While camped at the Lake Louise Tent Campground, Alberta, Canada described in my last post, we had the pleasure of touring the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier. Located about an hour north of Lake Louise, the glacier and icefield are located in Jasper National Park.
The tours are accomplished via large vehicles with massive tires specially designed to ascend and descend icy slopes at precarious angles with no trouble. Called Snocoaches, these vehicles are created specially for this purpose and are found no where else on earth. They ferry visitors out onto the glacier so that we were able to get out and actually walk around on the icy surface.
The Athabasca Glacier covers an area of 6 kilometers, being 3.75 miles long with a depth of between 270 and 1000 feet depending on the location. The glacier is fed by the Columbia Icefield, the largest body of ice in the Rocky Mountains, with its greatest depth estimated to be 1200 feet. The icefield drains into the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.
An icefield is formed when snow that falls on mountain peaks and plateaus accumulates year after year with little summer melt. When the snow reaches a depth of approximately 100 feet, the bottom layers become pressurized into ice. As more snow falls on top and the depth of the ice increases, it eventually overflows into the surrounding valleys and begins to flow downhill and a baby glacier is born.
This glacier and icefield once formed part of an enormous ice sheet that carved the landforms seen today throughout the Rocky Mountains. Its journey lasted many centuries. The knowledgeable tour guides on the snocoach informed us that most of the glaciers in North America are melting and decreasing in size as the summer’s melt each year is greater than the winter’s accumulation. They showed some amazing photos of the remarkable decline of the size of the Athabasca Glacier, just in the past 30-40 years. Apparently, our use of fossil fuels, destruction of our forests and industrial gases such as chlorofluorocarbons are causing a global warning trend called the Greenhouse Effect which is hastening the rates of glacial retreat and leading to the icefield’s loss of volume.
The guide also informed us that the water, now melting from ice that fell as snow up to 150 years ago, is the purest natural water known, while more recent snowfall carries an increasing amount of pollutants. We were able to drink the glacial water that we scooped up in cups while standing on the icefield and it was icy cold and delicious. The kids scooped a bit extra to take home for friends, but dad accidentally threw it out, thinking it was garbage. Oh well, guess we’ll have to head back there before the glacier disappears entirely.
Read more about Alberta campgrounds and things to do in Alberta.