Robert Sandford

Chair of the UN International Decade “Water for Life” in Canada

Shawn Marshall, Ph. D.

Glaciologist, University of Calgary


Alison M. Jones

NWNL Director and Photographer

Robin MacEwan

NWNL Advisor

Alberta, Canada - June 8, 2007


PART ONE: Robert Sandford and Shawn Marshall

Climate Change Awareness

Canada’s Columbia Basin Trust

Climate Change Impacts

UN Water for Life Decade

PART TWO: Shawn Marshall

Measuring Glacial Reservoirs Of Water

Technology Could Help

Enhancing Awareness

All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.

Introductory Note

Having interpreted scientific research outcomes for the average person and decision-makers for 45 years, Bob was part of Canada’s Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and was Chair of the United Nations International Year of Fresh Water and Wonder of Water Initiative in Canada in 2003–2004. He organized the Year of the Great Bear and the United Nations International Year of Mountains and authored The Columbia Icefield and Water and Our Way of Life. Canadian environmentalists told NWNL that after 30 years exploring the Canadian West, “He knows everything there is to know about the Columbia Icefields and thinks a lot about water issues these days.”

As a glaciologist and climatologist, Dr. Shawn Marshall has broad interests in Earth system science and the development of a 3-dimensional numerical model of ice sheet dynamics. Besides working with others to examine Laurentide and Greenland Ice Sheet dynamics, he has focused reconstruction of North American ice sheets, processes of deglaciation at the end of the glacial periods, and the role of ice sheets in millennial climate variability.

Columbia River Basin's Mt. Hood

Climate Change Awareness

NWNL  Thank you both for being here to discuss how the UN’s Water for Life Decade focus addresses Canada’s western watersheds and works with the Columbia Basin Trust. As we sit here with a gorgeous view of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, we want to hear your predictions for climate change, the implications and impacts of glacial melt, consequences, and how best can we as stewards and a responsible society change.

ROBERT SANDFORD One major focus of the Columbia Basin Trust [CBT] has been to determine what climate change impacts might affect water in Canada’s Columbia River Basin. So, a great number of climate scientists and hydrologists gathered for a preliminary assessment that would begin a dialogue of climate change in Columbia Basin communities. This is important because there’s still great anxiety and misunderstanding of climate issues in Canada. Much misinformation has been purposely communicated to obscure the issue in this country.

The Columbia Basin Trust’s decision to accumulate and interpret the science was a very, very important step for its communities. Climate scientists went from community to community to explain their results. Importantly, they translated those results into language that decision-makers could in turn translate into action. The goal was to share how changes in snowpack, precipitation patterns and melt patterns would ultimately affect water availability at different places in the basin; what that would mean to how people lived; and how they would have to manage their water resources in the future. They used language that was perfectly clear for everyone.

NWNL  What is the message being delivered to Columbia watershed communities?

ROBERT SANDFORD. The first part is that snowpack deposition will change – and it will change differentially in the north part of the basin versus the south part. That will put pressure on how hydrological resources are used over a given period of time, especially late summer’s low-flow periods. What we’ll see then in the northern basin is less snowpack, perhaps as much as 15%. But, perhaps most dramatically, snowpack in the southern part swill by reduced by much as 35%. That will put real pressure on that area and put into relief the need for new terms and conditions for storage and release of water upstream, so as to meet the base flow needs in the lower basin.

The loss of water from rapidly melting glaciers is the loss of a resource we’ve taken for granted, especially regarding late summer to stream flows. Over time, summer flows of glacial melt will decrease, exacerbating increasingly long, low-flow periods. With lower flow regimes, we’ll have warmer water, which will impact cold-water fish. So that will likely change the aquatic ecosystems in the Columbia Basin.

Snowmelt in the Athabasca Glacier versus Upper Columbia River Basin drought

NWNL  What does that mean to the average person? 

ROBERT SANDFORD  Firstly, all our watershed planning is based on hydrological stationarity. We expect what has happened in the past to happen in the future; but we now know the past is no longer a management guide for the coming decades. Hydrological planning based on past variability is very likely a mistake, especially because as populations grow, there’s greater demand for water resources. Taken together, issues of water availability and quality, climate change, population growth and other pressures are beginning to limit social and economic development opportunities in the Columbia Basin.

NWNL  If recession of today’s glaciers reflects past decades of warming – not today’s warming – how do past rates compare to today’s warming rates? Will they help us judge future rates?

SHAWN MARSHALL  That depends on the glacial system. Small glaciers are responding pretty rapidly. They respond immediately to a warm decade, as happened in Montana’s Glacier National Park, where there was a pretty small glacier. But with the Columbia Ice Fields or those in the Arctic or Antarctic, we’re seeing responses over centuries, or millennia. All glaciers have some amount of inertia. Everywhere in the world we’ve seen glaciers retreat a lot for the last 20 years, and that will continue, even if we level off for a while.

NWNL  So the lag time for melting increases with the size of the system?

SHAWN MARSHALL  Yes. Imagine dumping snow on the top of the Columbia Ice Fields: it takes decades for that ice to flush through the system. So, we were misled through the ‘60s and ‘70s, because the terminus of some of these glaciers is pretty stable. But the terminus is still responding to what happened in the Ice Age.

ROBERT SANDFORD. There’s another dimension to that. When I first started looking at climate change in the early ‘90s, the general sense was that if the warming trend continued, we’d see a huge pulse of glacial melt expand flow regimes for a short period of time until the glaciers became smaller and smaller in size. What we discovered recently is that that pulse has already happened, that the glacial melt peak has already passed. So, consequently, we’re seeing stream flow reductions on many of the major rivers on eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Lake Louise view of Canadian Rocky Mountains

NWNL  What are the implications of this revision in timing of glacial melting?

ROBERT SANDFORD  While the past is not a guide to the future, all of our infrastructure is designed around current historical variability we’ve measured, based on a relatively stationary climactic situation. So, as temperatures warm and variability increases, our infrastructure may not be adequate to future climates. We already see infrastructure that can no longer withstand an increasing frequency of extreme weather events. In parts of the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains where rivers are fully allocated based on historic flow volumes, we now see them diminishing. Climate change will likely impact that even further. So, there we have less water than we thought, but we’ve already built to the maximum in a lot of places. This is not so in the Columbia Basin, but it’s certainly happening in adjacent basins east of the Great Divide.

NWNL  What infrastructure is impacted and becoming inadequate? Can it be adjusted?

ROBERT SANDFORD  Infrastructure impacts are not just physical. They include management traditions and mechanisms by which we decide how and when water ought to be allocated. These decisions and licensing attached to hard infrastructure are based on policy that became legislation granting investment and other rights. Consequently, it will be hard to change  infrastructure and management processes regarding changes in flow regimes here in Alberta’s river basins or in the Columbia River Basin.

SHAWN MARSHALL  I agree. Every aspect of climate change is like that. We’re hardwired. All our socio-economic systems are so hardwired into the 20th century. Now we’re going somewhere else, but we’re not really ready for any part of climate change. There is a false argument that that we shouldn’t worry because in the past the Earth was warmer and sea levels were higher. But in the past, we didn’t have a billion people living within one meter of the coast, so the past is irrelevant to coming impacts.

ROBERT SANDFORD  There are other elements are tied to that hardwiring. There’s more private property than ever before. When you decide, because of climate impacts, you’ll move uphill or inland as in the past, now somebody already lives there. Also, rapid climate change fragments and diminishes ecosystems, leaving them less adaptable. So, certain ecosystems are disassembling and reassembling in unpredictable ways. All combined, these cumulative impacts will make it very, very difficult to adapt.

Mount Adams with minimal snow coverage, Washington State

NWNL What solutions do you see?

ROBERT SANDFORD  The first place to find adaptation strategies for climate impacts is in the most concrete thing that you can measure – that’s water. If you watch water, you can understand. Our first reactions should be to climate impacts and then infrastructure and other elements that society will need to alter, given this problem. 

One of our most serious difficulties is that we have enjoyed an era of absolutely brilliant engineering successes that solved all of our problems by proxy. We don’t have to use less water. We don’t need to use less gas or drive less, because a hybrid can do that. But climate change impacts are so diverse and implicit in each aspect of how we live that we will have to change societal habits. 

