Lake Abraham: an ethereal landscape of frozen bubbles
Lake Abraham in Alberta, Canada, treats visitors to a spectacular winter phenomenon: stacks of pearl-like bubbles trapped between layers of ice.
In the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, Lake Abraham stretches for approximately 33km between the Kootenay Plains and Nordegg, a ghost town in Alberta’s Bighorn Country. The only direct winter route to the manmade lake is through the David Thompson Highway, aptly named after an intrepid explorer who mapped most of Western Canada.
While the below-freezing temperatures and icy wind gusts may humble even the most experienced traveller, the payoff is well worth it. Visitors will be greeted with stunning views of mountain peaks that rival those of both Banff and Jasper national parks just a stone’s throw away – plus a mysterious natural phenomenon that lurks in the lake.
In the winter months, the temperature around Lake Abraham can drop dangerously low and wind speeds can reach 48km/h. The constant movement of these frigid blasts ensures that the ice that forms on the lake’s surface is crystal clear, creating a window to the surreal beauty hidden below: frozen methane bubbles.
Like many other lakes in the world, Abraham Lake emits methane gas year round. However, in winter, the biological process can result in this stunning visual phenomenon. When bacteria at the bottom of the lake devour dead organic matter, they secrete large amounts of methane that bubble and float upwards.
As the bubbles reach the colder temperatures of the lake’s surface, they freeze into columns of luminescent, milky orbs. Due to the unique clarity of Lake Abraham’s icy surface, it has become a popular spot to see and photograph methane formations.
For all their beauty, the frozen bubbles harbour a troubling secret. In addition to being highly flammable, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas – approximately 25 times more effective as a heat-trapper than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. If methane levels continue to rise, the Earth’s overall warming could, too.
Scott Zolkos, a PhD student at the University of Alberta, is researching the effects of permafrost thaw on fresh water, which may be resulting in increased methane levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. Though Lake Abraham isn’t in the permafrost zone, measuring methane levels beneath its surface can help contribute to an overall understanding of how lakes affect climate change.
For Zolkos, the lake’s serene surroundings are an idyllic setting to conduct his research. "One of the really exciting things about science is how the door is always wide open to find something interesting and unexpected," Zolkos said.
Labyrinths of cracks in the ice show where methane could escape, sending the gas into the atmosphere. In addition to the spectacular formations of methane trapped beneath the lake’s surface, the ice itself, polished and buffed by the winter winds, can look like a work of art.
When Alan Ernst and his wife, Madeline, were looking to settle in the Canadian Rockies, they found Lake Abraham – and never looked back. They eventually built a small eco-tourism lodge nestled on the lake’s shores, which became a venerable attraction for photographers looking to take stunning photos of the methane bubbles in winter.
Ernst was always drawn by the mountain peaks, which seemed similar to the ones he grew up with in Eastern Europe. Though he spent much of his youth travelling, it was Lake Abraham that finally felt like home. He and his wife have spent the last 19 years far removed from urban conveniences, but they prefer it that way. Often, Ernst will take his camera out and explore the area.
"I always come back with something different, but I rarely go out with a specific picture in mind. I just go out and drift, so to speak. To go for what's there until I find something I like," Ernst said.