The first time Dan Shugar saw a landslide was during a field trip to Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park in B.C. when he was a PhD student.
The group went to view a 30-year-old landslide, but they found something even more unexpected — a landslide that had happened merely the day prior to them arriving.
“We could still smell the cordite, that smell of gunpowder in the air from the rocks smashing and exploding as it came down,” Shugar said.
The team had to camp overnight near the affected area, but their sleep was restless. Sounds of small boulders falling down in the dark made everyone jerk awake with fear of another landslide.
Shugar and his team try to help people living in hazardous areas to prevent landslides. However, the likelihood of landslides and the risks they produce has increased as climate change heats the planet. And these landslides will likely severely affect Alberta’s mountainous communities unless more is done to prevent and mitigate those effects.
How Climate Change Causes Landslides
The rise in temperature due to climate change has caused changes in precipitation patterns affecting the surface and groundwater and increasing the risk of landslides, which “occur as a result of changes in rainfall patterns, but also glacier retreat,” Shugar said.
The warming climate melts glaciers, which in turn reduces the amount of snow and affects where it is deposited, Shugar said.
Experts expect to see more rapidly melting glaciers and increased landslides.
Shugar warns that climate disaster from melting glaciers will become worse with time.
Sometimes, he said, there are lakes at the bottom of glaciers.
“If a landslide comes down and falls into that lake, then you have the potential for a tsunami which can burst over the dam and cause a big flood downstream,” Shugar said.
That chain reaction could devastate communities nearby.
Last July, a major heat dome closed many trails in Alberta, some permanently, due to flooding from increased melting.
For the last few decades, Peyto Glacier has been melting “about 20 metres per year.” This year alone saw a 200-metre difference due to the heat dome, said John Pomeroy, a water resources and climate change professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
“The high melt rates we’re seeing of the Peyto Glacier… is in response to warming of previous decades. So we have a certain amount of glacier loss that is guaranteed now. It’s locked in,” Pomeroy said.
In the past 10 years, the melting glacier has created a new lake at its base, he said — and Peyto Glacier already has Peyto Lake.
Alberta needs to begin to think about the future and how decisions about climate change will affect communities, Shugar said.
“I would suspect that we’ll see more floods from these kinds of lakes,” Shugar said.
“As we contemplate new infrastructure, whether that’s a new subdivision, a new pipeline or a new road, we need to be thinking about what the hazards are now, but also what the hazards might be in 50 and 100 years.”
Neighbouring British Columbia suffered intense flooding and multiple landslides in 2021, destroying roads, houses and bridges, while leaving thousands of people stranded.
Pomeroy said the B.C. government unfortunately did not prepare well enough for the climate disaster.
“There was definitely a deficit of infrastructure, maintenance in that region to protect those communities against flooding,” Pomeroy said. “In my mind, that’s unforgivable.”
Glacier melt rates are accelerating, but the future is only predicted to get worse, he added.
“It’s not even close to the worst-case scenario,” Pomeroy said. “We expect much worse floods to occur, and so that’s a real concern.”
Even avid hikers are seeing the changes from melting glaciers.
Mike Galbraith, chairperson of CORE Society, an outdoor recreation club, used to walk up the Peyto Glacier quite often.
“The glacier changed dramatically from what it used to be,” he said. “It’s really quite unpleasant.”
Alberta is a major energy producer, Pomeroy said, and so it has great potential to reduce harmful emissions in comparison to many other provinces and states as it is such a massive contributor to our warming climate.
“If it doesn’t, there won’t be any humans at the end of the day to reap the benefits of it,” Pomeroy said.
Pomeroy advises that individuals within Alberta have the ability to reduce their carbon footprint by choosing more environmentally friendly lifestyles, such as people who have no need for pick-up trucks switching to a more energy efficient vehicle, which would reduce emissions.
Galbraith agreed on the need for making changes where possible. “We should consider the planet, not just ourselves and our desires,” Galbraith said. “We’re getting 200-year events almost every year now.”
Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect name for the provincial park where Dan Shugar first saw a landslide.