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Sandford awarded science-writing prize

CANMORE – In an era where climate change feels unavoidable, Robert William Sandford’s latest book Our Vanishing Glaciers: The Snows of Yesteryear and the Future Climate of the Mountain West, offers some much needed hope. 

The book is also the winner of the prestigious 2018 Lane Anderson Award for science writing. Published by Rocky Mountain Books, the hardcover ode to glaciers explains and illustrates the profound and crucial role water – as liquid, as snow and as glacial ice – plays in making life on Earth, and in the Canadian West, possible. 

Through personal reflection and cutting-edge scientific research, the book focuses on the Columbia Icefield, the largest and most accessible mass of glacial ice that straddles the Continental Divide and the Alberta/British Columbia boundary. 

With gorgeous photographs, aerial surveys, thermal imaging and 40 years of Sandford’s own personal observations all anchored by the findings of some of the world’s most respected snow and glacier scientists, the book graphically outlines the projected rate of glacial recession in western Canada’s mountains over the remainder of this century.

But for Sandford, the book represents not only a personal connection to the Rockies landscape, but also a means of honouring the dedication and commitment to learning as much as possible about the region’s glaciers . 

“What inspired me to write this book – and to keep going on it year after year – was my love of these monumental landscapes. Everything I have written has been informed by a deep sense of place,” Sandford said. 

“A second and very powerful inspiration for writing this book was the passion and sacrifice I observed among the scientists who so generously included me in what they were doing and unselfishly shared everything they learned, so that others might see what they are seeing happening to the glaciers of the mountain West. We under-value the important work of these people; and I wanted this book to honour their dedication, commitment and vision. I also wanted people to pay attention to the urgency of what they are so calmly trying to tell us.”

Since his own first encounters with glaciers more than four decades ago, the longtime Canmore resident said he’s been continually drawn back to the Columbia Icefield. In his current role as EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, the icefield represents a touchstone that has guided him through his career. 

“It is only now – after a lifetime in the mountains – that I have come to more fully realize the extent to which my experiences in this remarkable place have inspired not just direction, but purpose in my life,” he said. “I wanted to share both the experiences and feelings I have for this place – and for glacial environments throughout the West and the world – through this book.”

One thing Sandford hopes readers might gain from this book – one of more than 30 he has written on the history, heritage and landscape of the Rockies – is a new appreciation for the importance of the global water cycle to our way of life. But another, he suggested, is a sense of awe. 

“What makes the glaciers of Canada’s western mountains unique is their relative accessibility. In places you can literally get out of your car, and in a few moments, walk directly back into the Pleistocene, a colder epoch in the Earth’s history when much of North America was buried beneath two kilometres of ice. Epiphany is possible here, a sense of aesthetic arrest. A shudder runs through your soul as you realize, suddenly, what an Ice Age really means. That is the feeling I want readers to take away from this book.”

On a practical level, Sandford added he hoped readers will allow glaciers to not only remind us of our past, but to inspire our future as human habits affect and alter the planet’s natural cycles. 

“There has probably never been a time in history when making science understandable to a vastly diverse public has been more important,”
Sandford said. 

“We are also at a bottleneck in the evolutionary history of our species where failing to understand and act appropriately on what we know could have devastating impacts on future generations and potentially catastrophic effects on Earth system function for the rest of time.”

Winning the award is an honour, he said, not only for the recognition and the cash prize of $10,000, but for the way it honours his efforts. 

“This book is about hope. Not just wishful thinking – but the genuine hope we can have if we pay attention to what we know and act on that knowledge in the service of creating a better world and a more secure future for all who come after us. For that is what science is meant to do.”