Canada’s Columbia Basin Trust

NWNL  Given the serious nature of these issues, it seems extremely fortunate that in 1995, Canada’s Columbia River Basin combined science, stewardship and leadership to create Columbia Basin Trust [CBT].  Since, CBT’s residents, local officials, regional representatives and tribal councils have produced a Climate Dialogue Document to clarify climate change misconceptions and give scientists and hydrologists the opportunity to share its realities on a community-based level. How has this been received? 

ROBERT SANDFORD  It was very well received, mainly because it was introduced by its contributing scientists. Their carefully constructed language made the issues very, very clear. When you hear such clarity from legitimate scientific sources, you recognize the depth of research invested in their analyses.

These Canadian climate scientists are among the very best in the world. So, the choice was believing 2,500 scientists worldwide who’ve worked on the problem for 17 years – or the executive director of a resource industry association.  Heretofore, we’ve obscured the argument by making it unclear who is an authority. But having scientists step forward to make their claims and explain their research process gave CBT’s document great and immediate credibility in decision-making circles. This makes a difference in how we react adaptively to the problem.

NWNL  Do you see responses to the CBT movement or developments from the release of their document?

ROBERT SANDFORD The CBT example is quite unique. It’s one of the most progressive I’ve seen in North America. The premise of Columbia Basin climate change adaptation is that it be done on a watershed basis – probably the fundamental unit to which the early response and adaptation should respond. The second issue is that they’re way ahead of most jurisdictions in this country because they cultivated  mayors and councils. Those people were making decisions and CBT gave them the knowledge, understanding and access to experts so they could really grasp the problems.

The CBT has a good start, a good foundation, good local support and political savvy. They’ll require assistance of the province and federal government, and I hope they won’t be limited by jurisdictional capacities of their regulations. The federal government is very, very, very far behind, as it is the United States. It denies the problem and the need to respond to it.

The Province of British Columbia [BC] is only now beginning to consider how climate change might impact their economies. You’d think that BC would understand the economic impacts of climate change. since 9,000,000 acres of BC forests have just been lost to pine bark beetle infestations. That is singularly the most significant environmental disaster in BC history, but no one seems to take it very seriously. Climate warming allows these pests to become far more ubiquitous and damaging to BC’s forests.

Sign at Athabasca Glacier - one of 6 main “toes” of the Columbia Icefield, Jasper, Alberta

NWNL  Yes, Kindy Gosal, Director Special Initiatives for the Columbia Basin Trust, did a great job of explaining to us how CBT is working in a grassroots way to educate local residents. He discussed the process of educating communities, residents and even part-time residents so they will vote to make the difference politically.

ROBERT SANDFORD  Different from most jurisdictions, CBT has a real purpose and time frame. They’re ahead of other basin councils and trusts because they have reliable funding from the US-Canada Columbia River Treaty. But that treaty also drives a certain urgency associated with climate change and other human-related impacts on the basin’s water resources.

That 1964 treaty has many limitations. It provides good water storage and hydropower generation, but it is not at all responsive to environmental impacts over time, nor to social and other impacts that attend the development of the dams and storage facilities in the region.

NWNL  Are you referring to the displacement of communities by dams?

ROBERT SANDFORD I think they did a horrible thing to the First Nations by not consulting them, but essentially presenting a fait accompli treaty. Also 2,300 locals were displaced by those dams with very little consultation. That left wounds in communities that exist still today. Some of those things need to be reconciled through reconsideration of the treaty, when appropriate.

Climate Change Impacts

ROBERT SANDFORD  There are many climate-change impacts in the Columbia River Basin. Specifically, no one has yet addressed the salmon issue. Many believe climate change will make it impossible to restore Columbia River salmon. We may have produced the straw that breaks the camel’s back regarding salmon extinction. We don’t know the impacts.

It’s rather like spring when many things happen all at once, as snow turns to rain and plants bloom. Animals come out of hibernation. Insects appear out of nowhere. It all happens at once. It’s the same with climate change. If we raise temperatures by 1 or 2 degrees, everything will happen all at once. We don’t know what will hit systems that have relied on stationary climate. We aren’t sure what will surface, what will emerge, or what will grow into a catastrophe. That makes this a very problematic issue.

