1. Columbia Icefield, AB/BC

The Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier viewed from Mt. Wilcox (photo: Chris Marsh)

Location and Physical Characteristics

  • Forms the hydrological apex of North America, with outlet glaciers flowing into tributaries of the Saskatchewan, Columbia, and Mackenzie River systems, which drain to the Atlantic (Hudson Bay), Pacific, and Arctic Oceans;
  • The Columbia Icefield is located at about 52°09'N, 117°18'W, within both Banff and Jasper National Parks, and is the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies
  • Approximate total surface area is 205 km2 (in 2009), with numerous large outlet valley glaciers such as the Athabasca, Columbia, and Saskatchewan Glaciers;
  • Elevations range from 1000 m to 3700 m a.s.l. with a mean elevation of ~2300 m a.s.l.;
  • Climate is characterized by long winters and and short summers; mean annual temperature is -4.0 °C and total annual precipitation is about 1277 mm;
  • Low temperatures at the high elevations of the icefield plateau cause most precipitation to fall as snow. 


  • There is a long history of tourism, mountaineering, and glacier observation/research at the Columbia Icefield;
  • Previous seminal and highly-targted geophysical and paleo-glaciological studies considering the Athabasca and Saskatchewan Glaciers;
  • Motivation in recent years by the Glaciology Section of Natural Resources Canada to extend regional mass balance measurements in The Canadian Rockies, and mitigate concerns that glacier cover in the eastern and western slopes is fragmenting and becoming debris covered; also concern that International Hydrological Decade (IHD) reference mass balance glaciers (Peyto Glacier, Ram River Glacier) are too small to alone adequately represent the region from a mass balance perspective;
  • Recently, led by Mike Demuth, Natural Resources Canada has initiated the project "Recent and past century volume, mass and morphometric changes of the Columbia icefield, Canada".

Current Science Focus and Instrumentation

  • Research focused on quantifying the form and flow of the icefield and its outlet glaciers, as well as its past and current geometry;
  • Work involving the use of traditional snow/ice stake and geodetic/mass flux divergence mass balance approaches, supported by optical, laser, and radar remote sensing techniques;
  • Detailled in situ snowpack and glacier ice studies to provide insight on snow accumulation and redistribution processes in accumulation zone (work involving snow pits and stratigaphic analysis on Snow Dome);
  • Work providing support for regional glacier dynamic modelling and glacier hydrology studies;
  • Currently no in situ meteorological measurements available, but short-term plans include installation of high elevation station(s);

Other Resources and Further Information

For further information contact:  

Mike Demuth, P.Eng., P.Geo.
Head of Glaciology Section, Geological Survey of Canada
Natural Resources Canada
601 Booth Street
Ottawa, ON, K1A 0E8

Terminus of the Saskatchewan Glacier seen from near the summit of Mt. Athabasca (photo: Chris DeBeer, August 2002)