Thursday, July 26, 2007

An Experience in Climate Change

"Make sure you drink some of the water before you get back in the vehicle" our guide yelled to us as we debarked from the mammoth six-wheeled "Glacier Transporter" on top of the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta, Canada. I had pushed my family to make it to this point so that they could witness a dying phenomenon -- glacier ice formed when Asian nomads crossed the Bering Straits into North America 10,000 years ago (this point was repeated a week later when we took our girls white-water rafting for the first time on the Athabasca River downstream in Jasper. Our guide encouraged us to take a dip in the frigid water in order to experience "swimming in water that three days ago was 10,000 year old ice!).

As we walked around on top of Athabasca Glacier, I could hear the trickle of water everywhere. Steamlets criss-crossed the ice field, slowly eroding the huge body of ice upon which we stood. Inside the deep crevices we could see the blue of tinted ice, the result of thousands of pounds of pressure over thousands of years. Above us on the plateau was the massive Columbia Icefield, a 325 square kilometer sheet of ice which exudes eight major glaciers.

But Athabasca Glacier and the others are slowly disappearing. A photograph taken in 1919 shows just how rapidly the Athabasca is retreating, and witnesses all along the "Glacier Highway" from Glacier National Park in Montana to Jasper National Park in Alberta repeated the same assertion: soon, these will disappear. In Glacier National Park, the number of glaciers has fallen from 150 a hundred years ago to 27 today. In the next 20 years all of these are expected to disappear.

In Banff we hiked to the Valley of Six Glaciers and spoke with the owner of the teahouse in the mountains above Lake Louise. When I asked her how large the glaciers were when she was a child, she said that they flowed past her teahouse. Now we stared out at a nearly empty valley. "Anyone that doubts global warming is real needs to come to here," she flatly stated.

As a father of three young girls, it saddens me to watch this world change. The children of my daughters will never see a glacier in Montana. By the time their children reach adulthood, the fabled Polar Bear will be endangered if not extinct. The Grizzlies of Yellowstone, one of which we saw this Summer on our trip to that Park, will be gone, as will the Colorado Marmots we saw two years ago in Rocky Mountain National Park. If predictions about sea levels are correct, my grand-children will see only pictures of the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, the Space Needle, the Golden Gate Bridge, and many other coastal historical and cultural landmarks.

I am pessimistic that we will be able to change things before these predictions come true. Whether it is the millennial expectations of many of our citizens, or a feeling of powerlessness among others, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to move the world's citizens to make drastic changes. Even now a significant percentage of Americans respond to global warming change with a shrug of the shoulders and a "So what?"

As we toured Glacier, Banff and Jasper National Parks this past month, I made sure to point out to my daughters the beauty of the formations, the rivers of ice imperceptibly flowing down the mountains. I admonished them to record the images in their minds, to remember their beauty. As we drank the 400 year old water on Athabasca Glacier, and rafted in the 10,000 year old water on the Athabasca River, I realized that in a small part we were witnessing evidence of dramatic change.