SHAWN MARSHALL  There are many things to think about when the water is 3 degrees warmer. Is that even viable? What is the likely water system we’ll have in 20 years?

ROBERT SANDFORD  Altered regimes must be considered when Canada and the US reexamine their Columbia River Treaty, since climate change impacts are accelerating faster than expected or models predicted. As a result, by 2014 when reconsideration of the treaty becomes a legal opportunity, circumstances may have changed considerably. We may be moving toward trends making proposals less possible to follow.

SHAWN MARSHALL  That’s true. It’s a tough part of the problem. We’re certainly now ahead of what people were expecting by 2020. Everything’s accelerated, and we don’t know whether that will continue or settle out a bit. It’s really a tough part of the planning.

ROBERT SANDFORD  Hydrological changes are important, but we’re also seeing dramatic ecosystem changes.  Environment Canada and Waterloo University did a study on climate change impacts on the national parks. Great effort was put into modeling and predicting impacts on the western mountain ranges, suggesting our vegetation will move up one ecological zone. For the Hudsonian Forest eco-region that would be perhaps 500 to 600 meters, or 1,800 feet.

We have to plan for moving targets of ecological representativeness, because many places set aside as national parks could end up in different bioregions, no longer representing what they were set aside to protect and represent. A whole range of things are changing and moving simultaneously. As a result of that and human disturbance, we know which invasive species will take hold here and which will take advantage of changed conditions to become more common and perhaps replace others. So, we’re seeing hydrological instability and an ecosystem changing in a way we haven’t seen before. Yet worldwide, management of protected places is based on stationarity and ecological circumstances.

Athabasca Glacier sign, Jasper, Alberta

NWNL  Then this supports the value of migratory corridors for wildlife and plants in order to expand species’ ranges.

SHAWN MARSHALL  I think so. Some will just get squeezed.

ROBERT SANDFORD  They will move upward and northward until there’s no place for them to go – no further north and no further up. Look at alpine species, both vegetation and animals. I don’t know where pikas and marmots are going to go.

SHAWN MARSHALL  They’ll go where the glaciers are now – until they run out of space. People have trouble wrapping their minds around it. I do. What will replace the grasslands here?

ROBERT SANDFORD  I predict to my children that in their lifetimes they’ll see cactus here.

SHAWN MARSHALL  I picture something like Utah here. That’s what you’d expect from the models in terms of the ecological conditions.

ROBERT SANDFORD  When you see Dan Fagray’s USGS computer models showing species’ upward advance from 1840 to 2100, you begin to understand the dynamics of ecosystem change and glacial recession.

UN Water for Life Decade

NWNL  Tell us about UN Water for Life Decade and the western watersheds partnership.

ROBERT SANDFORD Well, first a brief outline. The UN Water for Life Decade in Canada grew out of the UN International Year of Fresh Water, which grew out of the Millennial Development Goals [MDG]. MDG aimed to solve a global water problem by recognizing that 1 billion people lack access to drinking water and 2 billion lack access to reliably clean water and sanitation. The goal included countries worldwide and reexamining water situations in context of this global crisis. [Editor’s Note: MDG aimed to halve the proportion of people lacking safe drinking water by 2015 and to stop unsustainable exploitation of water resources. At the 2002 World Summit MDG committed to developing integrated water resource management and efficiency plans by 2005 and halving the number of people lacking access to basic sanitation by 2015.]

Sign at Athabasca Glacier - one of 6 main “toes” of the Columbia Icefield, Jasper, Alberta
Sign at Athabasca Glacier - one of 6 main “toes” of the Columbia Icefield, Jasper, Alberta

When we looked at Canada’s water situation during the International Year of Fresh Water, we found that Canadians took water for granted. But, the myth of limitless abundance no longer held in this country. We recognized that widely in Canada water quality was deteriorating. During that 2-year initiative here, the UN declared the UN Decade of Action on Water for Life. In this initiative, 65 partners decided  this was worth continuing as it put water agendas in a global context. It was helpful locally to use what was happening elsewhere as examples to support new directions. Importantly, western Canada recognized that responses elsewhere that were where we are now were sometimes effectively and sometimes not.

