Will Tar Sands Drain the Rockies Dry?

From snow to glacier, from river to delta, and back again. Now, that centuries-old cycle has been interrupted by the tremendous volume of water required to extract oil from the Alberta tar sands.
Banff Mountains by Charles Peterson

Banff National Park.

Photo by Charles Peterson

We waited in a long line to pay our entrance fee at the entrance to Banff National Park, gateway to the Canadian Rockies, international tourist destination par excellence. It was a weekend in July, and the line of idling RVs was long. Around us, the dark, craggy peaks of the mountains rose toward the sky.

I insisted that we stop at Lake Louise, mostly because I had fond memories of going there as a child. Ethan, my companion, jostled with the other tourists to snap photos of the lake, and behind it, Victoria Glacier, whose melt feeds the waters in spring. The color was as milky green-blue as it was in my memory, but the glacier seemed, well, drier, more rocks than snow. Was it nostalgia, or was it actually smaller than it had been seventeen years ago?

As it turns out, it’s definitely smaller. According to the World Wildlife Fund, glacier coverage in the southern Rockies has decreased by a whopping 25 percent in the twentieth century.

To escape the crowds, we changed direction and trekked out into the backcountry. Finally—for a little while, at least—we could be alone with the woods. Except that when we arrived at the campground, we found a burgeoning party of campers, trying desperately to start a fire with damp wood and a massive propane torch. So much for solitude.

The industry depends on this fresh water from the Athabasca to continue. The irony is that climate change is also drying up the glaciers that are the source of this water at an astounding pace.

Still, it felt good to be among mountains. Later that evening—it’s light until ten thirty, at this latitude—we left the campsite and followed a rocky trail through dense pine and lichens and up along a steep path to an elevation so high that few trees can survive, just gray rocks and dirty snow. The wind quickened as we crossed to the other side of a ridge and found ourselves staring down into a basin of stark gray and white, with a lake of shockingly deep blue, like an old black-and-white postcard that had been artificially tinted. The snow sloped down directly into the water, making it bluer still. Above, clouds darkened and it began softly to rain. The only sound was the wind. I felt the presence of unseen animals—bears, maybe elk—and knew that they felt our presence, too.

Slightly further north lies the Columbia Icefield, described by UNESCO as “the hydrographic apex of North America,” and which feeds the Athabasca, Saskatchewan, and Columbia rivers that in turn form one of the most important freshwater basins in North America. From snow to glacier to river to delta and back again, this is a cycle that has continued more or less continuously since the last ice age.

But the cycle has been interrupted. Follow one of these threads—the Athabasca river—some 800 kilometers downstream, and you’ll hit the Alberta tar sands and the refineries that process them. It's one of the most water-intensive industries on the planet and guzzles twice as much in a year as the entire city of Calgary. What’s left over is spit out into massive, highly toxic tailings lakes, retained by some of the biggest dams in the world. Flows in the Athabasca have already declined by 30 percent since the 1970s and at the moment hover dangerously around the minimum threshold for ecological sustainability.

The industry depends on this fresh water from the Athabasca to continue. The irony is that climate change is also drying up the glaciers that are the source of this water at an astounding pace.

“Those mountains are our grandfathers.” Bob Smallboy, of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, told me. “They offer protection, sustain us.”

The tar sands, as has been well documented, stand to be a major threat to the global climate: as Bill McKibben recently pointed out, if burned in their entirety they’d kick up 240 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, raising the earth’s temperature by a little less than one degree. That may not seem like much until you consider our carbon “limit” for the entire Earth is only two degrees—after that, we haven’t got much hope.

“Those mountains are our grandfathers.” This is what Bob Smallboy, of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, told me later when he described his people’s relationship with [what we call] the Rockies. “They offer protection, sustain us.” They are the site of ceremony, ancestral graves, Sun Dances, vision quests. The English word “sacred,” he says, does not begin to describe it.

Another thing he said lingered in my mind long after: that these mountains are where people and animals have always gone for refuge and shelter, “especially when natural cycles change,” or in times of devastation.

As I stood on the windy ridge in the rain, looking down into the lake of melted glacier water, far from the crowds who come to camp in their RVs, I thought about that water and its eventual destination. And I wonder today where we will go for refuge in times of devastation.


  • Take an 8-mile trek with indigenous groups through one of the world's largest ecological dead zones, and you might find something lifegiving.

  • Why developing the tar sands has been called "world's most destructive project."

  • A controversial move to prohibit oil imported from what’s been called the world’s dirtiest fuel source could be an example for the rest of us.
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