Collapsed Arctic ice shelf adds 'exclamation point' to dire climate trends, say scientists

The loss of the St. Patrick's Bay ice caps, located on Ellesmere Island, is a warning that "everything is changing up there," says scientist Mark Serreze.

There are signs that Arctic ice may become unstable earlier than predicted

The last intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic has collapsed. The Milne ice shelf, which is situated in the Tuvaijuittuq marine protected area, is now adrift. (Adrienne White)

In 2017, scientist Mark Serreze predicted the St. Patrick's Bay ice caps, located on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, would vanish within five years.

But their "official death" came two years earlier than expected and was set in stone this August, said Serreze.

The culprit is climate change.

The loss of the two Canadian ice caps is a warning that "everything is changing up there," said Serreze.

The Arctic is experiencing the effects of a warming climate faster than any other part of Canada and these findings add an "exclamation point" to current trends, he said.

The High Arctic island is partially surrounded by the Tuvaijuittuq marine protected area, which translates to "the place where the ice never melts" in Inuktitut.

The area is projected to be the last portion of the Arctic Ocean to maintain year-round ice — until 2050, that is, by which time the oldest and strongest ice in the Arctic is expected to melt.

But there are signs that the ice may become unstable earlier than predicted.

Recent reports have shown that the last intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic has also collapsed.

The Milne ice shelf, which is situated in Tuvaijuittuq  is now adrift.

These findings suggest that "the Milne and other ice shelves in Canada are simply not viable any longer and will disappear in the coming decades," said Luke Copland, glaciology research chair at the University of Ottawa, in a press release.

This may also mark a "devastating" loss of unique, biodiverse ecosystems.

A map showing the location of the Milne ice shelf on Ellesmere Island in Canada's High Arctic. (CBC)

'I knew them as friends'

Serreze co-authored the report that predicted the final days of the two ice caps on Hazen Plateau a few years ago. 

"I knew every square inch of these ice caps," he said. "I knew them as friends too, you know, and now they're gone.... It's like losing an old friend."

Ice caps will often shrink during the summer then recover as winter approaches.

However, Serreze said that recovery is not possible in this case, "because we're not cooling down again."

"We're in control of the climate now. Basically, we've taken on the reins.... So unless we as a people and as a society get a handle on this ... there's no way these things are ever going to come back," Serreze said.

The Arctic is "locked in" for a temperature rise twice to three times the global average, according to a 2019 United Nations report.

As temperatures continue to rise, more ice will be lost.

"In many ways, [residents of the Arctic] have the least to do with what brought us to right now," yet they are bearing the greatest burden of these changes, said Serreze.

A Milne ice shelf research camp as seen in 2018. (Jeremie Bonneau)

A 'devastating' loss of ecosystems

Recently, scientists uncovered a channel on the Milne ice sheet that was home to "a truly unique ecosystem of bottom-dwelling animals — scallops, sea anemones and so forth," said Derek Mueller, a professor at Carleton University.

The discovery was "phenomenal," but is now threatened.

"Our team was on the cusp of further documenting this unique environment, which may well have disappeared as a result of this collapse," Mueller said.

The habitat adapted in a "remarkable" environment that relies on a careful balance of ice and water.

But unfortunately, it's a "one way trip" with climate change, says Andrew Hamilton, a research fellow at the University of Alberta.

"These ice shelves are not going to regenerate anytime soon. So, these are ecosystems that are lost basically for good now," Hamilton said.

Two researchers walking along the Milne Ice Shelf. (Jeremie Bonneau)

Adapting to the new Arctic

Hamilton described a journey he took in 2018 to the Milne ice sheet as challenging, but surreal.

"It's very smooth undulating hills on this ice shelf ... and you're riding a snowmobile, so it's kind of like a very smooth slow going roller coaster over the hills and valleys on the ice shelf," he said.

The experience motivated him to conduct research in the area and spurred a passion to reduce the impact of climate change so the ice features he admired would remain.

The rapid pace of climate change in the Arctic causes concern about how communities are able to adapt. Inuit in particular have an interconnected relationship with the environment and rely on ice cover.

In the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) climate change strategy, president Natan Obed said "for us, ice is a fundamental source of learning, memories, knowledge and wisdom."

Being able to better understand and foresee some of the changes occurring is key to adapting, said Hamilton.

However, the pandemic demonstrated "the dire need for more community-led research in the North," Hamilton says.

Hamilton's work is also trying to support training and skill development so community members can take the lead on research questions that are most important to them and their communities. 

"There's no one more motivated to understand what's happening in the Arctic than communities that are right at the forefront of these changes," Hamilton said.