Viola Cohen



A photo of Mount Robson with yellow flowers in the foreground

WHILE THE SEARING HOT ASPHALT, DRIPPING AIR CONDITIONERS and withering plants might have caused many in Western Canada to look longingly at the region’s cool mountains during the historic heat dome in June 2021, even those seemingly frosty summits were starting to sweat.

It’s common to think of mountains as stationary features in a landscape, but as Dr. Lael Parrott points out, in their own longer time scales mountains are not constant, but constantly changing. With extreme events like 2021’s heat dome and the continuing effects of climate change, that change is becoming more visible.

Dr. Parrott is a Professor of Sustainability at UBC Okanagan and co-editor of the Alpine Club of Canada’s State of the Mountains report, an annual publication dedicated to drawing attention to changes in Canada’s alpine environments. Climate change has been a strong recurrent theme and this year’s report is no different, with the high temperatures from 2021’s heat dome causing far-reaching effects.

One of the most dramatic impacts was the flooding of the world-renowned Berg Lake Trail in Mount Robson Provincial Park. With the uninterrupted days of record-breaking heat in June, snow melt from the Robson Glacier flooded the Robson River’s banks, not only in the usual places but also in areas where the river hadn’t flooded before. By June 30, the worst of the heat dome was over, but half of the trail was under more than 50 centimetres of water. Other areas that weren’t flooded had significant cracks. BC Parks closed the trail and began supporting approximately 250 hikers as they made their way out.

Then, a massive thunderstorm hit on July 1. Hail and lightning exploded over the area, along with over 20 centimetres of rain in a six-hour period, which raised the river six metres. Over 50 hikers further up the trail needed to be evacuated by helicopter with the help of search-and-rescue teams.

A black and white photo of the glacier at Mount Robson in 1911

The Robson Glacier in 1911. Photo: A.O. Wheeler, courtesy of the Mountain Legacy Project and Library and Archives Canada.

A shot of Robson Glacier in 2011, which shows clear melting of the glacier since 1911

The Robson Glacier in 2011. Photo courtesy of the Mountain Legacy Project, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria.

For the rest of the season, the Robson River kept shifting across the valley. BC Parks staff built temporary bridges but in days and even hours, these structures were washed out, while many of the usual bridges had only dry earth underneath. The Berg Lake Trail remained closed over the 2022 season and will take years to rebuild.

Rivers are often thought of as static landmarks on our human-made maps, but Dr. Parrott points out that the Robson River’s significant course change as it spilled across the valley is proof of how dynamic the landscape is—and how humans will need to learn to adapt.

Similarly, the report details how the heat dome crumbled the last hope of permanently preserving the Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin. The historic cabin, which was built by Swiss guides in 1922, sat at 2,925 metres above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, straddling the provincial border near Lake Louise. While work had begun in 2018 to address slope instability underneath the cabin as the permafrost thawed, the extreme heat in 2021 accelerated the process.

“That permafrost was like ice glue holding all the rocks together,” says Dr. Parrott.

Without that ice holding firm under the cabin’s foundation, the slope was too unstable for anchors to help permanently preserve the cabin as planned. The cabin’s masonry was also cracked. When the hut was taken down from the mountain for safety reasons in 2022, workers found enough cracks and failures to suggest the hut’s entire structure was compromised.

“Ice is melting everywhere, and exponentially faster,” says Dr. Parrott. The report notes that between 2011 and 2020, Western Canada’s glacier ice shrunk by 340 square kilometres per year, which is seven times faster than the rate of glacier loss from 1984–2010. This significant melt will dramatically impact not just the mountains but also freshwater habitats and downstream water availability.

Abott Pass Hut sitting precariously on the mountain, with the ground falling away beneath it

The exposed, steep and unstable north slope cutting away underneath the Abbot Pass Hut in 2021. Photo courtesy of Parks Canada.

Other highlights of the report, which is available online, include articles on the bison reintroduction program led by the Stoney Nakoda Nation, an exciting fossil discovery in the Mackenzie Mountains, drilling of a 327-metre deep ice core from the top of Mount Logan and the knowledge-sharing iNaturalist project where climbers can send alpine photos to experts.

