Tracking Melt on Northwest Glaciers with Ben Pelto

January 8, 2019

CBC has a new piece following the work of glaciologist Ben Pelto in the mountains of British Columbia.
I was fortunate to be with Ben and his Dad, Mauri Pelto, in the Cascades back in 2012. Now Ben is a PhD student and continuing his Father’s work of long term glacial monitoring.


When Ben Pelto does his field research on glaciers in the Rocky and Columbia mountains there are distinct perks.

The views aren’t bad, if you like the breathtaking kind.

He also gets to drink water that comes straight from the source.

However, on recent visits the water has tasted less like pristine glacier and more like soot.

“When it’s fire season you can taste the smoke in the water. It’s a bit of a bummer, because you look forward to this crisp cold water, but it has this funky taste,” said Pelto, who has been monitoring glaciers, like the Conrad, south of Golden, B.C., for the last five years, as part of a research project at the University of Northern British Columbia.

It’s not the taste that concerns Pelto so much as the darkening of the ice, especially last summer when wildfires raged across British Columbia.

“The surface of the glaciers was the dirtiest I’ve ever seen it,” Pelto said.

The darker the ice the more sunlight it absorbs.

Scientists are concerned forest fire fallout will speed up the melt of glaciers already in retreat.


Smoke in the Northern Cascades, 2018. Picture by Mauri Pelto

On the Alberta side of the Rockies, hydrologist John Pomeroy studies the Peyto and Athabasca glaciers through the Centre of Hydrology and Coldwater Laboratory in Canmore.

He’s also been finding deposits of ash, likely blown in from wildfires in B.C.

“We’re fairly certain it’s coming from these fires. You can follow the smoke plumes from various atmospheric models and see them affecting it,” Pomeroy said.

Typically in the summer, when the snow has melted away, glaciers absorb roughly 60 per cent of the sun’s rays, Pomeroy said.

“The last two summers have been a shock. Last summer we saw a 70 per cent of the solar radiation was being absorbed on the glacier surfaces. This summer we’ve seen 80 per cent absorbed,” he said.

He worries that’s contributing to a faster melt rate, but he says it’s tricky to measure the effect of wildfires on glaciers.

One complicating factor is all the smoke.

“There were days last August when the ice was almost certainly melting more slowly than it would have without the fires because of the smoky sky, but the ash will last much longer than the smoke has. And so we’re putting this into our models now to estimate the net effect on this.”

For University of Calgary glaciologist Shawn Marshall, understanding that net effect is crucial.

Since 2000, he’s been studying the impact of climate change on the shrinking Haig glacier in the Rockies.

“If you’re getting a bad fire season, it’s already hot and dry. It’s already a tough summer for the glaciers. So, if we’re actually getting these darker glaciers, it’s just like a kick when you’re down a little bit — it’s even worse.”

4 Responses to “Tracking Melt on Northwest Glaciers with Ben Pelto”

  1. Jean Swan Says:

    There has got to be a way to force the Corporate Media to report and make sure citizens completely understand what is going on

    • Sir Charles Says:

      The only way I see is writing them mails, letters, demand them to make this climate crisis a priority issue.


      The next decade is DECISIVE whether we can keep global temperatures anything near below 2°C warming.

      => That’s how fast the carbon clock is ticking

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        Psychologically, I think the video interviews of “manly men” out in the field are much more likely to have an affect on a typical Trumpista denier than, say, a scientist sitting before Congress or in front of a computer screen or bookcase. The same with military men talking about both the threat potential of AGW on international instability or the sight of combat forces reducing their fuel and battery usage using solar power on FOBs.

        Hell, just stick American flag patches on an armed-for-bear, scraggly-faced, camo-clad tree hugger. At the minimum, co-opting their imagery would drive them nuts. 😉

  2. redskylite Says:

    Thanks for sharing an interesting interview from CBC with strong advice from the young glaciologist, who has observed the ravishes of change, more than most.

    More on glaciers from Dahr Jamail

    When the ice melts: the catastrophe of vanishing glaciers. An edited extract from The End of Ice by Dahr Jamail, which will be published by The New Press on 15 January

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