Learning from those experiences, Canada’s Western Watershed’s Climate Research Collaborative emerged immediately, due to the clear tie between climate impacts and water availability, especially in our water-scarce prairie provinces. We saw an urgent need to translate Canada’s outstanding science into language that politicians could appreciate and understand. We raised the profile of climate science in the face of of industries’ lobbying to obscure the issue.

Primarily, we encourage the very best climate research, especially regarding water. Our second goal is to adopt best technology and adaptive practices from the rest of the world. We also look at technological innovations for managing water-related climate impacts.  The third element, making our organization quite unique, is our work in public policy development, governance and social marketing. This helps Canadians understand the problem and identify public policy choices that will mitigate climate change impacts on water and let us effectively adapt to a new world we are creating.

Perito Moreno Glacier in the Andes Mountains - the world’s 3rd largest reserve of freshwater

NWNL  You said you learn from both positive and negative models. How do you find them?

ROBERT SANDFORD  We work closely with the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy to comparatively analyze various water management strategies around the world. [Editor’s Note: In 2004, Sandford was the first Canadian appointed to the Rosenberg International Water Policy Forum permanent advisory committee.]

Every two years, to determine best strategies, we do case studies and visit areas responding to problems becoming universal. For example, the Nile River Basin has managed parts of its water system for 6,000 years in a very formal, orchestrated way. Today’s Nile Basin Initiative looks at conflicts over water availability that turn into war, their costs and recovery time, social and economic damages and how the erosion of trust impacts future negotiations and management regimes. We also know from mistakes made on the Tigris and Euphrates what happens downstream when upstream builds extensive dam systems without consulting with downstream partners. We also know from the Columbia River how durable treaties can be developed and their limitations and conflicts resolved through institutions like the International Joint Commission.

So, we discover what works best in which situations and apply them to Canada. Studying the reach of science, adaptive practices and technology, as well as social sciences, public policy and governance gives science validity. Such evidence-based decision-making will serve us effectively in the future. As we face population growth and development in combination with climate change, we will be able to see all of these issues in tandem and then come up with innovative public policy to address these challenges.

NWNL  What good solutions or positive thoughts have emerged from this? What do we tell our children, other than soon cactus will grow here or there’ll be no forests to enjoy?

ROBERT SANDFORD  We must take this one step at a time. First, in this country we must get past the denial dominating public policy. Then we have to be positive about global responses to climate change impacts that don’t bankrupt a country or an economy.

For example, a graph of water usage in the United States from 1900 to 2000 was in virtual lockstep with economic development from 1900 to the mid-1980s. Then suddenly, because of public policy, change in habits, innovation and technology, that lockstep was broken. Economic development didn’t have to be tied directly to increased water use. California’s energy use was not in lockstep with its economic development. So, we know it’s possible to break some deeply held traditions of what ensures continuing economic prosperity. That’s the first myth that we have to overcome.

Other positive things happening are that many people at the citizen level are learning what they can do individually to make a difference. Conserving energy and water creates personal satisfaction and allows people to be exemplary models for others. We now need now to ensure that we support those effective efforts at municipal, provincial, state and federal levels.

A climate-change icon: Rebmann Glacier, a remnant of Mt Kilimanjaro’s ice sheet, Tanzania

NWNL  How is Canada doing in a global sense regarding climate change adjustments?

ROBERT SANDFORD  We are much behind Europe and other parts of the world, both in identifying this genuine and authentic threat and acting on it. Europe is currently succeeding in meeting their Kyoto targets without wholesale economic impacts that some fear would destroy Canadian and US economies. We must get past these myths and get at the heart of what we have to do. We can make a better society by responding positively and effectively to climate change impacts.

SHAWN MARSHALL  There’s great urgency for action from the perspective of climate change impacts on our resources and its timeliness – at least in Canada. People really want to do something and are willing to change the way they live now. But they need to be supported directly and in a coherent way.

NWNL  What are the strongest factors that get people to a point of urgency and action?

