Canada loses its last ice shelf as a heatwave hits the Arctic

The 4000-year-old Milne Ice Shelf, Canada’s last one, has collapsed due to temperatures 5 degrees higher than the 30-year average.

A massive chunk of the Milne Ice Shelf, on the northwestern coast of Ellesmere Island, in Nunavut, Canada, has broken off. The enormous ice platform split into two large pieces, sending large chunks of ice adrift in the Arctic Ocean.

Rupture of the Milne Ice Shelf
The rupture of the Milne Ice Shelf © Noaa

The first fracture in what was Canada’s last intact ice shelf, which formed 4,000 years ago, occurred between the 30th and 31st of July. The 187-square-kilometre slab of ice broke in two, creating fragments 106 and 81 square kilometres in size. The smaller one has now split apart too, creating two major fragments (55 square kilometres and 24 square kilometres) and many smaller icebergs.

Research at Carleton University

Field instruments left on the Milne Ice Shelf by researchers from Carleton University who returned to study the ice shelf every summer have also been lost. Derek Muller, professor at the department of Geography and Environmental Studies, had visited the ice shelf eleven times since 2004. He would have been there this year as well, had the coronavirus pandemic not disrupted travel arrangements. Professor Muller explained that his “research focus is to learn more about how ice shelves destabilise and break-up in a warming climate”. “This drastic decline in ice shelves is clearly related to climate change,” Luke Copland, University Research Chair in Glaciology at the University of Ottawa’s Geography department, added. “This summer has been up to 5 degrees Celsius warmer than the average over the period from 1981 to 2010″.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, there used to be a single, enormous ice shelf that extended 8,600 square kilometres along the northern coast of Ellesmere Island. By 2000, this block had’ divided into six large ice shelves and several smaller platforms with a total area of 1,050 square kilometres. Milne Ice Shelf was the last remnant of these once-great structures.

Ellesmere Island’s ice shelves were subject to significant ruptures and calving events in 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2012. The Milne Ice Shelf was considered one of the least vulnerable to breaking because of the protection offered it by Milne Fjord. Nevertheless, it suffered many fractures in recent years, leading up to the most recent ruptures.

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