Deadly Jasper rollover puts spotlight on safety of receding glaciers: ‘It can be an unstable mixture’

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As investigators piece together what led to a fatal vehicle rollover in Jasper National Park, one expert says the incident has raised questions about the safety of travel near glaciers that are receding and changing the iconic Canadian landsape around them as they go.

On Monday, the RCMP announced that the three people killed in Saturday’s crash at the Columbia Icefield were a 24-year-old woman from Canoe Narrows, Sask., a 28-year-old from Edmonton, as well as a 58-year-old man from India. Two dozen others onboard were injured.

As of Monday, authorities said they hadn’t determined the cause of the rollover near the Athabasca Glacier, but they did rule out a rockslide, after eyewitnesses reported rocks falling at the time of the incident.

Still, glaciologist Jeffrey Kavanaugh, an associate professor in earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Alberta, says he wonders whether the moraine — which is essentially a big pile of rock and debris scraped up by the glacier mixed with ice — shifted or otherwise caused the vehicle to lose traction.

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There is always a risk a moraine can shift, he said. But in a time when the climate is changing and glaciers are shrinking, unexpected hazards related to glaciers are increasing around the world.

“In a way, it’s surprising. In other ways, it’s not,” he says of the accident’s location on a moraine. “It can be an unstable mixture — it can release suddenly.”

“They have a great safety record there, but it seems like … the conditions, in this particular instance, were less favourable.”

The RCMP and Parks Canada were still on scene at the glacier, roughly 100 kilometres south of the town of Jasper, as they worked to recreate the events of Saturday. Part of that involves removing the Explorer itself, though keeping it intact in the process may take several days, according to a release sent to media.

What is publicly known at this point is that an Ice Explorer left on a tour after 1 p.m. on Saturday with 26 people plus a driver on board. It drove up the hill and then turned to go down the slope of the moraine and onto the surface of the ice. It was then that it rolled before coming to rest on its roof amidst the rocks.

Kenn Charlton worked at the Icefields Centre in various roles for 24 years, and before he left in 2007 he was the assistant operation manager, and helped oversee everything from staffing to training.

He says something must have gone “catastrophically wrong” for an Ice Explorer to leave the road.

Right now, he says, tours go up the hill and then turn and go down the moraine slope onto the ice. The road currently used was built in the 1980s. The original one went diagonally along the moraine, but he says rocks would wash onto it when it rained.

When he worked there, he says, the road was graded regularly, and although the crossing point onto the glacier had to be rebuilt every couple of years as the ice moved down the valley, the moraine road itself had stayed fairly stable.

Still, the hill is far steeper than your typical highway grade, and drivers were instructed to use a transmission lock when going down to make sure the engine didn’t over-rev.

“No two coaches were allowed to go down or up following each other at the same time,” he says. “If you’re going up the hill, you have to wait till the other one crests the hill, just in case it has a problem, and the same thing going down.”

While he has no knowledge of what happened Saturday, Kavanaugh, who did some work on the Athabasca in 2017, says it’s possible for small movement of rock to be dangerous if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But he says we’re seeing an uptick in large events, things like rockslides or floods, near glaciers around the world because when they shrink, it affects the environment in which they’ve sat, sometimes for thousands of years.

“Imagine bulldozing some materials forward, and then just parking that bulldozer. The blade is propping up that pile of materials that you have bulldozed forward,” he says.

“But if you back the bulldozer up, that pile is going to collapse back in the direction from which they were pushed.”

That’s what’s happening as glaciers shrink and no longer hold up nearby mountainsides.

Kavanaugh points to a notable chain of events in Alaska in 2015, when 180 million tons of rock fell down a mountainside into a fiord in the southeast part of the state, which in turn sparked a tsunami that reached close to 200 metres, according to the Washington Post. Luckily, it happened in a remote location and no one was around.

The fiord was relatively new, as it occupied the space recently occupied by the retreating Tyndall Glacier which had helped stabilize the surrounding mountain walls.

Retreating glaciers can also spark floods, he adds, when they dam a lake or river for years and then one day melt or float away, releasing the water they’d been holding back.

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While the public awaits the results of what exactly happened next to the Athabasca Glacier on Saturday, Kavanaugh said it seems like a given that a full analysis of the road will be conducted.

But he says, given the uptick in risk in other parts of the world, maybe people who work or travel on glaciers need to be evaluating hazards more often.

“Most of us have the luxury of not living with that hazard in our backyards,” he said. “It seems removed but when we place ourselves in these unstable environments like we do when we go to the national parks, there are risks that we face.”

Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex.n.boyd

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