Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Projected deglaciation of western Canada in the twenty-first century


Retreat of mountain glaciers is a significant contributor to sea-level rise and a potential threat to human populations through impacts on water availability and regional hydrology. Like most of Earth’s mountain glaciers, those in western North America are experiencing rapid mass loss1,2. Projections of future large-scale mass change are based on surface mass balance models that are open to criticism, because they ignore or greatly simplify glacier physics. Here we use a high-resolution regional glaciation model, developed by coupling physics-based ice dynamics with a surface mass balance model, to project the fate of glaciers in western Canada. We use twenty-first-century climate scenarios from an ensemble of global climate models in our simulations; the results indicate that by 2100, the volume of glacier ice in western Canada will shrink by 70 ± 10% relative to 2005. According to our simulations, few glaciers will remain in the Interior and Rockies regions, but maritime glaciers, in particular those in northwestern British Columbia, will survive in a diminished state. We project the maximum rate of ice volume loss, corresponding to peak input of deglacial meltwater to streams and rivers, to occur around 2020–2040. Potential implications include impacts on aquatic ecosystems, agriculture, forestry, alpine tourism and water quality.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Study region and subregions in the Canadian Cordillera of western Canada.
Figure 2: Comparisons of observed and modelled ice hypsometry for reference year 2005.
Figure 3: Projected changes for glaciers in the western Canadian study region.
Figure 4: Projected changes for glaciers in the Columbia Reach drainage basin within the Columbia River Basin of British Columbia.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Gardner, S. et al. A reconciled estimate of glacier contributions to sea level rise: 2003 to 2009. Science 340, 852–857 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Melillo, J. M., Richmond, T. C. & Yohe, G.W. (eds) Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment (US Global Change Research Program);

  3. Radić, V. & Hock, R. Regionally differentiated contribution of mountain glaciers and ice caps to future sea-level rise. Nature Geosci. 4, 91–94 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Slangen, B. A., Katsman, C. A., van de Wal, R. S. W., Vermeersen, L. L. A. & Riva, R. E. M. Towards regional projections of twenty-first century sea-level change based on IPCC SRES scenarios. Clim. Dynam. 38, 1191–1209 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Marzeion, B., Jarosch, A. H. & Hofer, M. Past and future sea-level change from the surface mass balance of glaciers. Cryosphere 6, 1295–1322 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Radić, V. et al. Regional and global projections of twenty-first century glacier mass changes in response to climate scenarios from global climate models. Clim. Dynam. 42, 37–58 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Schneeberger, C., Albrecht, O., Blatter, H., Wild, M. & Hock, R. Modelling the response of glaciers to a doubling in atmospheric CO2: A case study of Storglaciären, northern Sweden. Clim. Dynam. 17, 825–834 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Jouvet, G., Huss, M., Blatter, H., Picasso, M. & Rappaz, J. Numerical simulation of Rhonegletscher from 1874 to 2100. J. Comput. Phys. 228, 6426–6439 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Stahl, K., Moore, R. D., Shear, J. M., Hutchinson, D. & Cannon, A. J. Coupled modelling of glacier and streamflow response to future climate scenarios. Wat. Resour. Res. 44, W02422 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Giesen, R. H. & Oerlemans, J. Climate-model induced differences in the 21st century global and regional contributions to sea-level rise. Clim. Dynam. 41, 3283–3300 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Marshall, S. J. et al. Glacier water resources on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Can. Wat. Resour. J. 36, 109–133 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Huss, M., Jouvet, G., Farinotti, D. & Bauder, A. Future high-mountain hydrology: A new parameterization of glacier retreat. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 14, 815–829 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Huss, M., Zemp, M., Joerg, P. C. & Salzmann, N. High uncertainty in 21st century runoff projections from glacierized basins. J. Hydrol. 510, 35–48 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Kotlarski, S., Jacob, D., Podzun, R. & Paul, F. Representing glaciers in a regional climate model. Clim. Dynam. 34, 27–46 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Immerzeel, W. W., van Beek, L. P. H. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Climate change will affect the Asian water towers. Science 328, 1382–1385 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Barnett, T. P., Adam, J. C. & Lettenmaier, D. P. Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions. Nature 438, 303–309 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Bolch, T., Menounos, B. & Wheate, R. Landsat-based inventory of glaciers in western Canada, 1985–2005. Remote Sens. Environ. 114, 127–137 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Clarke, G. K. C. et al. Ice volume and subglacial topography for western Canadian glaciers from mass balance fields, thinning rates, and a bed stress model. J. Clim. 26, 4282–4303 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Bolch, T. et al. The state and fate of Himalayan glaciers. Science 336, 310–314 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Sorg, A., Bolch, T., Stoffel, M., Solomina, O. & Beniston, M. Climate change impacts on glaciers and runoff in Tien Shan (Central Asia). Nature Clim. Change 2, 725–731 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Radić, V. & Clarke, G. K. C. Evaluation of IPCC models’ performance in simulating late-twentieth century climatologies and weather patterns over North America. J. Clim. 24, 5257–5274 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Fleming, S. W. From icefield to estuary: A brief overview and preface to the special issue on the Columbia Basin. Atmosphere 51, 333–338 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  25. Moore, R. D. et al. Glacier change in western North America: Influences on hydrology, geomorphic hazards and water quality. Hydrol. Proc. 23, 42–61 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Jost, G., Moore, R. D., Menounos, B. & Wheate, R. Quantifying the contribution of glacier runoff to streamflow in the upper Columbia River Basin, Canada. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 16, 849–860 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Collins, D. N. Climatic warming, glacier recession and runoff from Alpine basins after the Little Ice Age maximum. Ann. Glaciol. 48, 119–124 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Bliss, A., Hock, R. & Radić, V. Global response of glacier runoff to twenty-first century climate change. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 717–730 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Jarosch, A. H., Anslow, F. S. & Clarke, G. K. C. High-resolution precipitation and temperature downscaling for glacier models. Clim. Dynam. 38, 391–409 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Mesinger, F. et al. North American Regional Reanalysis. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 87, 343–360 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, BC Hydro, the Columbia Basin Trust and the Universities of British Columbia and Northern British Columbia. It has benefited greatly from contributions of data, knowledge and effort by E. Berthier, T. Bolch, M. N. Demuth, G. M. Flato, S. J. Marshall, E. Miles, R. D. Moore, C. Reuten, E. Schiefer, C. G. Schoof, T. Stickford and R. Wheate. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Supplementary Table 1) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



G.K.C.C., A.H.J. and F.S.A. co-developed the ice flow code used in this study. A.H.J. provided downscaled precipitation fields for the mass balance sub-model as well as numerical insights for the development of the overall model chain. F.S.A. developed the mass balance modelling framework. V.R. performed downscaling of CRU and GCM data, contributed to the development of the bias-correction methods and helped to guide the final write-up. B.M. led the research network, provided essential data sets and guided the final write-up. G.K.C.C. performed the final calculations and wrote the initial versions of the manuscript and supplement.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Garry K. C. Clarke.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 14318 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Clarke, G., Jarosch, A., Anslow, F. et al. Projected deglaciation of western Canada in the twenty-first century. Nature Geosci 8, 372–377 (2015).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene