Skip to content

After They’re Gone: The state of the Illecillewaet Glacier and what will happen after it melts away

Experts say it’s ‘only a matter of time’ until the iconic glaciers surrounding Revelstoke melt away
Illecillewaet Glacier viewed from the Hakai-UNBC Airborne Coastal Observatory on Sept. 2, 2022. (Contributed by Brian Menounos)

This article was originally published in the Revelstoke TIMES Magazine.

The Illecillewaet Glacier lies nestled in Rogers Pass, sitting there since well before the train tracks were constructed, well before folks bolted down the ski hills, well before Revelstoke was even a thought in anyone’s mind.

The behemoth of ice and snow lies stoic and silent to most of us, and provides important commodities to the ecosystems that sustain the nature that we enjoy every day. If you listen close enough, you can hear the feint cries of the glacier, as it slowly fades away forever.

What will we call Glacier National Park after it’s gone?

The ‘Grand Dame of the Mountains’

The Illecillewaet Glacier occupies a special place in the history of glaciological investigations in Canada. According to many, the records kept of the glacier were the first in North America, and many of the techniques used to study glaciers were born right on our doorstep.

While staying at the Glacier House in 1887, the Vaux family began the first glaciology and botany studies in Glacier National Park while photographing the Illecillewaet Glacier. The family arrived as tourists from Philidelphia, but Mary Vaux and her two brothers, George and William, became some of the earliest glaciologists in North America

The family’s second trip to the Revelstoke area was in 1894. On that trip, they noticed something startling: the Illecillewaet Glacier had become smaller.

In 1898-99, two of the Vaux brothers wrote a paper on glacier study that they presented to the Academy of Natural Sciences. It marked a significant breakthrough in the field.

Their photographs and notes remain invaluable to today’s study of glaciology and climate change.

Mary Vaux was an accomplished botanist, glaciologist, mountaineer, painter and photographer. Throughout her life, Mary painted over 1,000 plant specimens, which were eventually published in five volumes entitled North American Wildflowers.

Mary returned to the mountains every year until 1939, earning the nickname the “Grand Dame of the mountains”.

Today on the glacier

Now, work on the Illecillewaet Glacier has evolved significantly, and more attention is being given to the recession of the glaciers and the environmental impacts that may have on surrounding areas.

Michel Beauchemin, Resource Management Officer and Glacier Work Field Lead in Glacier National Park, and his team make three tips onto the glaciers per year to conduct various measurements and projects.

Field work on the Illecillewaet Glacier. (Contributed by Michel Beauchemin)
Field work on the Illecillewaet Glacier. (Contributed by Michel Beauchemin)

Beauchemin has gone on nearly every single trip up the glacier since 2013. On these trips, he’s accompanied by a research assistant and a guide. At the beginning of the summer, they’re accompanied by a ski guide, but as the snowpack melts away and the terrain becomes more dangerous, they bring along an alpine guide or even a fully certified mountain guide. Every year since 2009, the team has done a number of trips and made observations on the size of the glaciers.

According to Beauchemin, glaciers are formed by snow accumulation over the winter, and with cooler temperatures and clouds, positive mass balances can be added to the glacier over many years. Snow densifies and becomes more granular in nature, eventually turning into ice over time. Gravity then causes ice mass to flow down over the valley bottom.

Between the top and toe of a glacier, an important space exists called an equilibrium line, where everything above will accumulate snow and ice, and everything below will recede. With climate change, the equilibrium line of glaciers creeps up in elevation.

“A lot of glaciers right now are in somewhat of an imbalance,” said Beauchemin.

The accumulations at the top of the glaciers are no longer big enough to supply the lower elevations with snow and ice because of the warming of temperatures, causing the toes of glaciers to rise in elevation.

“Glaciers can form over many centuries,” said Beauchemin. In some areas of the Illecillewaet Glacier, the ice is as thick as 200m.

In 2022, the Illecillewaet Glacier receded, and in fact, since 2009, there has only been one year where the team observed a mass gain on the glacier (2012).

Field work on the Illecillewaet Glacier. (Contributed by Michel Beauchemin)
Field work on the Illecillewaet Glacier. (Contributed by Michel Beauchemin)

The forecast

Brian Menounos is a research professor at the University of Northern British Columbia. Menounos has spent a good portion of his career studying glaciers, the affects climate change is having on them, and projecting how they may change in the future under similar conditions to what we see now.

“Any glaciologists would say the Illecillewaet is one of those glaciers that has an incredibly rich history of documenting the change of glaciers through time,” said Menounos. He went on to add that the Illecillewaet has also taught glaciologists a lot about the controls of nourishment, the controls of melt, and ice flow.

In contrast to Beauchemin’s position, Menounos and scientists like him use remotely sensed observations through the use of aircrafts and satellites to give a rich, spatial look at the state of glaciers in the province. This information gives them the ability to come up with a regional assessment of glacier change and how it’s occurring, and make forecasts for the future of glaciers.

The forecast is not good.

“Unfortunately, the glaciers in the Interior and Rocky Mountains are not long for this world. They will likely be gone by the end of the century,” said Menounos.

These projections are made based on the most recent ‘emission scenarios’, which are projections for climate change based on population growth and their best estimates for CO2 emissions. Menounos added that by about 2040, carbon emissions created by humans will ‘really start to take off’.

“Without rapid decarbonization, you’re going to see these dramatic changes in snow and ice within Western Canada,” said Menounos.

According to Menounos, the blame for the loss of snow, ice, and glaciers lays solely on the shoulders of humans.

Although scientists have been able to determine that throughout history, glaciers have grown and retreated through natural causes, the magnitude of the retreat of glaciers from about 1970 to today is ‘completely unnatural’.

“We’re seeing the major fingerprints of us and how we have used fossil fuels,” said Menounos.

“We’re going to find this as a big, big challenge, not just for Canada, but for many, many countries, regardless of whether you have a coastline or not.”

The consequence

When thinking about the impacts of melting glaciers, your mind may immediately be drawn towards apocalyptic outcomes like rising sea levels and the flooding of every coastal city on the planet. While this outcome may be true, effects will be felt locally in a different but equally tragic way.

As mentioned previously, glaciers are an important source of cold, fresh water to many mountain streams, especially in the late summer, and act as a buffer against years with low snowfall. However, as glaciers shrink, less of this crucial water will be provided to these ecosystems.

“This will definitely change the flow of fresh water into rivers, lakes and wetlands,” said Beauchemin. “All that will greatly impact the species that rely on this freshwater, and that includes us.”

Dr. Janice Brahney, a researcher with the Department of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University, has studied the effects of de-glacierization on ecosystems in southeast British Columbia.

According to Brahney, the retreat of glaciers will invoke widespread changes in mountain ecosystems. Rivers and lakes are supplied with less fresh water in the summer, and the temperature of that water ends up being much warmer. In fish, temperature impacts create barriers to migration and cause stress.

Glacier melt in the spring brings with it an abundance of nutrients crucial to the sustainability of surrounding ecosystems.

“There’s a couple of species that are at risk of going extinct with the loss of that type of habitat,” said Brahney.

Through climate change, glaciers are melting earlier in the year now than ever before, creating a crucial offset. In the past, glaciers would have their highest melt in peak periods of sun during the summer, but now, that input is coming earlier in the spring, causing didymo, a species of diatom that produces nuisance growths in freshwater rivers and streams, to overgrow.

This algae occupies large portions of the riverbed, can lead to areas of low oxygen, clog intakes, and break fish barriers.

The effects felt even at this fundamental level can have large negative impacts all the way up the food chain: to fish, mammals, and eventually humans.

Silver lining

Although without dramatic change, we will lose the glaciers that exist currently, there is a sparkle of hope in the future.

Menounos said that if humans can get their act together and de-carbonize, glaciers could return through a process that would take hundreds of years. Like Beauchemin explained, over time, and with the right conditions, accumulated snow eventually becomes thick ice.

“You know, none of us will see this, but perhaps our great-great-grandchildren will, that glaciers could return to our mountains,” said Menounos. “We all use carbon, I understand that. But we all have to collectively work on a solution going forward.”

So, what will the descendants of the Illecillewaet Glacier be called?

Only time will tell.

READ MORE: Dangerous avalanche around Revelstoke due to unpredictable snowpack

READ MORE: How to fly: A peek behind the curtain at heli-ski piloting, one of Revelstoke’s biggest industries


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

and subscribe to our daily newsletter.