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Canada's glacial ice draws millions of tourists and provides drinking water to two countries, but this important economic resource could disappear by the end of the 21st century, a new study finds.
For the study, scientists devised a new computer model that predicts how glaciers will respond to future climate change. The results were dismal.
In the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia, 90 percent of the spectacular mountain glaciers may vanish by 2100, according to research published Monday (April 6) in the journal Nature Geoscience. This region includes the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park, visited by more than 1 million people every year. Rocky Mountain glaciers also feed meltwater to the Columbia River, which flows through Canada and the United States. [Images of Melt: Earth's Vanishing Ice]
"Over the next century, there is going to be a huge loss," said lead study author Garry Clarke, a glaciologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "The glaciers are telling us that we're changing the climate."
Glaciers in the wetter, taller mountains of northwestern British Columbia will fare better, the study reported. These glaciers can shrink back into the cold, high-elevation mountains and will keep about 50 percent of their volume by the century's end. "The mountain peaks are essentially refugia for glaciers," Clarke told Live Science.
The study improves upon previous predictions of glacial ice loss, Andreas Vieli, a climate scientist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, wrote in a commentary accompanying the study, also published Monday in Nature Geoscience. Until now, glacier loss estimates either intensely measured one or two glaciers, or broadly surveyed entire mountain ranges and continents.
Clarke and his colleagues created a computer model that simulates how each individual glacier is likely to flow and change shape as it melts. The model combines climate scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body that assesses climate change science, with digital topography of glacial valleys and ice physics.
The method can be applied to glaciers anywhere in the world, Clarke said. "I think the big, truly serious problems are in Central Asia and South America, and we'd very much like to transfer this methodology to other [regions]," he said.