This article is over 5 years old and may contain outdated information.


Throwback Thursday: Glacier retreat in the Canadian Cordillera

Canada's glaciers have been consistently retreating since 1887, and if current climate trends are any indication, they're not going to stop retreating any time soon.

  • Jan 20, 2016
  • 400 words
  • 2 minutes
Glaciers in the White Mantle Range of the Coast Mountains, near Knight Inlet, British Columbia. Expand Image

Canada’s glaciers have been consistently retreating since 1887. And considering the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and NASA recently announced that 2015 was the hottest year on record, the recession is likely to continue.

In November 1948, the Canadian Geographical Journal published an illustrated piece about the federal government’s annual glacier survey, which at that time was in its infancy.

“Although glacier observation in Canada under governmental direction began only in 1945, sporadic observations and studies of the variations of a number of glaciers in the mountainous regions of British Columbia and Alberta have been made by members of the Alpine Club of Canada over a long period of years, the first on record being for the year 1887…. These observations reveal a general and practically continuous recession since 1887.”

The study — and it does read more like a scientific study than a story — looks at various representative glaciers in the Canadian Cordillera (read it here). Although the prose is somewhat dry, it was accompanied by intriguing glacier photos, a few of which are shown below with their original captions. If replicated today, these photos would no doubt show much less ice.

Expand Image
Confederation Glacier in the Coast Mountains. In the background is Mount Waddington (13,260 feet), the highest peak in British Columbia. (Photo: R.C.A.F./Can Geo Archives)
Expand Image
Saskatchewan Glacier. This glacier has its source in the Columbia Icefield. The surface of the glacier is very rough, as may be seen in the photograph of the tongue, with Mount Saskatchewan in the background. Surveys to record the recession of Saskatchewan Glacier began in 1945, no previous observations being known. During the two-year period 1945-7 the total recession was about 250 feet. (Photo: R.C.A.F./Can Geo Archives)
Expand Image
Athabasca Glacier. The Columbia Icefield is also the source of the Athabasca Glacier, which is considered excellent for observation purposes, being fairly smooth and having a well defined toe. Prior to surveys covering both recession and flow which began in 1945, no records are known. The amount of recession for the two years was very irregular at different points of measurement, varying from 50 to 220 feet. The rate of ice flow averaged 63.5 feet per year for the two years. This photograph shows the wide forefoot of the glacier viewed from Wilcox Mountain. (Photo: R.C.A.F./Can Geo Archives)

Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content


Frozen in time: The remarkable legacy of Mary Vaux, amateur glaciologist

Mary Vaux’s groundbreaking 19th-century study of B.C.’s Illecillewaet Glacier created an invaluable record of the glacier’s recession

  • 4293 words
  • 18 minutes


Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada’s Glaciers

Author Lynn Martel offers an examination of Canadian glaciers to understand their futures and the secrets they hold

  • 1054 words
  • 5 minutes


Sleeping giant: Inside the Mount Meager volcano

Something melted a hole through the glacier above the Mount Meager Volcano in 2016. A perilous expedition ventured deep inside the cave to find out, did the volcano wake up? 

  • 3894 words
  • 16 minutes


Endangered spaces and species in Canada’s mountains

Glaciers play a vital role in sculpting the landscape, and their retreat can bring about drastic consequences

  • 1218 words
  • 5 minutes