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How The Big Melt Will Change Life for People and Nature

As BC’s coastal mountain glaciers recede the effects alter ecosystems. Can human engineering begin to compensate? Second in a series.

Christopher Pollon 12 May

Christopher Pollon covers business, environment and the politics of natural resources. He’s the author of The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam. He tweets @C_Pollon.

[Editor’s note: To read the first instalment of The Big Melt, a special Tyee series, go here.]

When William Glendale was 10-years-old, his logger father was away for work so much, he bought his son a boat and a .30-30 rifle. “My father told me, ‘When your mom wants fish, go fishing. When she wants meat, go get her a deer.'” Sixty years later, no one knows Knight Inlet better than William Glendale — a Hereditary Chief with the Da’naxda’xw/Awaetlala First Nation, whose traditional territory includes the upper portion of the inlet. (The Mamalilikulla and Tlowitsis First Nations have territories overlapping the inlet out towards Johnstone Strait.)

Knight Inlet is the deep glacial fjord that receives the melting waters of the Klinaklini Glacier on B.C.’s central coast. As long as the Klinaklini Glacier has existed, Glendale’s forebearers have lived in its proximity.

But their future is cast in shadow by research led by B.C. glaciologist Brian Menounos, a professor at University of Northern British Columbia and a Hakai Institute affiliate. As the first story in this series explained, their findings show that the last two decades have been disastrous for western North America’s mountain glaciers, particularly for those on the south and central Coast Mountains, including the Klinaklini Glacier — the largest glacier in western North America south of the Alaskan border.

In 2018, Menounos and his collaborators published research that revealed that glaciers across western North America are melting faster than previously assumed, and that melting had accelerated about four-fold in just the last decade.

The 470-square-kilometre Klinaklini, like many glaciers of the south and central Coast Mountains, is expected to lose at least 70 per cent of its total ice by the end of the century, and as this happens, an ecosystem that has evolved in tandem with the glacier will be upended.

What will it mean to Glendale, his community and the environment around them as the great column of ice recedes?

And might the worst effects be counterbalanced by technology? Could an engineered system of water capture, small dams that catch and release water, mimic functions of the once great glacier?

No one is yet proposing such a massive undertaking for the valleys that tie Klinaklini to Knight Inlet far below. But scientists are thinking about how to nurture ecosystems in ways the glacier’s rhythms of runoff have for centuries. It’s a prospect that intrigues Menounos and others who view with trepidation the Big Melt, fast approaching.

As Klinaklini Glacier, the largest in BC’s Coast Mountains, recedes, its ‘toe’ at the bottom of this picture breaks up and sheds icebergs into the back end of Knight Inlet. The inlet has been home to people since time immemorial. Photo by Brian Menounos.

Pink salmon appear in Glendale Bay around mid-August most years, at the very time when seasonal snow is gone and the melting of glacial ice provides a vital cooling flush of cold water to the system.

The fish hold there for about three weeks, and by September, they ascend the Glendale River to spawn. It’s during this critical three weeks in the inlet that Glendale’s family gillnet much of their salmon for the year.

Glendale Cove, named for William’s forebearers, is a mecca for pink salmon in Knight Inlet, hosting big historical runs and the Knight Inlet Lodge, which in pre-COVID 19 times, attracted high-end tourists as a grizzly bear watching eco-tourist site. (“We don’t even have to advertise, they just come,” said Glendale of the typically Swiss and German clientele.)

All up the Inlet, many of the short, glacially-nourished rivers support a variety of chum, coho and Chinook, and a May run of sockeye that rear in a small glacial lake. The Klinaklini River also continues to host a small but important spring run of oolichan, which Glendale and his family have been harvesting and rendering into oolichan grease for millennia.

There is a small island, not far from the toe of the Klinaklini Glacier, where the Glendales go every April to render fresh-caught oolichan into a year’s supply of grease.

His family, he explains, treasures oolichan grease the way an Italian family reveres the best olive oil. So important was this rendered fat historically, that it was manufactured by coastal First Nations all along the northern coast, and traded far inland along millennia-old “grease trail” trade routes.

