Could a Deadly Glacial Collapse Happen in Alberta? It almost does.

Days after a glacier collapsed in the Italian Alps, search and rescue teams are still finding victims.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the death toll had risen to nine after the bodies of two more people were discovered. Three are still missing, and several others injured in the disaster.

Italy’s prime minister linked the tragedy to environmental factors as parts of the country experienced record temperatures during a summer heatwave.

Rescuers in Marmolada, Italy, after a glacier collapsed on Sunday. (Alpine Mountain Rescue/Reuters)

The impacts of climate change on glacial mountains also raise concerns about potential disasters closer to home.

“We are at high risk of this happening in the Rockies,” said John Pomeroy, a University of Saskatchewan professor and Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change.

“I saw ice falling directly on the Athabasca Glacier, you know, a few hundred yards from where the buses turn around.”

‘Sheer luck’

According to Pomeroy, parts of the Canadian Rockies have warmed by 3.5 degrees since the 1960s, and ash clouds from wildfires are also accelerating the melting of glaciers.

He says chunks of ice fall every year in Canada, often in remote locations or at night.

In past events, like the collapse of Ghost Glacier in Jasper National Park in 2012, timing has been the only factor between Canadians and life-threatening disaster.

John Pomeroy observes a large fault that formed in 2021. (Benoît Livernoche/Radio-Canada)

“Massive chunks of ice fell into the Cavell Tarn and caused a mini tsunami which washed out a parking lot, and the floodwater streaks were several meters high, miles downstream,” Pomeroy said.

“Normally there are hundreds of people in there and it could have been a mass fatal event, but it happened in the middle of the night in August so it’s pure luck it didn’t happen. not turned into one big infamous death.”

Climate change increases risk of collapse

Brian Menounos is the Canada Research Chair in Glacial Change and a professor at the University of British Columbia.

He explains that glacial collapse is a natural hazard and that the likelihood of someone being injured depends on the presence of these people.

But with a warming climate, Menounos says, glacial meltdowns are likely to become more frequent.

“There are times when our beautiful mountains are dangerous places, and that’s usually during or immediately after extremely hot events like the heat dome we had last summer,” Menounos said.

“As we warm up the average temperature, we have the likelihood that these really extreme events will become a little less extreme, unfortunately.”

Improve security

Menounos cautions against traveling on steeply sloping terrain after rainfall, which can lead to both ice collapse and landslides.

Pomeroy wants to see more early warning systems developed to warn people of dangerous areas.

“These could involve time-lapse cameras, water level measurements on high mountain lakes,” Pomeroy said.

“To prevent people from getting up there and getting hurt, and also to provide downstream warnings of the high flows that are sometimes associated with these events.”

This image released by the Italian National Alpine and Underground Rescue Corps on Sunday shows the glacier in the Italian Alps near Trento. A large piece broke off, killing at least nine hikers and injuring eight others. (Corpo Nazionale Soccorso Alpino e Speleologico/Associated Press)

The Alpine Club of Canada took the disaster as a wake-up call and an opportunity to review its own practices.

To adapt, the association finances research projects in the mountains and plans to modify the schedules of certain circuits.

“Extreme vigilance is very necessary, and particularly for what we do, because we must prepare for this type of event and anticipate as much as possible,” said Carine Salvy, general manager of the mountaineering club.

“We need to have more flexibility in terms of when we open our huts for certain activities or can close them as conditions have changed drastically in a short time.”

Salvy adds that the challenge is the unpredictability of potential disasters, which experts warn can only get worse as Canada’s climate continues to change.

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