The State of the Mountains report is now in its fifth year and has received international recognition from its 2022 nomination for the UIAA Mountain Protection Award. The report has often featured extreme events like the heat dome, including the effects of dramatic wildfires and avalanches, amid coverage of how changing temperatures or snow levels are affecting other living creatures like salmon and mountain goats.

Dr. Parrott says humans can expect extreme weather events to happen more and more often as the Earth warms and climate patterns that have persisted for thousands of years begin to shift.

“The lesson to us humans is to explore resilience, not in the sense of ‘build stronger, build bigger’ but in terms of how do we retreat and leave space for the mountains, for rivers, for the environment to be dynamic and to adapt to the kinds of changes that are occurring?”

*main photo courtesy of Natasha Ewing.

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AS BRENDAN DYCK SAT IN HIS INTRODUCTORY GEOLOGY COURSE as an undergraduate student, he couldn’t help but be fascinated by the questions boggling earth scientists, like why the polarity of Earth’s magnetic field reverses roughly every half million years.

“These unsolved problems of the discipline were really captivating because they were very tangible,” says Dr. Dyck, now an Assistant Professor in Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences at UBC Okanagan. “They seemed like questions we should know the answers to already. I thought, yes, I can make a difference there.”

Answering those longstanding questions is still what motivates him to get on his bike every day to ride to UBCO’s campus. Dr. Dyck’s passion for petrology, or the study of rocks, is far-reaching. He uses high-resolution electron microscopy to investigate how minuscule minerals and crystals react to stress in the Earth’s rocky crust. He also uses the same skills and thermodynamic equations to understand how planets outside of our solar system form and what their potential is to hold surface water. Much of his group’s current work in the Fipke Laboratory for Trace Element Research (FiLTER) is to understand how tectonic stress is related to metamorphic changes in rocks.

Though he loves being behind the microscope, Dr. Dyck is also drawn to fieldwork. Many of his field projects are set in the Canadian Arctic, where researchers fly in by helicopter, unpack their gear and then watch as the helicopter’s deafening whirr disappears over the rugged landscape.

“When the helicopter takes off, there’s this very calming hum as they’re away in the distance. Everything quiets right down, the animals and birds start making their noise again and then you feel like, okay, we finally made it.”

Dr. Dyck overlooking the Austrian alps

Dr. Brendan Dyck in the Austrian Alps, overlooking Hohe Tauern National Park.

For most trips, Dr. Dyck and his team canoe or hike to a specific outcrop to discover what records of change might be waiting there in the natural laboratory of the Earth’s crust. The real answers often come later as they investigate the samples gathered.

However, Dr. Dyck savours those surprising, in-the-field observations where he can hypothesize what his findings will be just by looking at the rock in his hand. In the summer of 2022, Dr. Dyck went on a field project to the Wopmay fault zone in the Northwest Territories to better understand earthquakes at depth. There in the field, he saw that the dark mafic rock his team found had more red garnet than suspected. The composition suggested that a rock from the continental plate had been under high pressure and potentially pushed 100 kilometres deep into the subduction zone before resurfacing thousands of years later during a period of high seismic activity.

“To find that at the surface is quite a rare thing, and no one had described it from this region.”

Dr. Dyck confirmed his field observation back in the lab with FiLTER’s electron microscope. He calls FiLTER and its advanced equipment “a beacon” for his decision to come to UBCO and is thrilled to be heavily involved in the state-of-the-art laboratory. UBCO’s stunning location in the Okanagan also allows him to explore the outdoors in his spare time, whether it’s biking the length of Kelowna to campus every day, mountain and gravel biking on weekends or downhill and cross-country skiing in the winter.

While his love of nature helped spark his interest in earth sciences, it also drives Dr. Dyck’s earnest enthusiasm for research involving the distribution of critical metals like lithium, which are crucial for transitioning to green energy. His passion for this and all his research is infectious. When asked about what research area he’s most excited about, he laughs.

“Everything,” says Dr. Dyck. “Everything I do.”

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