SHAWN MARSHALL  I feel like we’ve turned a corner on awareness in the last year or two. Partly because of Katrina, people are realizing, “Oh, we’re really vulnerable to environmental impacts. It’s not the way it used to be here.” People like my parents get that.

ROBERT SANDFORD  US Former Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy, Joseph Romm indicated in Hell and High Waterthat Katrina was a very important lesson. It may not have been a fully climate change-related catastrophe, but it had just the types of climate change impacts you can expect in the future. There are 19 American cities vulnerable to massive storm events, as New Orleans was. Their causes may not be exacerbated by levees; but still huge damage can occur.

Gradually, the American economy will be unable to pay for restoration. It didn’t in New Orleans. So, you can see that a nation could become bankrupt as a result of not paying close attention to what these impacts might be and ignoring them until it’s too late.

NWNL Bob, thank you very much for joining us today. You have clearly explained climate change’s impacts on our glaciers and thus on our downstream water sources.  We’re sorry you must leave, but we will turn to Shawn to explain how scientists are studying and monitoring our glaciers to determine the extent of climate change impacts.

Cracks at the toe of Athabasca Glacier show active melting within the Columbia Ice Field

Measuring Glacial Reservoirs of Water

NWNL  Shawn, what do your models show for past, present and future glacial water supplies? 

SHAWN MARSHALL  Each glaciated basin needs to be studied specifically, because each glacier has its own percentage of cover, elevation range and temperature/precipitation regimes. That said, almost any mountain range in the world has glaciers wasting away. In most case we’ve passed the peak water runoff from glacial melt, to put it terms of “peak oil.”

East of the Continental Divide, peak water seems to have occurred in the late ‘80s and is now in decline. Most mountain ranges still get a lot of runoff coming from glaciers. The amount of water that runs off a glacier vs. a chunk of landscape that’s not glaciated in the current climate conditions is something like 8 to 1. (So, multiply that by the glacial area for a sense of the runoff we’re getting from glaciers. We’ve taken out about half of the area of glaciers since the Ice Age, so that’s why we passed the peak water.) We still get lots of water from the ice that remains, but it’s significantly diminishing. We’re just burning through that reservoir we’ve depended on.

The Columbia is in better shape than these eastern slopes, but it’s not so different. South of the US , as you study its western Cascades vs. its inherently drier eastern slopes. In Montana, water scarcity is more directly an issue. Through in the Cascades and western Washington, there’s still lots of snow and rain, so the glaciers there will last a bit longer. That water supply is still being recharged.

NWNL What specific issues are you studying as you study shrinking glaciers?

SHAWN MARSHALL  In the BC Rockies,  we’re working on 2-3 different glaciers to understand the model, changes in these glacial systems and what’s controlling those. We’re asking whether the issue is about less snow, warmer summers or the amount of summer snowfall. Our summer snowfall blankets our glaciers, totally shutting down the melt for a few days. If you reduce the current normal of five summer snowfall events to one or two per year, then there is extra meter of melt over the whole glacier. That’s a huge factor, so we’re seeking the baseline that controls a year’s melt amounts for these glaciers in a given year.

We’re also asking what it would take for these glaciers to actually grow. Maybe two years in the last 40 years have been healthy, happy years for the glaciers as they grew a bit.  What weather patterns gave rise to that growth? What happens in an El Nino year versus a La Nina year?

Some people disagree; but in my view, it’s hard to use climate models to usefully assess what’s happening in the mountains. They just don’t resolve weather systems that play through the mountains. We need to assess when snow comes, how warm the summers are, and persistent blocking periods of high-pressure systems over the southwestern U.S. every summer, especially in drought years. Once we have more answers, we can speak usefully about how glaciers and mountain snowpack will change.

Icicles in Shoshone National Park and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, spanning the Montana-Wyoming border

NWNL  What is the  next important piece of the research you need to understand these systems and assess solutions?

SHAWN MARSHALL  That’s a mix in Canada. It’s embarrassing to say, but we have about 10,000 glaciers in western Canada and I’ve only really worked in about 5 of them. You can see many from space, but we don’t know how much ice is there. We can say most of the glaciers in the Rockies work roughly the same way, and probably so do the Columbia Ice Fields, because they share the same sort of climate regime. But the situation is probably different as you go into Montana’s Columbia Basin and Rogers Pass area.

