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Event Details

Glacier Melting event report

Category: Glacier Melting
Observation: 03.09.2008
Continent: North-America
Country: Canada
State: Province of Nunavut
Area: Ellesmere Island
Location: Markham Ice Shelf
Severity: Moderate
Event details
One of Canada's five remaining Arctic ice shelves - the 4,500-year-old, 50-sq.-km. Markham Ice Shelf - has broken completely away from Ellesmere Island and drifted into the Arctic Ocean, the most dramatic sign yet of how rising temperatures and retreating sea ice are creating "irreversible" changes to the country's polar frontier. Just days after Prime Minister Stephen Harper returned from a northern tour that highlighted an emerging national debate over the economic and ecological future of the oil-rich Arctic, a Canadian-led team of scientists has revealed to Canwest News Service that the Markham Ice Shelf collapsed in early August and that more than 200 square kilometres of Canada's ice shelves - 23 per cent of the total area covered in Canada by these rare physical features - have disappeared this summer alone. "These substantial calving events (ice breaking off) underscore the rapidity of changes taking place in the Arctic," said ice expert Derek Mueller, the Roberta Bondar Fellow in Northern and Polar Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. "These changes are irreversible under the present climate and indicate that the environmental conditions that have kept these ice shelves in balance for thousands of years are no longer present." The rapid disintegration of the ice shelves over the past month is particular striking given the fact that an earlier break this year on the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf - which amounted to a loss of just four square kilometres - generated widespread international media attention in late July. The latest analysis shows that the Ward Hunt shelf - a floating ice bridge that connects Ellesmere Island with Canada's northernmost piece of land, Ward Hunt Island - has lost an additional 22 square kilometres. Southwest of Ward Hunt, the Serson Ice Shelf has shed 122 square kilometres this summer - 60 per cent of its total area. "These ice shelves are formed from the Arctic's thickest and oldest marine ice, and the extent of their loss this season is significant," said Warwick Vincent, director of Laval University's Centre for Northern Studies. "Unique ecosystems that depend on this ice are on the brink of extinction." Formed from centuries of accumulated snow and the fusion of sea ice with glaciers reaching beyond a polar coast, ice shelves can house rare "epishelf lakes," which contain unusual microbes and one-of-a-kind biological systems. A century ago, Ellesmere Island was covered with one continuous, massive ice shelf up to 70 metres thick and extending 500 km along its coastlines. Since then, about 90 per cent of the former "Ellesmere Island Ice Sheet" has disappeared - much of it during a warming period in the 1930s and '40s. By the 1990s, the single Ellesmere ice sheet had been reduced to six smaller, distinctive ice shelves: Serson, Petersen, Milne, Ayles, Ward Hunt and Markham. The Ayles Ice Shelf broke away from its Ellesmere Island mooring in 2005, sending a 66-sq.-km "Ayles Ice Island" on a three-year trip throughout the Arctic archipelago. The loss of the Markham Ice Shelf - located about 800 km south of the North Pole - leaves four of these "sentinels" of climate change, now seen as being at extreme risk of vanishing altogether. Mueller says that the "massive loss" now being witnessed on Ellesmere is significant despite the century-long decline of Canada's ice shelves. "We have seen some remarkable changes in this area since 2002 and we are now witnessing higher temperatures that are widely thought to be related to human-induced climate change," he told Canwest News Service on Tuesday. "So if a natural climate cycle took these ice shelves to the top of the proverbial cliff, then we humans appear to be providing a shove at a critical time." He added that some parts of the ice shelves had been showing signs of regrowth - until recent years. "This multi-year, landfast ice could have grown into ice shelves again, but now this will not happen because these bays have been breaking up in recent years," he said. "So that is why we are sure this is a one-way process (at least in the current and projected climate)." The loss of the Markham Ice Shelf comes at the height of a melting season that has already reduced Arctic Ocean ice cover to its second-biggest retreat since satellite measurements began 30 years ago. Experts believe the retreat still might surpass last year's record-setting meltdown. Last week, kicking off an Arctic tour that highlighted the region's resource wealth, Harper said the known oil and mineral deposits across the north represent "merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg." But Harper's "gold rush" approach to the Arctic was slammed by opposition critics, including Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, who said too little attention is being paid by the Conservative government to the impact of climate change in the region. On Tuesday, in an essay published by the Globe and Mail, former Reform leader Preston Manning called for a non-partisan panel of experts and political leaders to create a national vision for the Arctic that would ensure a balance between environmental protection and economic development.
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