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Review: Our Vanishing Glaciers


Reviewed by Graeme Pole

Written by one of the most respected experts in water and water-associated climate science, Our Vanishing Glaciers explains and illustrates why water is such a unique substance and how it makes life on this planet possible. Graeme Pole reviews Robert William Sandford’s latest book.


Bow Glacier in Winter. Photo courtesy Robert William Sandford.

Can a single volume be at once a history, a guidebook, a technical work, a geology, a scientific chronicle, a photo essay, a coffee table anchor piece, a how-to, a call to action, and a lament for a threatened world? In Our Vanishing Glaciers, Bob Sandford takes on this formidable spectrum of objectives and succeeds, providing a wealth of information about ice in this warming world. In doing so Sandford frames an uncomfortable reality: Vanishing ice is not a future consideration. It is here, now.

The physical and chemical properties of water in its many forms, and its roles in ecology and culture and politics have been the core of Sandford’s writing for two decades. He delivers the key points again here with passion, in rambling detail, and in his inimitable, and often poetic style. Sandford is bang-on when he asserts that water defines Canada and Canadians, and his reasoning in that regard closes beautifully with the passage: “A stream flows through the innermost recesses of our minds and sliding silently over the riffles that form our deepest memory is a bark canoe.” Imagine that memory running dry and you have the nugget at the heart of Our Vanishing Glaciers.

Sandford’s writing leaps from descriptions of pink snow and other microbial life, to how amphibians and fishes survive the annual freeze, to how winter tires work, to how dwindling glacier-melt may affect Canada’s relations with the United States. His strength is in delivering and connecting ideas with turns of phrase that sometimes jolt, sometimes click, sometimes require a double-take to register, but, in all cases, help to foster understanding.

Those leaps come with a cost. In taking on so many facets of ice – its physical properties and chemistry, its role in ecology, its future, its shaping of countries, both culturally and politically – Sandford’s approach loses focus. In the early going, it appeared that the author and his editor had been on the same page, but about mid-book things began to unravel. How else to explain duplicate passages of virtually identical text, each more than 100 words long; and the regularity of runaway sentences? Such distractions force the reader to parse the intended meaning or to skim those sections of ice-choked rapids to where more tranquil passages melt out of the text, downstream.

In the second half of the book, Sandford largely channels the work of others, placing the voices of researchers, writers, and historians in the context of vanishing ice, often quoting from published works. Sandford obviously possesses a clear grasp of the many players, past and especially present, and their research, and he positions their material well to bolster his narrative.

Our Vanishing Glaciers includes a glossary but lacks two essential elements for its subject: an index and a geologic time scale. The book’s photographs are stunning and are well displayed. The few technical graphics included are not easily understood. Their space would have been better allotted to more examples of repeat photography.

Two aspects of the book reveal conflicting content that may challenge some readers. First, much of the research that Sandford describes, along with many of his photographs, relied on the use of helicopters in fairly remote locations. A Bell 206 typically consumes more than a pickup truck’s worth of fuel each hour flying. It is a curious and troubling paradox that the urgency of the need to put the brakes on climate warming and thus conserve glaciers, is undermined in part by the research methods that arm the supporting arguments. It seems that an earth-science field program is no longer considered valid unless it includes a significant budget line for helicopter time.

Second, Our Vanishing Glaciers articulates a profound contradiction with its three-page tribute to the “Ice Explorer Experience.” In doing so, the book morphs awkwardly and needlessly from insightful climate change documentary to souvenir shop memento. Sandford tells us that, in most years, half a million people travel in diesel-powered vehicles onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier, yet he fails to utter the correlation that will be abundantly clear to most readers. Considered in terms of the effect of those diesel emissions on the atmosphere, each of the more than 8,000-plus ice-rides annually brings the glacier closer to its demise.

Athabasca Glacier. Photo courtesy Robert William Sandford.

Business as usual is no longer acceptable anywhere in a warming world, but especially not as adding insult to injury for the Athabasca Glacier, which, according to the research Sandford cites, could disappear by 2080. Countdowns to glacial meltdowns elsewhere – such as Peyto Glacier, and the namesake icons of Glacier National Park, Montana – have proven to be over-estimated by decades. Vanishing glaciers require each of us to take a stand, often in the face of corporate interests. For glacial ice, and specifically for the Canadian Rockies, Athabasca Glacier is ground zero, where the rubber hits the icy road.

A walk across the forefield of the Athabasca Glacier reveals that a recently deglaciated landscape is a masterwork of natural sculpture, polished and raw. But a deglaciated planet will hold nothing aesthetic for consideration because, as Sandford intuits and as world events now illustrate, many of the joys of life will have long been replaced by stresses unimaginable – social, economic, environmental, and personal – in the lead-up to the vanishing.

Canadians need to become as cognizant of the overwhelming importance of ice to our lives as is Sandford. We need to take a collective possession of our vanishing glaciers if we are to turn things around. No matter that we are late to the game, Sandford’s book imparts knowledge and inspiration to help us begin the process.


Graeme Pole is an author and photographer who has trundled many a waning glacier in the Canadian Rockies.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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