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A summer of seeing and tasting climate change

After more than 15,000 km wandering through the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta by motorcycle this summer, I can report that the signs of climate change are more visible than ever.

Motorcycling is a  good way to maintain social distance while travelling. You’re outside all the time and away from people. National parks were open this summer, and visitors kept their distance by using every other spot in parking lots at scenic lookouts and stepping aside when hiking trails to let others pass. Restaurants spread out tables and opened outdoor patios to keep everyone safe.

One highlight of a journey to the Canadian Rockies is the Icefields Parkway, a 232-km scenic highway that runs through Banff and Jasper National Parks between the towns of Lake Louise and Jasper. It is one of the most spectacular highways in North America, if not the world, and it’s one of the few places where you can drive right up to a glacier and touch it.

The Athabasca Glacier has retreated dramatically in the last century. (BanffJasperCollection.com)

The highlight of the drive are the massive Columbia Icefields and the Athabasca Glacier, which flow down between steep mountain peaks right to the highway. Well, it used to extend to the highway. Since 1844, when the only way up there was on horseback, the glacier has retreated more than 1.5 km up the valley, Even since since my first visit more than 40 years ago in 1973, it has shrunk back several hundred metres and also become thinner, filling less of the valley floor.

Ice is the canary in the coal mine for climate change, showing the most dramatic changes as the climate warms, with sea ice disappearing in the Arctic, Greenland reaching a tipping point where it is losing more ice from melting than it gains with new snow, and Antarctic ice shelves at increasing risk.

The loss of this ice is more than the loss of beautiful scenery. Those glaciers in our mountains are the source of fresh water for many rivers and lakes. If you want to get up-close and personal with a glacier, you should do it now before they’re gone.

Skies were smoky in Kelowna, after smoke from wildfires in Washington State was pulled north by a high-pressure weather system. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

The second visible sign of our new reality in a warmer world was a pervasive blue fog that hung over the city of Vancouver, out into the Gulf Islands that run between the mainland and Vancouver Island, all the way to my home city of Victoria. The fog burned my eyes and tasted like a campfire. It was smoke being blown north from some of the wildfires raging in California, Oregon and Washington.

These extreme fires are, in significant part, the result of higher temperatures and years of dry conditions. Scientists have warned that extreme events like this have a greater chance of striking due to the warming effects of climate change. You might be forgiven for thinking that our world seems to be melting away and burning up.

Ironically, while I was contemplating these visible signs of climate change, I was also adding to it by driving a vehicle that burns fossil fuel. Although my motorcycle burns less than most of the other vehicles on the road, which in this part of the country are often large pickup trucks and SUVs.

A bright red sunrise in Victoria. Smoke from wildfires in Washington State was pulled north by a high-pressure weather system, leading to hazy skies in B.C. (Twitter/@ron_usher)

If there was an all electric, full sized touring motorcycle capable of carrying two people and their gear over mountains for hundreds of kilometres, and being re-charged in a matter of minutes from regularly spaced charging stations, I would buy one. But no such vehicle exists … yet. Thankfully, many companies are developing new battery technologies capable of holding more charge to extend the range of electric vehicles. 

This is a promising way to move towards a low-carbon future. It means we might not have to abandon the convenience and other benefits of personal vehicles. Instead, just change what is driving the wheels to clean technology, with the energy ultimately supplied by low-carbon sources like wind and solar combined with energy storage. 

The photo on the left shows the Decker Glacier as viewed looking north from Decker Summit in July of 2006. The photo on the right taken nearby on Aug. 17, 2014 shows a mostly blue-green lake in its place. (Photo by Jason Krupa, composite by CBC)

Scientists have been waving the red flag about the effect of the greenhouse gases we continue to pour into the atmosphere for decades, but global warming was always something that would happen in the future or in a far off place where the effects would be felt mostly by polar bears. 

But now it is here, in our face: You can literally taste it. Thankfully, technological change is also in the wind, and if we fully embrace it, future generations might still be able to see those beautiful glaciers in decades to come.

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