Knight Inlet’s waters are fed in part by Klinaklini Glacier. At the inlet’s far end is Glendale Cove, a mecca for pink salmon, oolichan fish, grizzly bears, whales and tourists drawn from around the world. Photo: Knight Inlet Lodge.

Oolichan run in early spring, and Glendale returns to the inlet later in the year to fish for salmon. He says by late summer the inlet turns turquoise from the toe of the glacier all the way out past Glendale Cove, more than 60 kilometres. “That top layer [of cold glacial melt] is three feet deep on top, if you dive under that, it’s clear water, salt water,” says Glendale. “That top layer keeps the inlet cool, which is what we need for the survival of our salmon.”

This seasonal pulse of fresh water, which carries iron and different nutrients from earth entrained in the ice, is felt all the way out into Johnstone Strait, north into Queen Charlotte Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. Similar fresh water pulses occur all up and down the B.C. coast. Cold winds that gather momentum on big icefields like the Klinaklini, called catabats, gather steam as they sweep off the cold surface of the glacier, mixing this flush of fresh water with the salt water below, allowing nutrients from the seawater to mix with the fresh snow and ice melt.

Salmon have evolved all up the coast to this rhythm of melting snow and ice. And if you know where to look, says Glendale, evidence of the ancient relationship is etched into the landscape. Along the shore by the mouth of the river at Glendale Cove, near the site of two former village sites, Indigenous fishers once piled up rocks to make a crude dam that operated as a fish trap. The rocks were just tall enough to allow fish passage during high tide, but when the tide receded, they were trapped and harvested. The dam has long since been abandoned and broken, but the tell-tale scattering of boulders on the bed of the inlet remains.

No one knows when the dam was constructed, but Catherine Carlson, archaeologist and senior archaeology manager with First Nations consultancy firm Inlailawatash, says such rock structures have been associated with the development of the first sedentary villages around 5,000 years ago on what now is the B.C. coast.

There are at least seven recognized village sites in the inlet, but Glendale, who has wandered every corner of this area since his childhood, knows of many more.

“Back in the early 1800s, there were between 4,500 and 5,000 people living in this area,” he says. “There were salmon, lots of deer, and beginning each spring, the oolichan. It was easy to live there, because there was lots of food.”

WATCH: A grizzly chases a meal in Glendale Cove. Survival of the salmon that nourish not only bears but migrating whales and other wildlife is tied to the rhythms of glacial runoff. Video by Brian Collen, Knight Inlet Lodge.

Humans have lived in close proximity to the Klinaklini Glacier for as long as it has existed, but no one really knows what its demise could mean to the rich ecosystem of thousands of watersheds along the coast fed and nourished by mountain glaciers.

UBC professor and Hakai Institute researcher Brian Hunt is an ecological oceanographer who is working to understand the implications of the disappearance of glaciers on life as we know it in coastal British Columbia.

Hunt has spent a lot of time in Rivers Inlet, which is just north of Knight’s Inlet — glaciers that originate from a great ice field, of which the Klinaklini is part, drain into Owikeno Lake at the head of Rivers Inlet. He says the timing and magnitude of fresh water flows out of places like Rivers Inlet and Knight Inlet can have a profound influence on the productivity of the ecosystem.

It’s normal for huge amounts of fresh water to seasonally drain from rivers and coastal land into these inlets: from rain, accumulated snow melt and melted glacial ice. “Just having those different sources is really important, and losing or changing the relative contributions of those sources is really important to the biology,” says Hunt.

The amount and timing of the glacial runoff can affect a number of important things, including the circulation of fresh water in coastal waters, and nutrient availability for phytoplankton at the base of the food chain — which are eaten by larger zooplankton (including larval fish and krill), and eaten in turn by herring, oolichan and juvenile salmon.

We know sockeye, pink and chum salmon move out into the coastal waters when they are young, mostly feeding on zooplankton alone; meanwhile coho and Chinook spend more time in coastal waters feeding on fish, but the prey they eat, like herring and sand lance, are dependent on zooplankton for food.

Especially in offshore waters, iron is a particularly scarce nutrient in the ocean, which washes into coastal waters from rivers, melting snow and ice. Iron is believed to be important for marine ecosystems as far away as the Gulf of Alaska.

