Warming Arctic shrinking Canadian glaciers at alarming rate says study

Milne Glacier on the northern coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada’s eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut. Can Arctic glacier decline be reversed? (Luke Copland/Courtesy Adrienne White)
Arctic glaciers are shrinking at an alarming rate and show no signs of regeneration, says a recent study conducted in Canada.

The research looked at glaciers between 1999 and 2015 and focused on Ellesmere Island, the most northern region of the country.

During that sixteen-year period, researchers noted over 1700 square kilometres of ice  lost – a change in area of six per cent.

“That shows that over 75 per cent of glaciers have lost area and no glaciers are increasing as far as we can see,” said University of Ottawa Phd student Adrienne White, who authored the paper Area change of glaciers across Northern Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, between ~1999 and ~2015 with Luke Copland which was published in the Journal of Glaciology in June.

‘Big shock’ for researchers

The disappearance of several smaller ice caps and the amount of open water were things that surprised even experienced researchers like White.

“We have three small ice caps – their areas were less than 1.5 square kilometres – but they completely vanished which is something I’ve never really seen before,” White said.

“Another big shock was to see how much open water we now have along the northern coast of Ellesmere Island. In an area where we used to have glaciers flowing into the ocean and having a floating terminus – anywhere where we have that – much of that ice has actually broken off and become icebergs. So in an area that used to be completely covered in sea ice and glacier ice we’re now seeing open water each summer.”

Feature Interview

For more  on how climate change is transforming Canada’s Arctic, listen to Eye on the Arctic‘s feature interview with Adrienne White, a Phd student from the University of Ottawa’s Laboratory for Cryospheric Research:

“We’re in a feedback cycle, where because of the loss of sea ice we are now absorbing a lot more warmth into the Arctic region. It’s going to be very difficult to reverse,” says Adrienne White, pictured here on Ellesmere Island with the Milne Glacier in the background. (Dorota Medrzycka/Courtesy Adrienne White)

Dangerous feedback loop

Although Ellesmere Island may seem remote to many Canadians, what’s happening to its glaciers is already having implications on the environment. There’s been significant increases in sea levels in the Canadian Arctic since 2005 says White, nothing that what’s going on with the Ellesmere glaciers is a contributor.

Researchers say they saw no evidence of glaciers regenerating and that that is unlikely given the island’s sensitive environment.

“For things to reverse, we would need dramatic climate cooling,” says White. “At this point, we’re in a feedback cycle, where because of the loss of sea ice we are now absorbing a lot more warmth into the Arctic region.

“It’s going to be very difficult to reverse.”

A glacier in Yelverton Inlet in the Canadian Arctic. Researchers there did ground penetrating radar measurements via helicopter. (Luke Copland/Courtesy Adrienne White)

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Feds announce funding to tackle climate change in Inuit region of Atlantic Canada, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Glacier half the size of Manhattan breaks off Greenland, CBC News

Norway: Northern Barents Sea warming at alarming speed, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Densely-packed ice makes navigation difficult in Russian Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Swedish icebreaker heading for North Pole to study melting sea ice, Radio Sweden

United States: Rapid Arctic warming is increasing the frequency of blizzards in U.S. Northeast: study, Radio Canada International

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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