I think we’ll make some progress if we can identify a handful of climate regimes on a macro scale for glacial weather and climate; break that down into seven systems; and then study how they react to different climate circulation patterns and climate change scenarios. We could do that with the Alps, Patagonia, Alaska, the eastern Canadian Arctic, Greenland… In these different places everything happens a little bit differently. A single model is not good enough to really do the climate impacts.

Technology Could Help

NWNL  What is needed to create enough different models for this approach to be effective?

SHAWN MARSHALL  We need process, studies and monitoring funded in a few different areas rather than putting all our horses into one system. Some data comes from satellites, but they are not yet sufficient; so we need other ways to remotely extract this information. We’re not going to get to all 10,000 glaciers, but maybe we’ll get to 20 instead of 5. We need to learn more about systems where no one has ever set foot. We don’t have much baseline monitoring at high altitudes in the Alpine. The US is better off than Canada, but we all look to Switzerland where they know better than we how their mountains work.

We don’t so well in North America. For instance, our network of national weather stations are all in valley bottoms. Yes, there’s a weather station down here in Banff, but nothing at the top of these mountains. We don’t even know if there’s more or less snow up in the high mountains —  but we know there’s a lot less snow in the valley bottoms in recent years. People speculate that applies above a certain altitude, but we don’t know where that snowpack may be healthy, if it’s sustainable, or if it will survive the 21st century. We in Canada just don’t have that long-term reference data.

I have a personal view, which differs from what climate models say. Climate models say the high-altitude snowpack should be fine through the next 50 years. Our observations differ from that, even just in the fact that those glaciers are so far out of equilibrium. Implications are that here our highest altitudes are not getting as much snow as indicated in historical data.

NWNL  Does Switzerland have monitoring stations on top of the Alps? Are there any here in North America.

SHAWN MARSHALL  There a few academic research studies out of Colorado University in Boulder that have been using a couple high places there for 30 years. The National Weather Service’s basic monitoring service tends to come out of airport weather stations. But to do a good job, weather stations need to be at a base where there are people. We’re a bit tied to monitoring where people are stationed, and that’s hard to do in the mountains.

A maintenance access road at the Athabasca Glacier for scientists and tourists, Jasper, Alberta

NWNL  How does Switzerland do its monitoring?

SHAWN MARSHALL  Switzerland is just committed to development in the Alps. They have people who live very high and trams go up every mountain. The Alpine is much more accessible there. It’s just tougher to do here. It’s not like we know nothing here, but we don’t have the same degree at all of benchmarking of what’s normal up there.

NWNL  Is that because it’s not feasible economically?

SHAWN MARSHALL  Canada’s national parks are moving toward this issue. It’s not yet a done deal, but there’s a current initiative for an Ecological Integrity Long-term Monitoring Program to find ecological indices. They see that no one’s looking at Canada’s mountain weather and snowpack. Many high mountains here happen to be national parks, so this is an opportunity for them to study their ecological and wildlife issues via long-term monitoring at the higher altitudes. I hope it happens. If they’d started it when we founded our National Park System in 1905, we’d know so much more about what’s happening right now.

NWNL  You said one short-term goal would be to get and use this additional data to study seven different types of locations. But without funding or access to that data, is that the most critical current goal or does your primary goal become something else?

SHAWN MARSHALL  Interesting question. The current reality is that we have finite resources and finite people working on the problem. There are far more glaciers than glaciologists. The status quo is that we can only try to understand a couple locations really well and then extrapolate from those sites, hoping we get the story roughly right. It’s better than doing nothing.

New papers come out every three years with inventories of how much glaciers have changed — a best guess compared to the best guess from last year, completely outside the best guess from ten years ago, which we thought then was right, but we were way off! Scientists should do better, but they’re nervous about losing credibility.

The other part of the question may depend on what issues we want to address: sea level rise, regional climate change, water resources for hydro, or ecology in Alpine areas. They each have different research agendas.  To study Columbia runoff in dry season in August, you focus on certain aspects of other glaciers. To study Alpine ecology, you don’t worry as much about seasonal snowpack.

