Nunavut’s Milne Ice Shelf collapses

“This is definitely a victim of climate change”

This rift in Nunavut’s Milne Ice Shelf is still intact, following the calving event that took place along a smaller fracture to the west. (Photo courtesy of Derek Mueller)

By Dustin Patar

When Adrienne White, an ice analyst at the Canadian Ice Service, sat down at her desk one morning last weekend, the first thing she checked on was Nunavut’s Milne Ice Shelf, located on the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island.

Although the satellite imagery was cloudy, White could make out a dark colour.

“I thought, OK, that doesn’t look right. I’ve been looking at this ice shelf for years and this doesn’t look normal,” she said.

Once the radar imagery came in, it was clear. Sometime between July 29 and 31, nearly half of the 4,000-year-old Milne Ice Shelf had broken off.

The result: a 79-square-kilometre ice island that’s roughly 50 percent larger than Manhattan or the city boundaries of Iqaluit and 70 to 80 metres high, 25 per cent taller than a Canadian football field is wide.

“I was definitely surprised to see the breakup,” said White. “But at the same time, the conditions were right.”

Prior to the calving event, White had noticed that the ice shelf was looking dirty on the surface, an indication that there has been a lot of melt.

In the weeks before, she had also noticed that there was a lot of open water along the northern coast of Ellesmere Island.

“In the past, this is an area that would have been perennially ice-covered,” said White.

“Over the past decade, we’re starting to see open water appear during the summer and with that, we’ve had these large calving events.”

Ellesmere Island saw major ice shelf breakup events in 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2012.

In 2010, a massive piece of ice about the size of Bermuda cracked off the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, also on Ellesmere Island.

The Milne Ice Shelf was considered to be one of the least vulnerable to breakup as it was roughly twice as thick as other ice shelves and it is well-protected in Milne Fiord.

“This is definitely a victim of climate change,” said White.

The calving of the Milne Ice Sheet on the northern coast of Ellesmere Island resulted in an ice island roughly 50 per cent larger than Manhattan. “Normally when people think of an iceberg they think of [something] pointy at the top and bulky at the bottom, but this is totally different,” said Mueller. Instead, ice islands are thin and expansive, “like your iPad,” said Mueller. (Image courtesy of Environment and Climate Change Canada)

For others, like Derek Mueller, a professor in the Department of Geography at Carleton University, the breakup itself isn’t the surprise.

“You might have seen headlines like ‘last intact ice shelf’—I don’t actually think that’s true because the ice shelf has been fracturing over the last 10 years,” he said.

“Every time we come up, we see more and more fractures.”

This isn’t the first time Mueller has seen a shelf break up. He’s worked in the North since he was an undergraduate student in 1996, and he’s visited the Milne Ice Shelf 11 times since 2004.

For him, what is surprising is that the calving happened along new fractures.

“We’ve camped on that ice shelf, actually in a place that I initially thought would break up,” said Mueller.

“But it didn’t break up there.”

Originally, Mueller and his colleagues were slated to visit the shelf earlier in July, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on ice.

“Hopefully next year [I’ll] get to the shelf and see what happened,” said Mueller.

“It’s very sad to see this breakup happen.”

For Mueller, the breakup of the ice shelf is also potentially a lost opportunity.

The Milne Ice Shelf acted as a sort of natural dam, trapping the meltwater at the head of the fiord and creating a rare epishelf lake—a layer of fresh water that floats directly on top of the ocean.

“They’re two fluids that are so different in their densities, they don’t mix,” said Mueller. “Like oil and water.”

From there the lake drained into the ocean by way of a channel that was carved through the bottom of the ice shelf.

“For over the last, almost, 10 years now, we’ve been working on this and we have a cool data set where we can see the [meltwater] temperatures and they rise up really high in the summer.”

As this warm water goes through the ice, it carves out small areas that Mueller and his colleagues recently discovered life inside, “nourishing themselves from the sediments that come from the fiord and are drifting by in the current,” he said.

There’s “a truly unique ecosystem of bottom-dwelling animals—scallops, sea anemones and so forth—living in the channel,” he said.

Since the initial calving event, the single ice island has broken up into two smaller pieces and several icebergs.

While they are all currently free-floating, mobile and confined to the coastline by pack ice, White said that very often they’ll become grounded if they move into more shallow waters and melt there.

Alternatively, they continue to drift through the summer, eventually making their way into the Canadian Arctic archipelago, similar to the Ayles Ice Shelf in 2005.

White, along with her colleagues at the Canadian Ice Service, will continue to track the movement of these ice islands, which can last for years.

“A large ice island is easy to track,” said White.

“But if this island were to break into hundreds of pieces, then all of a sudden you have hundreds of icebergs that are potentially 80 meters thick, so this poses a hazard for shipping.”

For both White and Mueller, the breakup of the Milne Ice Shelf sends a clear message.

“It’s a bit of a wake-up call,” said Mueller.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was one massive ice shelf stretching along the entire northern coast of Ellesmere Island.

