Two ice shelves that existed before Canada was settled by Europeans diminished significantly this summer, one nearly disappearing altogether, Canadian scientists say in new research.
The loss is important as a marker of global warming, returning the Canadian Arctic to conditions that date back thousands of years, scientists say. Floating icebergs that have broken free as a result pose a risk to offshore oil facilities and potentially to shipping lanes. The breaking apart of the ice shelves also reduces the environment that supports microbial life and changes the look of Canada's coastline.
Luke Copland is an associate professor in the geography department at the University of Ottawa who co-authored the research. He said the Serson Ice Shelf shrank from 79.15 square miles (205 square kilometers) to two remnant sections three years ago, and was further diminished this past summer.
Copland said the shelf went from a 16-square-mile (42-square-kilometer) floating glacier tongue to 9.65 square miles (25 square kilometers), and the second section from 13.51 square miles (35 square kilometers) to 2 square miles (7 square kilometers), off Ellesmere Island's northern coastline.
This past summer, Ward Hunt Ice Shelf's central area disintegrated into drifting ice masses, leaving two separate ice shelves measuring 87.65 and 28.75 square miles (227 and 74 square kilometers) respectively, reduced from 131.7 square miles (340 square kilometers) the previous year.
"It has dramatically broken apart in two separate areas and there's nothing in between now but water," said Copland.
Copland said those two losses are significant, especially since the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf has always been the biggest, the farthest north and the one scientists thought might have been the most stable.
"Recent (ice shelf) loss has been very rapid, and goes hand-in-hand with the rapid sea ice decline we have seen in this decade and the increasing warmth and extensive melt in the Arctic regions," said Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, remarking on the research.
Copland, who uses satellite imagery and who has conducted field work in the Arctic every May for the past five years, said since the end of July, pieces equaling one and a half times the size of Manhattan Island have broken off. Co-researcher Derek Mueller, an assistant professor at Carleton University's geography and environmental studies department, said the loss this past summer equals up to three billion tons. Copland said their findings have not yet been peer reviewed since the research is new, but a number of scientists contacted by The Associated Press reviewed the findings, agreeing the loss in volume of ice shelves is significant.
Scambos said the loss of the Arctic shelves is significant because they are old and their rapid loss underscores the severity of the warming trend scientists see now relative to past fluctuations such as the Medieval Warm Period or the warmer times in the pre-Current Era (B.C.).
Ice shelves, which began forming at least 4,500 years ago, are much thicker than sea ice, which is typically less than a few feet (meters) thick and survives up to several years.
Canada has the most extensive ice shelves in the Arctic along the northern coast of Ellesmere Island. These floating ice masses are typically 131 feet (40 meters) thick (equivalent to a 10-story building), but can be as much as 328 feet (100 meters) thick. They thickened over time via snow and sea ice accumulation, along with glacier inflow in certain places.
The northern coast of Ellesmere Island contains the last remaining ice shelves in Canada, with an estimated area of 217 square miles (563 square kilometers), Mueller said.
Between 1906 and 1982, there has been a 90 percent reduction in the areal extent of ice shelves along the entire coastline, according to data published by W.F. Vincent at Quebec's Laval University. The former extensive "Ellesmere Island Ice Sheet" was reduced to six smaller, separate ice shelves: Serson, Petersen, Milne, Ayles, Ward Hunt and Markham. In 2005, the Ayles Ice Shelf whittled almost completely away, as did the Markham Ice Shelf in 2008 and the Serson this year.
"The impact is significant and yet only a piece of the ongoing and accelerating response to warming of the Arctic," said Dr. Robert Bindschadler, emeritus scientist at the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
Bindschadler said the loss is an indication of another threshold being passed, as well as the likely acceleration of buttressed glaciers able to flow faster into the ocean, which accelerates their contribution to global sea level.
Copland said mean winter temperatures have risen by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade for the past five to six decades on northern Ellesmere Island.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, The Associated Press reported based on wrong information that the last remaining ice shelves in Canada along the coast of Ellesmere Island cover an estimated 402 square miles. Those measurements were for the end of the last century. The ice shelves' estimated area today is 217 square miles. Separately, the AP reported erroneously that the Serson Ice Shelf shrank to two remnant sections five years ago. It shrank to two remnant sections three years ago.