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Glaciers of Canada

One of nature's most dramatic forces grows from the simplest roots. In a time of relatively cool temperatures, summer's sun fails to melt off winter's snow. Year by year the accumulation of snow grows, compressing the underlayers into ice. The ice thickens massively, finally yields to gravity, and begins to flow and slip down and along the ground: a shimmering display of pure, unbridled power as relentless as it is gradual. It is movement that turns a bed of ice into a glacier.

Glaciers have repeatedly expanded and retreated over most of Canada, crushing and grinding the countenance of half the continent, leaving us the most glaciated terrain in the world. Countless rivers and lakes are the disrupted drainage channels of glaciers. Plains and rich soils are their legacy to farmers. Rugged mountain ranges, sculpted by scouring ice, are among the most dramatic features of our post-Ice Age landscape.

Although Canada's glaciers are now generally in repose or retreat, they continue to fascinate scientists and sightseers alike. They provide sensitive indicators of current environmental change, visibly retreating within a season or surging forward by metres each day. Like time capsules, they carry myriad clues to the climatic conditions of ancient and recent eras. There are riches aplenty for the imagination to peruse in the history of their passing.

West CoastWest Coast glaciers

The mountains along Canada's West Coast support some of the world's largest non-polar glaciers, particularly those creeping through the St. Elias Mountains of the Yukon and British Columbia. Many have been retreating markedly since the mid-1800s in some cases by 10 to 30 metres each year. Scientists are uncertain whether the warming trend causing the retreat is a natural fluctuation or human-induced climate change.

 Rockies glaciers

RockiesFeeding the flow Once gently rounded mountains, the Rockies are now recognized for their sharply carved peaks, steep rock faces and wide valleys all features of repeated glacial erosion. Thousands of glaciers and numerous icefields still grace the Rockies' picturesque landscape. Those lying along the Continental Divide (which forms the southern portion of the B.C.-Alberta border) feed some of Canada's major river systems, eventually flowing into the Atlantic (via Hudson Bay), Pacific and Arctic oceans.

Eastern ArcticEastern Arctic

The eastern Arctic houses by far the biggest and oldest glaciers in Canada, and comprises three-quarters of our glacial coverage. At 100,000 years old, the Barnes Ice Cap on Baffin Island is the only Canadian remnant of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Unlike other glaciated areas, the climate in the eastern Arctic has not changed since 1959, when glaciologists began annual measurements of snow accumulation and melting.

Copyright © 2006 Canadian Geographic Enterprises


In Canada, an estimated area of 200 000 square kilometres, or about 2% of the country’s area is covered by glaciers and icefields. A huge quantity of freshwater is frozen in the polar ice caps and in high mountain glaciers. Glaciers and icefields are found in Western Cordillera and the mountains in the eastern Arctic. At present there are no reliable figures on the total number of glaciers in Canada.

Although glaciers and icefields are only found in two regions of Canada - the Western Cordillera and the mountains found in the eastern Arctic - and they are very numerous and widely-distributed within these areas. All ice features are remnants of the icefields of the last ice age, which peaked about 18 000 years ago.

In western Canada, glaciers occur at much higher elevations in the Rocky Mountains than in the wetter Coast Mountains. Mountain glaciers carve out a variety of distinctive features such as bowl-shaped features called cirques on the sides of mountains. The Arctic islands contain many glaciers and also have many large icecaps. Ellesmere, Baffin, Devon and Axel Heiberg islands contain huge icecaps which range up to one kilometre thick.

Source: National Resources Canada, The Atlas of Canada

An excellent map from The Atlas of Canada showing the distribution of glaciers and icefields in Canada, and also gives the names of some of their more important individual bodies.

Glaciers and Icefields in Canada Map