pool of water at the toe of the glacier, which she thought was only 10 to 20 years old. New rock formations also appear where glaciers have melted, and Shaw said these will form lakes.

Get an up-close look at the Kokanee Glacier. Photo: Petra Hekkenberg

Get an up-close look at the Kokanee Glacier. Photo: Petra Hekkenberg

But the melting of Kokanee Glacier is just a drop in water compared to the impact of melting glaciers around the world.

This month, a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization found Glaciers lose 58 billion tons of ice each year. In 2019, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that sea levels could up to 1.1 meters to the end of the century.Another study showed that this may Displace at least 410 million people.

In his lifetime, the Kokanee Glacier will disappear. But no matter how important it is to his family, Jordan Carter is more concerned with a future completely free of glaciers.

“I really think it’s more about the big picture. That’s the water that fills our lakes and streams. What would it be like without it?”

No one really knows the answer, and the time to find out is ticking by.

@tyler_harper | [email protected]

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