851px version of GlacialEcosystemStoryPanel.jpg
The Big Cycle: How seasonal glacial melts nourish ocean life. 1. BC coastal mountain glaciers store fossilized water that is released as meltwater during late summer after the snowpack from the previous winter is melted and gone. 2. Melting ice sends a flush of cold water into coastal waters in late summer, just as many salmon return to the coast to spawn in natal streams. 3. Much of the wider ecosystem has evolved and adapted to this cooling, seasonal flush. 4. Everything from cedar trees to grizzlies to humans rely on returning salmon, which transport marine nutrients to land. Art by David Marino.

How will changing productivity of things like plankton, disrupted by altered timing of freshet and glacial ice melting, affect salmon moving forward? “That is a cutting edge question that we’re just starting to look at now,” says Hunt. “These are things we don’t know.”

Theories have been put forward however. During the Cohen Commission of 2012, which sought to find a cause of the disastrous Fraser River sockeye returns of 2009 (then the lowest on record), retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist and former deputy executive secretary with the North Pacific Marine Science Organization Skip McKinnell implicated unusual conditions on the coast, including a massive flush of fresh water into coastal waters along the migration route of the juvenile Fraser sockeye on their way out to sea.

In 2007, unusually large amounts of rainfall, snowpack melting and glacial melt washed into the ocean along the central coast of B.C. From this unusually massive flush of fresh water there was a thick layer of fresh water on the surface, which trapped plankton in the stratified surface water.

The predominantly southeasterly winter wind pattern in 2007 persisted into summer, pushing water toward the coast, which helped to retain the brackish surface layer in Queen Charlotte Sound. (If normal summer winds had been around that year, this mostly fresh water surface layer would likely have been swept out to sea.)

As a result, there wasn’t much mixing of the water, which stayed highly stratified. When the food supply in that top surface water layer ran out — where the plankton reside to access sunlight — nutrients from deeper water could not resupply the plankton to the surface, causing them to starve and die off.

So that summer, there was very little food for juvenile sockeye running the “trophic gauntlet” of Johnstone Strait and along the coast, and so the theory goes, they were starving or significantly weakened and did not survive to return to the Fraser two years later in 2009.

“That’s what was proposed to have happened in 2007,” says Hunt, “and there’s quite good evidence for that.”

851px version of SockeyeSalmonUnderwaterLakeClarkNationalPark.jpg
Spawning adult sockeye salmon in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. As BC’s glaciers recede and coastal waters warm, says oceanographer Brian Hunt, salmon will keep moving further north. Photo by D. Young, US National Park Service.

Loss of glacial ice will have a more direct impact on salmon in the future, by affecting both the temperature and volume of water present in fresh water streams in the summer and early fall. Hunt says salmon do not do well in water that is over 20 C, particularly in glacially-fed river systems where they have evolved to rely on the seasonal pulse of cold water — both for the low temperature and volume of water that keeps river levels sufficiently high during drought.

Moving forward, Hunt thinks we’ll see a continuation of the trend we are already witnessing — where salmon are moving further north, while their southern ranges are shrinking due to drought and warmer conditions.

“The populations in the south are diminishing, while Bristol Bay's in Alaska [home to the world’s biggest sockeye fishery] are booming. And salmon are moving into the Arctic, so things will shift to the north, that’s what we are [already] seeing.”

Thanks to the work of climate scientists like UNBC’s Brian Menounos, we already know that B.C.’s mountain glaciers like the Klinaklini are melting faster than earlier supposed, and that drastic action is required to ensure it does not wink out before the end of the century.

Menounos says that if we can lower our emissions enough, it’s possible that our mountain glaciers, even the ones that have melted, could reform over the coming centuries.

Barring that, we will have to look at hard options to protect the ecosystems of the coast.

Menounos is not interested in bringing bad news with no alternatives. He’s already thinking about what we can do to counter some of the worst effects.

Mitigation of greenhouse gases is the cheapest option, he says, but failing that, we are going to have to start talking about ways we can engineer solutions to prevent the loss of the critical ecosystem services that our glaciers provide.

That could mean building dams and reservoirs at the base of some of our melting glaciers to capture and time release volumes of cold water as needed by salmon rivers and ecosystems in the increasingly hot summers of the future. The same infrastructure might produce hydro power.