By the year 2000, it had split into six main ice shelves and decreased in size by almost 90 per cent.

Since then, sea ice extents have diminished dramatically, hitting an all-time low in 2012.

This past July was no different, setting a record for an all-time minimum for the month, which was capped off by the calving of the Milne Ice Shelf.

Mueller said he hopes the event will draw further attention to the impacts of climate change.

“If this helps get people moving on this issue, then that’s a big silver lining,” said Mueller.

“Because it’s not too late to make these changes, right? The sooner we make them, the better it will be overall.”

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(9) Comments:

  1. Posted by Jitftcm on

    “… nearly half of the 4,000 year old Milne Ice Shelf had broken off”.

    And exactly how does this prove “climate change” or implied anthropomormphic climate change? A mere 8,000 years ago, where Arviat is now located, there was an ice cover one kilometer thick.

    The history of the Earth, which spans 4.6 billion years, is continuous and the climate is forever changing; sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

    Each day has its own climate. Each season has its own climate. Each year has its own climate.

    If you are concerned about the mess we are making, stop consuming so wantonly and so toxically. That’s all that matters. That’s all we can do. That’s all we need to do.

    Quit listening to media’s experts. Both the media and their experts have a vested interest in their own message. Do your own research, become your own expert

    • Posted by Confusion Reigns on

      You are confusing weather and climate. Each day most certainly does not have its own climate.

      • Posted by Jitftcm on

        Sorry to have confused you Confusion Reigns. That wasn’t my intent.

        Climate change is continuous, and mostly subtle, like time. Nonetheless, each day, week, month, year and millennium brings changes. Some argue though that matter is finite, but that’s for another discussion.

        Our land, all the way south to below the Great Lakes, was covered in a thick sheet of ice just a few thousand years. That’s progress for you. During those years, the ice advanced and receded; sometimes quickly, other times not so quickly. Thankfully the Bering Strait ice bridge remained while the land thawed.

        Like the receding ice mass, plants and animals (including humans) migrated northward and everyward as the land opened. Here we are today.

        For those who care about climate change, please find a less fanatical religion. Quit listening to CNN. If you really care about people and the planet, reduce your toxic consumption and invite a homeless person to live in your spare bedroom.

  2. Posted by Peter Woods on

    I appreciate this timely article for the perspective it provides on the speed and magnitude of climate change in Canada’s north. I respect the essential work done by scientists and journalists in educating the public and generating informed discussion on this critical issue. Thank-you for your work.
    In response to an earlier comment, I agree with the suggestion, “Do your own research, become your own expert.” I’d add that it’s important to note the article’s subtitle, “This is definitely a victim of climate change” refers to – the period of accelerated climate change from the mid 1950’s to the present – and it’s helpful to keep in mind that climate refers to the average of daily weather conditions over a long period of time.

  3. Posted by Karl Popper on

    There’s sad and amazing irony in a person calling on us to do our own research and become our own experts, while simultaneously claiming that climate changes every day. I hope this is a learning moment for some of us; it’s good to do your own research and aim for as much expertise as you can. It’s also clear that for some people this kind of slogan is simply cover to find research that supports your presuppositions and biases.
    Be careful and remember, real experts look at real evidence, not just what they want to see.

    • Posted by Gillian Williamson on

      Well said .. thank you

  4. Posted by Denier by definition on

    It is sad to see that once again the public is exposed to alarmism like this. This is not unnatural, this glacier wasn’t there before. Also it will not pose a risk to shipping. It is on the wrong side for ships.
    Most people will not go and see this polar shelf, most people wont even read passed the headline and believe “The polar shelf is GONE!!”. When in fact they should know that a glacier that wasn’t there before has shed about half. By no means this is a crisis or apocalypse.
    Rejoice; warmth brings biodiversity.

    • Posted by Frodo on

      When you say the glacier “wasn’t there before” what is your timeline on that? Exactly when wasn’t it there?

  5. Posted by Paul on

    Every time I read a denier’s comment using ‘it’s always changed’ or ‘the earth is big’ I am dismayed by the lack spine shown by those on Our side; the scientists and the media. Just because there are two sides does not mean whack ‘opinions’ should get equal time. Do Not bring mere Economics to a Physics class and demand equal time.
    The case is simple. Draw a bunch of www’s and an L. wwwl. This is CO2 for the last ice-ages. Draw a bunch of www’s … We are waiting for the second L of Temperature. It is Fact that Temp follows CO2: that graphs drawn from paleo-records Overlap.
    This is just the set-up: The deniers ignore The Time Scale. The previous www’s covered thousands of years… 20, 40 to 60,000 years between ice-ages; while the rise in CO2 we have Observed has taken place in only 200 years… From 250ppm to The Pliocene Epoch in only 200 years…
    So if you wanna dispute the whole of our paleo-record and that Temp follows CO2 and the Rate of Change… your psychology is showing. As is your politics and greed.

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