Monitoring and Inventorying the Glaciers of Canada:
An Historical Review and Personal Comments


C. Simon L. Ommanney, International Glaciological Society

Reflecting on the theme of the meeting and the current situation in Canada there are two observations I would make.

1. When considering the identification of a broader set of representative glaciers don't forget to consider previous discussions of this, as it may save some time.

When the International Hydrological Decade (IHD) program in Canada was established, apart from the representative glacier basins for the east-west and north-south profiles, a set of benchmark glaciers was also identified, to which the program would be extended as resources permitted, to fill in gaps in the principal observation network, This theme was revisited by the North American Committee on Climate and Glaciers and discussed in the full report of that meeting which was summarized in the article in EOS. Andrew Fountain should have a set of notes from that meeting. There was also the meeting convened by the Alaskans in Eagle River to discuss a more limited network in that State and published by Matt Sturm and others. I also summarized some of the mass-balance network information in the new Ostrem mass-balance manual. Mike Demuth should be able to get copies of any of my reports at National Hydrology Research Institute (NHRI) and could bring them with him.

2) Of very great concern is the current situation in Canada with regard to data already collected.

As various government programs shut down, records were consolidated and eventually transferred to the National Hydrology Research Institute in Saskatoon which seemed to have a strong program and represented a chance for security and continuity. With cutbacks there this information has now become inaccessible and indeed may be in the process of becoming irretrievably lost. Much of the information I managed when I was there has been taken off the computers where the data bases were maintained and the hard files sent to dead storage or piled in a corner of a locked room. I was in Saskatoon recently and tried to track down information I knew existed about records from a US Army Air Force Task Force in the High Arctic in the mid 1940s. The availability of photography from this mission had been noted in memos I had placed in about 6 separate files. All files had been sent to dead storage in Edmonton and probably been shredded under a 25 year disposal rule even though I had specified when I was in Saskatoon that these files contained historically important records and should never be destroyed. None of the files on Ellesmere Island included the memo that had been deposited in them in the mid 1970s. The flight lines for the photographs, the only copies in Canada as far as I know, have been removed from the map room to goodness knows where. A sorry tale that I would love to recount in person but I will have to settle for sending you these notes.

I think few people realize the extent of the collection that had been amassed in Saskatoon over the years and its vital importance to the glaciological and water-management community. The original collection goes back to the first glacier inventory that was started by Tuzo Wilson at the University of Toronto for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). This formed the basis of the IHD glacier inventory that was begun by George Falconer in the Geographical Branch that was subsequently transferred to the Glaciology Subdivision and came into my care as part of the Glacier Inventory Section in the late 1960s.

By the time this transfer took place the collection had been augmented by the acquisition of quite a large collection of historical photographs of Baffin and Bylot Islands, with material collected by the Geographical Branch expeditions there, with the trimetrogon photographs mentioned above which provided coast and inland passes coverage principally for Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Islands. As a result of a visit from Bill Field we also acquired several thousand photographs from the phototop stations occupied during the International Boundary Survey around the turn of the century - an unique record of glaciers in the Coast Ranges. There were also other records of glaciological interest such as a card catalogue of ice observations in Canada derived from historical texts.

The objective of the Canadian Glacier Inventory was to identify and measure every perennial snow and ice body in Canada. The raw materials for this work were aerial photographs and maps. Over the years we acquired COMPLETE air photograph coverage of all the glacierized areas in Canada, several tens of thousands of photographs. These included the coverage obtained by the Alberta Provincial Government as well as the British Columbia Government. No one could afford to buy this coverage today yet the photographs are no longer properly cared for or organized. The map collection was also complete, at least two copies of the largest scale map of every glacierized area in the country. As far as I could tell the collection remains where it was though I have no idea what losses it might have sustained. Related information, such as the flight lines mentioned above, appear to have been removed, I hope not destroyed.

Once the Defence Research Board's glaciological program on Ellesmere Island, headed by Geoffrey Hatterslye-Smith, was shut down responsibility and the records were transferred to NHRI, including the original field notebooks.

The Water Survey of Canada had carried out glacier observations, and latterly terrestrial photogrammetry, on many glaciers in western Canada from the mid 1940s until 1980. The original survey notebooks were all transferred to NHRI when the principal investigator retired and the program was terminated.

Other records were also donated to NHRI in the expectation that they would be looked after. Records from everywhere from Baffin Island and Labrador to Vancouver Island.

At the centre of this collection was the Canadian Glacier Inventory with quantitative information on about 40,000 of Canada's approximately 100,000 glaciers, and annotated maps and photographs of many more. Special software, called GLADYS, had been developed to store and retrieve the basic inventory data, and a bibliography, with some 40,000 references to all aspects of snow and ice studies in Canada from 1975 onwards, including more specific coverage of glaciers to the start of observation in Canada in the 1880s, was stored in a PAPYRUS data base.

Requests to NHRI from a variety of sources in the last two to three years have met with the response that none of this information is available. If this were a public company the shareholders would likely deem this to be criminal neglect of a fundamental asset. Considering that the cost to the Canadian taxpayer of acquiring this information over the last 40 years would have been in the order of millions, rather than thousands, of dollars no one can afford to stand by and see it lost to future generations.


National [sic] Committee on Climate and Glaciers, 1991, How to measure a glacier - reliable glacier measurements are important in monitoring river hydrology and climatic change: Earth in Space, for Teachers and Students of Science, v. 4, no. 4, p. 6-7.

North American Committee on Climate and Glaciers, 1991, Glacier mass-balance standards: EOS, v. 72, no. 46, p. 511-514.

Ommanney, C.S.L. 1991a, Appendix III. World-wide overview - glacier mass-balance observations, in Ostrem, G.,and Brugman, M. eds., Glacier Mass-Balance Measurements a Manual for Field and Office Work: (NHRI Science Report 4.), Saskatoon, Sask., National Hydrology Research Institute, Environment Canada, p. 157-165.

Ommanney, C.S.L. 1991b, Glacier monitoring - international perspectives: (NHRI Contribution No. 91006.) Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, February, National Hydrology Research Institute.

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