851px version of GlobalGlacialDams.jpg
An article in Nature published online on Nov. 13, 2019 discusses potential to tap melting glaciers for hydro power, including these mocked-up examples. The examples use Google Earth images of actual sites in a) Alaska, b) Scandinavia, c) North Asia and d) Central Asia. Source: Nature.

Menounos is not alone in this thinking. In November 2019, the journal Nature published a study assessing roughly 185,000 "glacierized" sites around the world, for their potential large hydropower and water-storage in "future glacier-free basins." Three quarters of this potential storage volume was expected to become ice-free by 2050, and would be enough to retain about half of the annual runoff leaving the sites.

Canada in particular was singled out as a good candidate for hydro installations at melting glacier sites.

The dams would generate electricity, but could also could mimic glaciers’ ability to store snow and ice over long time periods, releasing water during the melt season.

The article also cautions that melting glaciers are "an emotive topic," and “outside interference [by hydro developers] can be met with apprehension."

A spokesman for B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy told The Tyee that the impact of our melting glaciers — and potential for water storage solutions — are already on its radar. In partnership with First Nations, they are now in the process of completing a strategy for climate preparation and adaptation.

“The province is aware of the critical importance of ensuring adequate future water supplies, and is exploring options to do so, which could include water storage. Natural storage and release of water in alpine areas might offset some of the impacts of glacier loss on hydrology.

Menounos, who has never presented his ideas about water storage to the government, feels deeply conflicted about this solution: it was his love for pristine, “serene” mountain environments that made him want to be a glaciologist — so advocating for new dams, transmission lines and road-building in British Columbia’s wildest and most spectacular outdoor settings is something he’s not happy about.

“I don’t want to see hundreds of reservoirs on our landscape, but if there was a way to utilize that water for the ecosystem, like high elevation reservoirs that can help maintain the cool water....” He trails off and pauses. “Whether that’s realistic or not, I don’t know.”

Communities will have to decide for themselves, he says, but they will have to confront it soon. Doing nothing as global emissions rise means watching centuries of fossilized water, our fail-safe cooling system for the coast, wash away into the sea.

WATCH: Take a six-second trip through Knight Inlet. A vast ecosystem beneath its waters depends on cool, fresh water released at key seasonal moments from high above by Klinaklini Glacier. Video: Hakai Institute.

William Glendale has noticed two striking changes since his childhood spent hunting, trapping and exploring upper Knight Inlet. The toe of the Klinaklini Glacier has receded about two kilometres since he was a kid, and at New Vancouver, a tiny village near the foot of Knight Inlet, the winter snowfalls that were once commonplace rarely happen now.

Glendale says that otherwise, it’s too early to notice any other marked changes.

Knight Inlet salmon returns haven’t been consistent in recent years, he says, despite some surprises: in 2019 Chinook salmon returned to Mussel Creek, a short glacially-fed stream not far from the toe of the Klinaklini Glacier, in record numbers.

“It was great for the bears,” says Glendale, who watched a grizzly wrestle a 40-pound Chinook. “He was trotting down the road right in front of me, and he wasn’t letting go of it for anything.”

Not great, however for the oolichan: in 2019 and 2020, returning numbers were so low, his community wasn’t able to render their seasonal supply of grease.

His reaction to the idea of damming the coastal fjords and mountain glaciers he considers home is understated: he seems neither warm nor cold to the idea. Glendale questions whether it’s even possible to build a dam at that location in Knight Inlet, subject to the violent flow of spring freshet and the crushing momentum of icebergs bigger than apartment buildings, which break off the glacier.

He’s ambivalent too, because the demise of the Klinaklini Glacier doesn’t seem real enough yet. For Glendale — indeed for most people who have taken in the magnificence of British Columbia’s great rivers of ice — it’s difficult to grasp that most of their masses will be melted away by the end of the century, as scientists now predict.

Glendale has flown in a helicopter over Klinaklini. The image is permanently frozen in his mind. “You can go 50, 60 miles back, and you still can’t see the end of it,” he says of the glacier. “It’s always been here. To me, it will be there forever.”

Read the first instalment of The Big Melt here. Coming next, the final story in the series: 'When a Glacier Gives Way: Inside the Bute Inlet Disaster.'  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Environment

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