Nova Scotia

Record-low ice levels found in Gulf of St. Lawrence

This year's seasonal ice cover is the lowest in its 51-year recorded history say forecasters with the Canadian Ice Service.

Season's total ice cover is only 4.2 per cent with 33 per cent the typical number

There is very little ice to be found along the western shore of Cape Breton near Grand Étang. (Brittany Wentzell)

For the first time in Leonard LeBlanc's memory, something is missing from the western Cape Breton's coastline.

"There's no ice to be seen anywhere, along the coast, or even in the horizon," said the president of the Gulf Nova Scotia Fishermen's Coalition. 

The 63-year-old Chéticamp man said it hasn't happened since he was a child.

The warming temperatures in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence are having a dramatic impact on this year's ice floes.

Brad Drummond, an ice forecaster with the Canadian Ice Service, said this season's ice cover is at a record low. Ice data mapping has been done since 1969.

"It is a bit of an anomaly," said Drummond. "But we definitely noticed that on average, since the mid-90s, ice conditions have been below (normal)."

The climatology office is a division of the Meteorological Service of Canada, and is considered the leading authority for ice and iceberg information in Canada's navigable waters.

This season's total ice cover is only 4.2 per cent, while typically that number hovers around 33 per cent.

A screenshot of NASA’s Terra satellite caught this picture of Cape Breton on Feb. 10. It shows the lack of ice covering the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (CBC)

High temperatures

The lack of sea ice is attributed to unseasonably high temperatures witnessed over the past few months.

A decade-long warming trend was also apparent in 2020 with deep waters reaching record highs, according to ocean climate data released Tuesday by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Drummond said those temperature increases are a part of shifting weather patterns.

"A lot of the low-pressure systems that have affected the area have stayed a little further west than usual, and travel further north, which brings up a lot more warm air with it," he said. 

"And as well, with the winds associated with these low-pressure systems makes it very hard to form ice."

Without the presence of ice blocking moisture from the Gulf, people living along the western side of Cape Breton Island would likely be seeing more snow squalls, said Drummond. 

A photograph taken Feb. 10, 2021, shows some ice floes in the estuary of the St. Lawrence River, located upstream of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec. (Environment and Climate Change Canada)

Community, fishing concerns 

LeBlanc is worried about the impact this strange winter may have on nearby fishing grounds.

Chief among his concerns is exactly how the ocean's might be stirred as there has been no ice to protect it from heavy wave action. 

"Dredging is going to have to increase, I suspect, in the coming year or two, because of these storms that build up sand dunes [at] entrances to harbours," he said.

"That's going to be a significant cost. So it's not a good thing, I mean, I remember when I was younger, the old fishermen used to say, 'You know, big ice, big fishing,' so it will be interesting to see what the spring is going to bring."

Marcellin Chiasson owns property on Chéticamp Island where erosion has long been a challenge.

"So far, I don't believe there's any large drift ice to protect the beach, so we could lose a lot more land this year."

Since purchasing the property in 1973, Chiasson estimates 20-30 feet of shoreline has been lost. 

Ecological impact 

There are also concerns over the lack of ice and its potential impacts on coastal environments.

Bruce Hatcher, chair of Cape Breton University's marine ecosystem research, said the presence of the ocean's natural lid creates a calmer and quieter world.

"It means things for those that live in the ocean, those that make their way across the surface of the ocean, and interestingly, for those who live on the land adjacent to the ocean," Hatcher said. 

"It calms the ocean and it prevents the generation of waves, and that has all kinds of implications. But for us, the most important one is [that] ice protects our shorelines from big waves associated with winter storms in the Gulf of Mexico."

Hatcher said ice floes would protect more delicate shorelines in the southern Gulf. That protection may not be in place this year when winter storms arrive on western Cape Breton's coastline. 

"When you take the ice away, those waves are able to impinge on the shore and can cause significant amounts of shoreline erosion," he said. "Particularly, if it's a place that has lots of soft sediments, you know, not rocky."

Hatcher said that type of soft material can be found along parts of the Cape Breton's coastline, particularly along the Chéticamp shore and areas south of Chéticamp.

He said there is also concern for marine mammals living in the area, such as harp seals, which rely on ice for safe, dependable breeding areas.

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