Canadian Ice Shelves Rapidly Disappearing

According to new research published by Canadian scientists, two Canadian Arctic ice shelves have diminished by almost half in the last six years, damage that is most likely irreversible. The damage to the ice shelves was especially accelerated this past summer, when the largest ice shelf split in two; the other ice shelf has almost completely disappeared.

Ice shelves first began to form around 4,500 years ago and are much thicker than sea ice. Ice shelves in the Arctic region are the result of an accumulation of snow, sea ice, and occassionally glacial runoff. The ice shelves in the Arctic are, on average, 131 feet thick but can be as thick as 328 feet.

The two Arctic ice shelves were first discovered by researchers more than 100 years ago, when they were significantly larger than they are now. Research has indicated that between 1906 and 1982, there has been a 90 percent reduction in the amount of ice along Canada’s northern coastline. The Serson Ice Shelf and the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, which were both included in the study, are the result of the Ellesemere Island Ice Sheet, which broke up into six pieces years ago. The other pieces that broke off from the Ellesmere Island Ice Sheet have already been significantly diminished. The remaining ice shelves now cover an estimated total of 402 square miles.

Scientists point to global warming as the reason the ice shelves are rapidly shrinking. Northern Ellesmere Island, which is where the Canadian ice shelves are located, has seen a 1.8 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperatures every decade for the past fifty to sixty years. Disappearing ice means that the level of the global ocean will rise significantly in the years to come, which could wreak havoc on the coastline’s ecosystems.

The Serson Ice Shelf, one of the two ice shelves included in the research, is located off the northern coastline of Canada’s Ellesemere Island. The shelf shrank from 79.15 square miles to two remaning section five years ago and diminished even further this past summer. One section of the shelf has gone from 16 square miles to 9.65 square miles, while the other section has gone from 13.51 square miles to 2 square miles.

The Ward Hunt Ice shelf, the second ice shelf included in the study, is also shrinking rapidly. This summer, the shelf’s central area, which was 131.7 square miles last year, broke up into two separate shelves. The remaining shelves now measure 87.65 and 28.75 square miles. The shrinking of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf is especially troubling to scientists because it was located the furthest north and believe to be the most stable of the Arctic ice shelves.

The disappearing Canadian Arctic ice shelves are only the most recent problem facing the Arctic region in the face of global warming. The delicate region is experiencing temperature increases at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the world, which will only continue to melt the ice. Studies have shown that the permanent ice cover in the Arctic is diminishing by 9 percent every ten years; if this continues, the Arctic could be completely ice free by the end of the century.

In an unusual twist to the global warming debate, National Geographic posted an article last week describing the “bright side” of global warming’s affect on the Arctic: a new study has shown that “the changing climate could improve air quality in the polar region.” The improvement in air quality could be attributed to an increased amount of rainfall throughout the world, which is the most effective way of removing pollution from the air. As a result, the pollution that originates in other countries before traveling north to the Arctic would be diminished, allowing for improved air quality.

Photo Credit: epa.gov/climatechange/kids/images/2-1-8-photo1.jpg

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