Painting rock while glaciers melt 

A look at efforts to save glaciers in Whistler, around the world

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVE STEERS - shrinking giants Place Glacier near Pemberton is just one of the many receding glaciers in North America.
  • Photo BY dave steers
  • shrinking giants Place Glacier near Pemberton is just one of the many receding glaciers in North America.

The Coast Mountains around Whistler are blanketed in stunning glaciers that 10,000 years ago, at their peak in the last Ice Age, were a kilometre high and slowly winding through the valleys, carving out the slopes that visitors and residents enjoy today.

As silent weather forecasters, glaciers mirror the effects of climate change around the world. They are in retreat, possibly to a degree that has never been experienced before, and this melt off is having environmental and economic impacts that will be felt deeply at resorts and in mountain communities worldwide, including Whistler.

These concerns have led to some seemingly bizarre and desperate attempts at halting and even reversing the trend.

In 2009, Peruvian inventor Eduardo Gold and his non-governmental organization Glaciares Peru received a grant of $200,000 from the World Bank to pursue his dream of recreating the conditions that would allow a new glacier to form near the town of Licapa.

The Chalon Sombrero glacier in the high Andes dried up decades ago, and the town's population has shrunk from thousands to about 900. Thanks to winning the grant — part of the World Bank's competition "100 Ideas to Save the Planet" — Gold said he could whitewash almost 70 hectares (170 acres) on three mountain peaks. Using a concoction of lime, water, sand and soap, local workers trekked up to 4,000 metres and painted the dark rocks found there. The project gained considerable international media coverage.

The project's spokesman, Otto Gold, told CNN in 2010 that Glaciares Peru hoped "to lower the temperature of the rocks from 20 degree Celsius to five," create thousands of jobs if successful and export the concept around the world.

Though not a scientist, Gold's project was described by the World Bank as worth investing in because it "will stop glacial melting and help restore glacial mass — a vital form of freshwater storage in the high Andes and the world."

According to its website, the World Bank saw it as a chance to "decrease microclimate temperatures enough to stop glacial melting and may even allow for the regrowth of glacial mass. The project also will attempt to have the change in albedo (reflectivity) over a 'unit' surface area equated with carbon credits in order to generate a sustainable source of revenue generation for future project applications."

A new source of carbon credits, then, with financial outlay made by carbon-emitting countries that want to buy the credits and creating potential income for the countries that could use Gold's method successfully. Much was at stake. Much remains at stake.

Dr. Gwenn Flowers, an associate professor in Earth Sciences at Simon Fraser University, has been working to establish a research group dedicated to the geophysical study of glaciers, their dynamics and their importance in the global climate system, since 2005.

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