The Work of Giants: Glaciology and Glacial Retreat in the Canadian Rockies

The Work of Giants

Glaciology and Glacial Retreat in the Canadian Rockies

Guest Writer Eden Luymes, Summer Interpreter 2018 

The Illecillewaet Glacier in 1898, with the glacier’s extent in 1887 marked on a rock.

For centuries, glaciers have been hard at work. Like giant sculptors, ancient glaciers carved out entire valleys and chiseled towering mountains. They continue to supply lakes, rivers, and even distant oceans with water. They are ever changing; always moving and flowing. The only constant for these impressive giants is change. However, that change is becoming increasingly rapid, and increasingly permanent: our glaciers are retreating. 

The first people to study glaciers in the Canadian Rockies were the Vaux family. A Quaker family from Philadelphia, they first visited these mountains in the summer of 1887, and would make many return trips to the region. Mary, George, and William Vaux, all siblings, took an interest in these glaciers when William noticed unexpected changes between his photographs of the Illecillewaet Glacier-- then simply known as the "Great Glacier"--from 1887 to 1894. The glacier had visibly receded in these few years. The sub-sequential studies the Vaux family conducted were the first known glacial studies in Canada at the time. By chance, the Vaux's study of the Illecillewaet coincided with the maximum glacial advance in the modern age, making their studies even more relevant to modern glaciology.  

The Vaux family embodied the romantic mentality and values of the late-Victorian era traveller: they were curious and committed, and above all dedicated to the advancement of science and the objective appreciation of nature. The Vaux children, William in particular, would produce short informative pamphlets about their studies, and give presentations of their work to fellow academics and members of late-Victorian society. In a visit to the Whyte Museum's Archive and Library, I was able to delve into these informative papers first-hand. The pamphlets would cover topics such as "What is a Glacier?" and "How are Glaciers formed?", as well as provide maps of the glacier, and notes on its movements and recession. Today these works provide a fascinating look into the earliest days of glaciology in Canada. Prior to Vaux's work, the study of glaciers was primarily focused in Europe. They pioneered this study in North America, and even today, the Vaux family's research on Canada's glaciers is of valuable use. Comparing their photographs and observations with current images of these glaciers, we can see physical evidence of glacial retreat over the last century. 

A chart of the recession of the Illecillewaet Glacier taken from 
William Vaux’s pamphlet, 
“Modern Glaciers: Their Movements and the Methods of Observing Them.”

Of course, glacial retreat is more than a Canadian phenomenon: it's a global issue. From Antarctica, to Patagonia, to the Himalayas, our earth's glaciers are receding. Therefore, our natural supplies of fresh water, so perfectly stored by nature, are depleting. The Columbia Icefield, in the south of Jasper National Park, provides water that flows into three different oceans-- the Pacific, the Arctic, and Atlantic. According to the European Space Agency, glacial melt is the primary cause of sea-level rise over the last fifteen years. Additionally, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, 2007 Global Outlook for Ice and Snow, " . . . projected increases in global air temperatures will ensure the continuing shrinkage of glaciers and ice caps and may lead to the disappearance of glaciers from many mountain regions over the coming decades . . . " and in turn, the " . . . disappearance of glaciers will have major consequences on water resources, especially in regions such as the Himalayas-- Hindu Kush, the Andes, Rocky Mountains and European Alps, where many dry-season river flows depend on glacial melt water."

The importance of cherishing and protecting these giant "ice rivers," as George Vaux would refer to them, is now clearer than ever. We must remain thankful for and fascinated by glaciers-- for literally shaping our earth, and providing our fresh water. We must all be curious, committed, and appreciative of the world around us as the Vaux family were over 100 years ago-- or, in terms of a glacier's perspective on time, not so long at all. 


Cavell, Edward. Legacy in Ice: The Vaux Family and the Canadian Alps. Banff: Altitude Publishing, 1983.

Smith, Cyndi. Off the Beaten Track: Women Adventurers and Mountaineers in Western Canada. Jasper: Coyote Books, 1989.


“Modern Glaciers: Their Movements and the Methods of Observing Them,” 1907, William Vaux, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, QE576/V3/PAM – 18.

“Glacier. Rock of 1887,” 1898, Mary Vaux, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, V653 /NG–343.


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