Perito Moreno Glacier in the Andes Mountains, Argentina

Enhancing Awareness

NWNL  What is the best way to communicate research and science to generate social changes?

SHAWN MARSHALL  I see it on two levels. On a grass-roots community level, people get it and drive these issues with constant public talks. People are now really interested in what’s happening to the snow, the glaciers, the climate. They want to understand. They care about this at a high level, at a UN level.

The process of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), with 195 member countries and unprecedented thousands of contributing, volunteer scientists, is a massive effort to produce reports for policymakers. By mobilizing science, they’re doing the best thing possible. The IPCC has influenced the European Union, and people are taking the 1997 Kyoto Protocol seriously. These efforts, at the highest international scientific levels, to give policy-relevant information seem to work. I don’t know how they could do better.

It’s not that conferences and communicating aren’t helpful. But there’s a huge, important middle area where people make decisions that make a difference, and we’re not getting information to them very well. People like Bob Sandford has made it his mission to somehow bring science to the table of local parliaments. The same with your No Water No Life effort. I think scientists themselves are intrinsically good at this. I can explain something to Bob, and then he’ll talk to people about it and say it much more eloquently.

Bob doesn’t have any vested interests — similar to Al Gore somehow. People actually believe Al Gore when he tells the climate change story. Two thousand scientists know and understand climate change better than Al Gore does; but somehow it’s more credible when Al delivers it. He’s certainly made an impact here. Many, many people have seen his documentary and are asking, “Is that right?  Is that really true? Are his facts straight?”

NWNL  And what’s your answer?

SHAWN MARSHALL  Yes, they are. I looked kind of skeptically at Al Gore’s work, looking carefully for something one could attack. His facts are straight. He understands it. He really gets it. He may be a bit pessimistic, maybe deliberately so. Nothing’s exaggerated or incorrect. It’s a classical environmental alarmist piece. The scenarios mentioned are certainty in the cards…, maybe not this century, maybe in 500 years. In many cases, he picked something plausible, currently underway but that might be reversed before actually we get there. Gore deliberately chose dramatic, pessimistic examples to try to reach people. It’s not that he said anything inaccurate for our lifetime.

NWNL  Do you feel any optimism?

SHAWN MARSHALL  About some things, yes. I’m afraid it will take a train wreck before we get there. But as soon as we get serious and face the challenge of environmental refugees which will occur this century, then people will start to take it seriously. Some things like flooding of all of Florida could be business as usual for a couple of hundred years. I think we’ll be doing things differently before then, but is that optimistic?

Athabasca Glacier, Canada

NWNL  I’ve drawn a triangle between science and scientists like yourself, the grass roots level, and politicians. Using this three-legged stool, what do you see as its weakest leg?

SHAWN MARSHALL  The weakest leg is the political wheel, including its lobbyists, for obvious reasons.

NWNL  Where would you recommend to NWNL to hone our focus, photographs or messaging?  How can we best underline or help spread your message? 

SHAWN MARSHALL  The main thing is to say this is not an abstract future. It’s already underway. That’s obvious to anyone who spends time staring at weather or climate data — or to those who spend time hiking in the wilderness, climbing mountains, or crossing glaciers.

We don’t need to wait and see. All signs are there. That’s what’s mobilizes public opinion now and creates cover stories in Vanity Fair. We’re already into this change. There’s something going on. We’re shifting into some new reality.

NWNL  How can people at the grass roots level help bring a paradigm shift?

SHAWN MARSHALL  It’s hard because people don’t like to give up their lifestyles. But there are many simple changes. Remember, 30 years ago we changed to driving with seatbelts and stopped throwing garbage out the car window? That’s incredible when you think of it. There’ll be similar things 30 years from now – like the vehicles we drive. It’s really not a lifestyle hit to buy a vehicle that’s three times more efficient! A lot of people are already doing that.

But I don’t know how we bridge your diagram and bring change to the political decision-makers.

Alberta, Canada

Posted by NWNL on March 18, 2021.
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.

Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.

All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.