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Dry lakes and dust storms: Dramatic changes to Yukon glaciers are warning for planet, researchers say

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Gwenn Flowers, a glaciologist, trudges back and forth across a vast glacier in southwest Yukon, pulling a radar device mounted on skis behind her.

“We as Canadians are stewards of about a third of the world’s mountain glaciers and ice caps, so this is our responsibility,” Flowers says.

The dramatic changes to the glaciers in the Yukon are an early warning of what climate change could mean for the rest of the planet, researchers say. And Flowers sees lots of reason for concern reflected in the state of the ice.

The professor at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University loves ice. She has been coming to do field studies in the St. Elias mountains every summer for the past 13 years.

The Kaskawulsh glacier in the Yukon’s St. Elias Mountain region, often referred to as a ‘highway of ice.’ (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Her tiny team of three is mapping the Kaskawulsh glacier — 70 metres long and five kilometres wide — as it struggles under the double threat of a warming climate and diminishing snow cover.

The research boils down to an inescapable conclusion: The glacier can’t compensate for the volume it’s losing now each year.

The radar box Flowers tows on skis is specifically adapted for ice, and sends signals deep into the glacier’s core, bouncing off the bedrock. In places, the team has found ice more than 800 metres deep.

A team sets up a time-lapse camera on a surging glacier in the Yukon’s St. Elias Mountains. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

The team’s research shows the ice is rapidly thinning, however, losing about a half metre a year, says Flowers. And the enormous glacier is retreating.

The St. Elias mountain range crossing Yukon, B.C. and Alaska is less well-known than the Canadian Rockies and its icefields. But its ice cover is six times larger, making it the biggest icefield in the world outside Greenland and Antarctica.

Flowers and her team are trying to get a better picture of how the glacier is changing, and what that means to the larger environment.

“As Canadians, given our responsibility to be stewards of this ice, I think we could be doing better. I think Arctic science should be a priority. I think understanding our terrestrial and marine ice should be a national priority,” Flowers says.

Environmental impact

A 2018 report, entitled State of the Mountains, suggests the glaciers in the St. Elias Mountains are losing more ice than in any other Canadian Alpine area. In the 30 years from 1977 to 2007, the Kaskawulsh lost 17 square kilometres of ice.

Temperatures there have already risen 2 C in the past 50 years. They are predicted to rise at least another three degrees by the turn of the century, unless things change.

Gwenn Flowers says the ice of the Kaskawulsh glacier is thinning rapidly and losing about a half metre a year. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Yukon saw a particularly hot July last summer, the warmest in five years with several heat warnings issued.

Leading climate change scientists recently warned that the world has only a dozen years to slow the warming of the planet or risk worse drought, floods, and extreme heat. The authors of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to keep global warming under 1.5 C.

“What the glaciers and ice sheets do makes a big difference to global sea levels, and makes a big difference to local environments where they form a water source,” Flowers says.

Watch a low-level helicopter flyover of a “surging glacier” in the St. Elias mountain range:

A CBC News crew hitches a ride on a helicopter doing a low-altitude flight over a ‘surging glacier’ in the Yukon’s St. Elias mountains. 0:31

Disappearing water

Around Kluane Lake, two research stations are monitoring the changes in Yukon’s climate and glaciers.

Andy Williams came to the area more than 40 years ago to manage the Kluane Lake Research Station. He also founded a small airline service ferrying scientists, hikers and tourists into the icefields.

He’s observed enormous changes in the ice over that time. While glaciers naturally advance and retreat, he says, it’s “not at this speed.”

Andy Williams, a former manager of the Kluane Lake Research Station, founded a small airline service ferrying scientists, hikers and tourists into the icefields. He says he’s seen the changes to the region’s climate in recent decades first-hand. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

And the changes in this region reflect what is also happening in the Andes, or the Himalayas, “where there are millions of people relying on a steady flow from glaciers to provide irrigation and drinking water.” If those shrink too fast, “the results are catastrophic,” he says.

The more rapid thinning of the big ice in Yukon is already causing dramatic consequences further down the mountains, like in the jewel-like Kluane Lake, Yukon’s largest, which borders Kluane National Park and Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

For 300 years, glacial runoff was the major water source for Kluane Lake, flowing in by way of the Slims River. But in May 2016, Kluane Lake levels dropped precipitously. The problem was a case of “river piracy” — incredibly rare, and hugely significant. The terminus or end of the Kaskawulsh glacier had receded enough that a glacial lake that fed the Slims River suddenly drained when the glacier outflow found a new direction to a new river.

It left the Slims River with little water as it made its way down the mountain to Kluane Lake.

Bob Dickson, the chief of Kluane First Nation, stands on the dry bed of what used to be a glacier-fed river. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

That summer Kluane Lake dropped 1.7 metres, and its levels remain low.

In the Kluane First Nation communities of Burwash and Destruction Bay, the shoreline retreated, restricting boat access to traditional fishing spots. Previous spawning areas for whitefish and trout have popped up above the water line.

“We can’t change it,” says Bob Dickson, the chief.

“We have to live with this lake in a different way. Hunting areas, fishing areas, all are changing. So we have to learn all over again.”

The Alaska Highway, one of the great northern routes from Yukon to Alaska, bisects the Slims River valley. Now huge dust storms often obscure the road, forcing camper vans to slow to a crawl. The riverbed, normally covered in water in late August, looks parched.

A camper drives through a dust storm on the Alaska Highway where it bisects the Slims River valley. The dust is from a dried river bed that used to be fed by the Kaskawulsh glacier.

“You can have dust storms where this whole valley is full of dust, and that’s all of the glacier flour, it’s just blowing it,” says Chief Dickson. “They’re really terrible, you can’t even see.”

Parks Canada is monitoring the “unprecedented” changes.

“We’re seeing a 20 per cent difference in area coverage of the glaciers in Kluane National Park and Reserve and the rest of the UNESCO World Heritage site [over a 60-year period],” says Diane Wilson, a field unit superintendent at Parks Canada.

“We’ve never seen that. It’s outside the scope of normal.

“Kluane is is an icon. People are so excited to come and visit this wonderful place, but they should know that it’s changing. Climate change knows no boundaries.”

– With files from Mia Sheldon


Watch Susan Ormiston’s feature on Yukon’s changing glaciers from The National

One-third of the world’s glaciers and icecaps exist in Canada, and in Yukon, the ice is thinning more than in any other alpine area in the country. 11:54


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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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