February 16, 2012 Features & Images » Feature Story

Glaciers BC Hydro's Melting 'Batteries' 

Scientists are trying to figure out how rising temps will change the alpine run-off that helps power the province.

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It's only been two years since Dan Moore last visited Bridge Glacier, but things have changed.

As our float plane makes a pass over Bridge Lake — a pool of meltwater that has formed just below the glacier — Moore points out the window at a dock where he had hoped to unload our gear. It's half-submerged, and nowhere near the rocky shore. It didn't last long before it was taken out, likely by one of the many whale-sized chunks of floating ice that crowd this expanding body of water.

That's another thing that's changed. Satellite photos show the icebergs multiplying from year to year as the glacier shrinks and the lake becomes larger. Bridge Glacier is losing 200 metres of ice per year on average, making it one of the fastest-shrinking glaciers in the province.

Our pilot finds a clear section to land and gets us as close to the edge as possible. Lucy, one of Moore's students, makes a leap from the plane's right float and scrambles up the steep edge, anchoring us in place with a rope while we unload gear as quickly as possible.

As soon as we're done the plane is off again, and it's just us and the glacier; a large impressive, icy monolith looming in the distance. It suddenly feels very lonely up here, 1,394 metres above sea level in the Coast Mountains north of Pemberton.

Moore, on the other hand, is visibly excited to be here. The UBC geography professor specializes in hydrology — the movement, distribution and quality of water — but one of his major research interests is how melting glaciers will impact streamflows in the regions they inhabit. Which is good, because Moore happens to love glaciers.

Being near them, he says, "feels like being out in the real mountains."

Since 2005, he and members of his research team have been monitoring Bridge Glacier as part of their work with the Canada Cryospheric Network, a consortium of university, private and government scientists who are studying links between glacier change and climate change.

Scientists like Moore know that glaciers are melting as the climate warms; that much is clear. They also know that climate change will change the movement and distribution of water in glacial-fed areas, which is most of British Columbia. Because of this, glaciers play a significant role in keeping the province's hydroelectric system running.

The Bridge Glacier, in particular, is like a very big battery for an important hydro system.

From the mouth of the glacier, the Bridge River flows southeast through the Coast Mountains for about 100 kilometres, before hitting the first of three dams that make up the Bridge River hydroelectric complex. These dams, which control the water inflow to four generating stations, produce 492 megawatts per year (or six to eight per cent of the province's electrical supply), making the Bridge complex the third-largest power generator in the province.

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