Friday, March 22, 2013

Should we replace fast melting glaciers with vast, human-made reservoirs?

Global warming is melting the great Rocky Mountain glaciers at an astonishing rate - these massive fresh water reservoirs feed some of the largest rivers in the world, the Mackenzie, the Athabaska, the North and South Saskatchewan, the Columbia - and these great rivers support the bread basket of the this country - and the world. We need to act now to guarantee these rivers continue to flow beyond the next generation.

These great glaciers may melt away to nothing in our children's life time - but using technology we have now - we can guarantee that water and food - in essence civilization - will continue - despite the end of the natural fresh water sequestering by glaciers that civilization has relied on hitherto. 

Aside from feeding us and the world (via the Great Canadian Plains (that produce 26 million metric tons of wheat each year), these great reservoirs will also produce massive amounts of hydroelectricity.

This could be - should be - an international project - like the the international space station. China for example has much experience on this kind of scale - lessons learned from the massive Three Gorges Dam project.

These new dams would need to be the largest such structures in the world. In order that they serve our needs over the next epoch - these bodies of water must be large enough to create micro-climates - weather patterns that will produce rain water at a rate that will sustain current flow rates.

The Map below shows the Fraser River watershed, while not a candidate area that is likely to garner much political support - because it is quite populated and we have invested vast sums in dam construction there already - but a good area map that can illustrate the scale of project I'm thinking is necessary.

Fraser River Drainage Basin
Fraser River watershed (626 × 480 pixels) - via

If the people of this period of over-consumption-economics wish to leave a legacy that is not the end of civilization - this is one highly effective, and sustainable way they can do that. This great project will define the Canadian Identity and propel us into a leadership position in the sustainable energy economy future.

Scientists predict the great rocky mountain glaciers - like the Columbia Ice Field - filled by 6 different glaciers, and which is the source of the North Saskatchewan River, the Athabaska River, the Fraser River, and the Columbia River - will be completely melted in 300 years1.

But that estimate may be too optimistic - new evidence is beginning to reveal that the glaciers have already reached a 'tipping point' - their rate of melting is now accelerating beyond the rate predicted by the climate modeling alone.2

Hydrological functioning with-in the glacial systems, that we didn't understand until very recently is showing that run off from yearly snow melt is adding to a bottom, slippery layer that is a characteristic of all glaciers, which is causing these mountains of ice to slide down from their high-mountain perches more quickly than in cooler periods of history - resulting in more and more ice moving down to lower - and warmer - elevations faster.

Add to that unforeseen effect, the build-up of dirt on the surface of the glacier - deposits of fine dust particles (the core of every snow flake) - is building up on the surface of glaciers that melt all their winter snow every summer - are now causing light energy from the sun to heat the glaciers rather than reflecting off them.

Add to that - mean temperatures are rising faster near the poles (now +2 degrees in the last century), faster than in more temperate regions (+1). Apparently, the Poles are acting to mediate the mean temperature of the planet - and therefore the poles are warming more quickly than anywhere else. Greenland for example is melting off much much faster than the climate models predicted.

Therefore I submit, we must begin to plan to build large scale damming systems to capture massive amounts of glacial run-off water, starting with the worlds most polar located glaciers, and do so in time so that we can capture a large portion of the last of 50,000 years of sequestered fresh water - which scientists predict will happen to the northern most ice with-in the next 50 - 100 years.

There is just enough time to do it if we start now: twenty years of research, planning, public consultation, design; forty years to build - a massive global construction project in the inhospitable, undeveloped far north; and twenty years to fill the reservoirs - what will be in fact - new fresh water inland seas, on the scale of the volume of all the Great Lakes.

I'm not talking about filling valleys here and there as we have done extensively in the Kooteney - I'm talking about filling whole water sheds - a project that compares to the scale of the Panama Canal's construction - times a thousand.


The Rocky Mountains are made up of two distinct mountain ranges, separated by what geologists call The Rocky Mountain Trench. There are three such trenches, one mainly in the USA and two in Canada. The Fraser River Drainage Basin represents the southern most Canadian Rocky Mountain Trench and includes the source glaciers for the Athabaska, Columbia, Fraser and Saskatchewan rivers.

To the north of the Fraser River Drainage Basin, is - for an example of the scale I'm thinking about - an area drained by the Liard River. The Liard River Basin, or a similar, Northern Rocky Mountain Trench feature, perhaps something to the south of that, or the entire Tintina Trench - but I'd settle for the Liard Plateau.
(But it is such a unique natural treasure we are just beginning to explore it is an unlikely political candidate as well.)

Tintina Trench - Canadian Geographic Magazine

Liard River Basin Map - Wikimedia

I'm thinking we should flood a portion of Northern Rocky Mountain Trench in order to create an inland freshwater sea - on the order of magnitude of five times the volume of Great Bear Lake.

Indigenous Nations and Settlers in the area would have to change their economies - from what I assume is fishing, trapping, hunting, tourism, logging, mining - to mainly fishing and tourism. But they should keep in mind that as the glaciers go, so goes the rivers, and the habitat of all on Turtle Island who rely on them.

The people who live in the prospective areas chosen should be the starting point in the planning and research about this - and objectively they should embrace the project - as their economies are going to have to change anyway.

For Indigenous Nations to get out from under the heel of the imperial settler culture, they must embrace the future - there is no going back. In order for their culture to  flousih and grow they must help choose the best, most sustainable path forward. Stop the toxic oil pipelines cutting across their lands for example - and embrace a version of this proposal.

Global warming is going to increase the amount of water in the air generally, this will cause and increase in rain fall (where that rainfall will be, is difficult to predict, but mountain caused precipitation functioning is fairly well understood at this time).

These great glaciers may melt away to nothing sooner than we think - but using technology we have now, and by acting now - we can guarantee that water and food - in essence civilization - will continue - despite the end of the natural fresh water sequestering by glaciers.



Tintina Trench - via Canadian Geographic Magazine - July/August 2007 -

Liard River Basin Map (448 × 500 pixels) - via


1 - "The Big Melt Down: Columbia Icefield, Canada" -

2 - National Geographic -TVO | National Geographic: Extreme Ice - showing again March 24, 2012 on TVO (part of Water Week), watch TVO Trailer (1:12) -
[EDIT: that was a post by TVO from last year, top listed in search yesterday]

National Geographic's "Extreme Ice" is up right now! (despite National Geographic's misguided copyright fetish)

Via Craig Keithley's Youtube Channel -
[Updated March 22, 2018]


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