by Archives January 24, 2007

Last year, Canadian satellites recorded a giant ice shelf breaking off and slipping into the ocean off Ellesmere Island in the Arctic. The massive 66 kilometre square ice shelf is the largest piece to detach itself in more than 30 years. Scientists say events like these are a sign that changes are occurring in Canada’s north.

To put this into perspective, the force of the break-up was so great it was detected by seismic monitors 200 kms away. The size of that ice shelf is equivalent to roughly 11,000 football fields. Louis Fortier, scientific director of Arctic Net, a Canadian Artic research network, told the Associated Press that the massive break-off signalled that something is afoot in Canada’s Arctic.

“The break-up of the ice cover on Ellesmere Island has been going on for 12,000 years, but it seems to have accelerated in recent years, suggesting Arctic warming,” he said.

“The sudden formation of a “new island” in the Arctic is a symptom among a cluster of symptoms of global warming, the most important evidently being the spectacular reduction in the extent and thickness of the Arctic ice field,” Fortier added.

The ice shelf is located on the north coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Nunavut territory and its northernmost national park. This ancient feature of thick ice floating on the sea began forming some 4,500 years ago and has been in place for at least 3,000 years.

An immediate consequence of the ice shelf’s rupture was the loss of almost all of the freshwater from the northern hemisphere’s largest lake, which had been dammed behind the ice in the 30 km Disraeli Fjord. The freshwater layer in the Fjord measured 43 metres in depth and lay atop 360 m of denser ocean water.

The loss of fresh water can affect the unique biological communities in the habitat, which consist of both freshwater and marine species of plankton. The break-up of the ice shelf has also reduced the habitat available for cold-tolerant communities of microscopic animals and algae that live on the upper ice surface.

It’s not just Canada’s Arctic feeling the heat. In April 2000, Radar Satellite revealed the first sign of cracking of the Ward Hunt ice shelf in the Antarctica. Subsequent imagery showed the crack extending in length, and in 2002, observations from a helicopter showed that the fracture had extended fully from the fjord to the open ocean, breaking the ice shelf into two major parts and many smaller ones.

Ice caps are also melting on the world’s mountain peaks. From mile-high Naro Moru in Kenya, villagers have watched year by year as the great glaciers capping the peak of Mount Kenya retreat into what villagers have described as shrunken white stains.

Some have reported a steady sound of water running down the mountain.

Just 200 miles south, the famous snows of Mount Kilimanjaro are also vanishing. To the west, the equatorial ice caps are shrinking fast atop Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains.

The total loss of ice masses sitting atop Africa’s highest peaks predicted by researchers fits a global pattern underway in South America’s Andes Mountains, in Europe’s Alps, in the Himalayas and in most other continents. The only peak that doesn’t seem to be affected right now is the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, though meltdown has occurred at lower levels and flooded foothill villages.

Almost every one of the more than 300 large glaciers studied worldwide is in retreat, reported researchers in the October 2006 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

The problem is that a resource will always be a resource, whether in one form or the other. Ice is essentially water in solid form, stable and moving slowly, if at all. Change its solid form and it becomes displaced running water, permeating soil and leading to soil erosion, marginal vegetation, landslides and displacement of local population. Ice break-ups eventually drift into shipping lanes and melt off, affecting sea levels and slowly flooding shorelines.

Why ice caps are melting and ice shelves are breaking off is not the question. It’s too late for that. What to do about it is what we need to concern ourselves with.

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