Museum Musings: Helm Glacier’s melting shows no signs of slowing down

Last week, I had the pleasure of running into a pair of glaciologists performing research in Garibaldi Provincial Park. They let me to tag along and see what a day of glaciological fieldwork entailed.


The focus was the Helm Glacier, a slender icefield four kilometres southeast of Black Tusk, most commonly accessed from the Cheakamus Lake trailhead. Helm Glacier is important because it has a solid baseline of data; it has been continuously monitored since the late 1960s. Moreover, multiple photographs taken by mountaineers as far back as the 1920s have helped give an even better indication of the glacier’s change over time.

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The change has been consistent: rapid retreat. Between 1928 and 2009, Helm Glacier lost an estimated 78 per cent of its mass, and has shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, in a database of 16 North American glaciers with extensive and comparable datasets, Helm has experienced the most rapid melting of them all.


The two Geological Survey of Canada glaciologists I tagged along with were measuring vertical surface loss; that is, the extent to which the glacier’s surface has dropped since the previous summer. This is done by drilling six-metre-long metal poles vertically into the glacier, then returning the following year to measure how much of the pole has become exposed. The drills are human-powered; all the drilling and the hike to the glacier and back makes for a long day of hard, physical work.   


Last year’s results indicated the glacier’s surface had lowered an average of four vertical metres on the lower glacier, and roughly 3.5 metres higher up. Numbers still need to be crunched, but preliminary data for this year suggests smaller losses, roughly 2.6 metres at the bottom and 2.2 metres at the top.


This is not surprising, as two winters ago our region experienced historically low snowpack levels, followed by a long, hot summer (remember those massive forest fires?). Last winter, Whistler Mountain measured a slightly above average snowpack, and this summer has been closer to average as well. Still, on Sept. 29 there was hardly any seasonal snow left on the surface of the glacier. This year was not as hard on the glaciers as last, but we still lost a lot of ice.


After the Helm Glacier research was completed, the pair headed up to their research station on the Place Glacier, north of Pemberton, to conduct similar studies. When compared to similar data from hundreds of other glaciers around the world, this research is creating a fuller understanding of past, present and future environmental change. Much thanks to these intrepid scientists for the work they do, and for letting me tag along for the afternoon!


Coincidentally, the next day I had already arranged to assist local naturalist, and my colleague at the Whistler Museum, Kristina Swerhun, with some alpine field research of her own. Look for my write-up from that day in this column in the coming weeks.

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