Far from drowning in it

By Christian Louden

Water in Alberta will be a major concern in the coming years if climate change current environmental practices continue.

An International Association of Students in Economics and Business Management seminar held in the University of Calgary’s That Empty Space Thu., Mar. 6 featured several presentations about the effect of human interactions with the environment and what it means for future water supplies.

United Nations International Decade for Action, Water for Life initiative chairman Robert Sandford served as the emcee and keynote speaker for the event and warned of the dangers of feeling too comfortable with the amount of water available in Canada.

“We have to be very careful with estimates of how much water we have,” said Sandford. “We widely tell the rest of the world that we have 20 per cent of the world’s water, when we only have five per cent of the world’s renewable sources of water. A one- or two-degree Celsius temperature increase will reduce the amount of standing water that exists widely because of evaporation.”

Sandford also emphasized the need to plan for droughts, and noted he believes it is important to break the link between economic growth and water use.

University of Calgary PhD students Tara Mortan and Kate Sinclair emphasized the importance of glacial melt in Alberta’s water system and how increasingly warm temperatures are threatening it.

“Eleven of the last 12 years rank among the 12 warmest years for temperatures observed since the industrial revolution,” said Mortan, pointing out that glaciers will continue to recede if temperatures do not lower, causing a yearly reduction of available water in Alberta.

“Glacial melt makes a particularly important influence in late summer to river flow,” Mortan said. “As much as 60 per cent of our river flow in late August to September comes from glacial melt. During these really dry times of year, our rivers really require glacial melt to maintain healthy levels of river flow.”

Glaciers form as a result of accumulated snow pack during the winter months that flows downward into the ablation, or melt zone, where it melts and becomes part of the river system during the warmer months of the year, Mortan explained. As yearly temperatures increase, however, the ablation zone recedes further into the accumulation zone, reducing the amount of snow pack accumulation.

“There’s a really fine balance between the two [zones] and what happens is, if we change global temperatures, or if we warm the Earth’s atmosphere, we end up increasing the size of this lower ablation zone,” said Mortan. “We’re actually moving this area of the glacier higher, creating more area where more melt actually persists, and we end up with glacier recession.”

Glacial melt is increasingly becoming a threat to water supplies in parts of the world with an already lower access to water. The famed snows of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania have melted more than 80 per cent since 1912, Sinclair explained.

“It’s the mountain ranges in the mid latitudes and subtropics that respond most rapidly to climate change and will have the biggest impact on water resources,” she said.

U of C professor Dr. Cathy Ryan emphasized that the danger to Calgary’s water supply comes from contamination of the city’s alluvial aquifer. The aquifer is an area of Calgary in which the ground is so permeable, fertilizers and other chemicals dumped on lawns will soak through the ground and find their way back into the river connected ground water. It contaminates drinking water and fertilizers encourage growth of aquatic plants-which take oxygen out of water-killing fish.

“There are 28 square kilometres of land here on the river connected alluvial aquifer that the [Municipal District] of Rockyview should consider not developing in any land use that will affect the ground water quality underneath,” said Ryan, who had recently given a similar lecture on the importance of protecting land use to Rockyview representatives. She also noted that water in quality in Calgary is significantly lower than it is upstream because of land use on the alluvial aquifer.

U of C professor Dr. Maria Strack discussed the potential danger of carbon dioxide emissions coming from peatland excavation, particularly in northern Alberta as a result of oilsands development. Strack pointed to peatlands as a major store of carbon and noted that if mined from the ground-to make way for oilsand development-the decaying peat will release carbon into the atmosphere.

“We really want to maintain the carbon stock that is held in that soil in order to prevent a positive feedback to climate change,” Strack said.


Leave a comment