The effect of wildfires impacts on glaciers in western Canada

Scientists in Western Canada are concerned about the impact ash and smoke plumes from forest fires can have on Rocky Mountain and Columbia glaciers.

-The surface of the glaciers has never been so dirty,- says Ben Pelto, a scientist who has been following the evolution of glaciers near Golden for five years with support from the University of Northern British Columbia.

-When you’re in the middle of the fire season, you can even taste the smoke in the water,- says Ben Pelto. It’s a shame, because you expect to drink pure water, but it tastes weird. –

But it’s not the taste of water that worries Ben Palto the most: it’s rather the dirt that covers the glaciers. The wildfires that raged last summer in British Columbia are particularly involved, he says.

However, the more the surface of the glaciers darkens and the more it absorbs the sunlight. Not to mention that the big forest fires of the last years in the West, if they continue, may accelerate the disappearance of these fields of eternal ice formed by the accumulation of snow.

On the other side of the Rockies in Alberta, his counterpart John Pomeroy, who studies Peyto and Athabasca Glaciers at the Hydrology Center and Coldwater Laboratory in Canmore, confirms that glacier pollution appears to be coming from forest fires.

-You can follow smoke plumes with atmospheric models and observe their effects [on the ground],- he says.

Pomeroy says he found ash from forest fires in the neighboring province during the summer.

During the summer, when the snow melts, glaciers tend to absorb nearly 60% of the sun’s rays, explains the researcher. -But the last two summers were a shock. Last summer, 70% of the sun’s rays were absorbed on the surface of glaciers. And this summer, we are talking about 80%, -he says.

A missing factor

To this day, the effect of forest fires on glaciers is still difficult to measure, agrees John Pomeroy.

For glaciologist Shawn Marshall, who works at the University of Calgary, understanding the impact of smoke and ash on glaciers is crucial.

-If we have a major forest fire season, the weather becomes hot and dry – conditions that are already difficult for glaciers. So, if these glaciers take in addition this dark hue, it’s even worse! –

He who has been studying the impact of climate change on the Haig Glacier in Alberta since 2000 believes that more time should be spent studying the phenomenon.

For the time being, these factors are not included in the analysis and projection models of Canadian scientists.

Last year, forest fires burned 9450 square kilometers in British Columbia. Alberta, for its part, experienced wild fires in 2016.

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