|ARCTIC IN PERIL |
Area covered by ice on the Arctic islands (in square kilometres):
Greenland — 1,802,600
Canadian Arctic Islands — 150,897
Russian Arctic Islands — 55,635
Svalbard (Norway) — 36,591
Jan Mayen (Norway) — 115
Percentage of the world’s fresh water that is stored in glaciers. Some of this is released during periods of drought and intense heat when water is in short supply.
The Brintnell Glacier north of Nahanni National Park is about half the size of the city of Ottawa. It is the only glacier remaining on the mainland of the Northwest Territories.
Number of glaciers in Alaska that officially have been named.
Number of glaciers in Alaska that have no name.
Thickness, in centimetres, lost on average in 2005 by 30 important reference glaciers monitored by the Swiss-based World Glacier Monitoring Service.
The new Arctic cold war Ed Struzik, this year's Atkinson Fellow, travelled the Arctic to explore how Canadians can adapt to and even exploit a precarious return to warmer times in the remote region.
The worldwide thaw is accelerating. Thirty key international glaciers are melting about six times faster than in the 1980s. They are seen as the proverbial canary in the coal mine
Nov 17, 2007 04:30 AM
KUSAWA LAKE, Yukon–High above the green-grey waters of Kusawa Lake in the southern Yukon sits an ancient swath of snow and ice. Biologist Gerry Kuzyk and his wife Kirsten were hiking up this steep, icy mountainside 10 years ago when a powerful barnyard smell led them to a mound of caribou pellets surrounding antlers sticking out of the snow.
Such a find wouldn't draw much attention in many parts of the Yukon. But the last time anyone reported a caribou near the site was 1932. And this was no ordinary pile of dung. More than 300 metres long, 200 metres wide and knee-deep in some places, it also contained the remains of freeze-dried birds, a rotting muskrat, dozens of other animals as well as arrows, darts and spears.
When Yukon caribou biologist Rick Farnell arrived to investigate, he likened the scene to "The Twilight Zone." Tests done by a University of Toronto lab estimated the darts and some of the fecal pellets to be up to 4,000 years old. Melting out of the ancient snow and ice was the accumulation of everything that had died or been deposited on the glacier in that time.
Kuzyk figured he would never see anything like it again.
But two years later, a couple of hunters walked into his Yukon wildlife office with the partial remains of a man they had found melting out of the ice on the British Columbia side of the Yukon border. The iceman wore a squirrel fur cloak and woven hat, similar to what aboriginal people in the region wear today. Researchers later determined that Kwaday Dän Sinchi (Long Ago Person Found) had perished 540 years ago.
Both finds set off an aerial search of the Yukon that produced dozens more archeological sites and a treasure trove of artifacts used by three First Nations groups. The melting, it turns out, is not only unlocking the secrets of the human past, it is also providing scientists with a glimpse of what this world looked like before Europeans arrived.
Most of the world's glaciers are receding. Climate change is melting the European Alps, the snows of Kilimanjaro in Africa and the massive snouts of snow and ice between Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies. Of the 850 glaciers on the eastern slopes of the Rockies that Canadian glaciologist Mike Demuth has been monitoring, 325 have disappeared entirely since the early 1970s.
But new data show the melting of glaciers worldwide is accelerating faster than anyone previously thought. According to the Swiss-based World Glacier Monitoring Service, 30 key international glaciers lost on average 66 centimetres of thickness in 2005. Those glaciers are melting about 1.6 times faster this decade than they were in the 1990s, and about six times faster than in the 1980s. In the last 27 years, they have, on average, thinned by a total of about 10.5 metres.
Nowhere is the meltdown more dramatic than in the sub-Arctic and Arctic regions where there are more than 100,000 glaciers.
The Columbia Glacier near Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound has retreated 15 kilometres in the last 25 years. Of the 19 glaciers in the state's Juneau Icefield, 18 are receding. Only one, the Taku Glacier, is advancing.
It's a similar story in northern Canada. In the mid-1960s and 1970s, the Steele was one of a number of glaciers that was growing and tearing through the St. Elias icefields in the southwest corner of the Yukon. At one point, the Steele was moving more than 1.5 billion tonnes of ice at a rate of up to 15 metres per day. But these days, this so-called "Galloping Glacier" is too wasted to make another run. So is the Lowell Glacier, which surged up against Goatherd Mountain 255 years ago and dammed the Alsek River, creating a glacial lake more than 100 kilometres long and 100 metres deep.
The Lowell's retreat may be good news for the Yukon residents of Haines Junction whose homes could be under water if it were to once again surge so spectacularly.
But the retreat of Arctic ice raises some troubling issues.
When the Exxon Valdez ran into a reef in Prince William Sound 18 years ago, for example, it wasn't simply a case of pilot error. The tanker was on an altered course to avoid a dangerous mess of icebergs that had calved off the Columbia Glacier. It resulted in the worst man-made environmental disaster in North American history. Nearly 2,000 kilometres of Alaskan shoreline was contaminated.
The melting of glaciers also has huge implications for future hydro-electric generation in the north, for commercial navigation on the Mackenzie River, for rare life forms that rely on glaciers, for more southerly weather patterns and for low-lying coastal communities everywhere.
Greenland, for example, has 1.8 million square kilometres of ice that is on average 2.3 kilometres thick. If it were to melt completely, ocean levels would rise by up to seven metres.
That's not going to happen any time soon. But scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder recently found that glaciers and ice caps, more than Greenland or Antarctica, are mostly responsible for the ice in the world's oceans. They estimate that glaciers and ice caps are contributing about 417 cubic kilometres of ice, as much water as there is in Lake Erie, each year.
Not only has this flow of ice been steady, it's rising by about 12.5 cubic kilometres per year. If it continues to rise at that rate, many of the 104 million people who live within a metre of sea level may have to move by the end of the century.
The possibility is no longer just theoretical. A small rise in sea level has already forced the Alaska government to consider evacuating the entire Eskimo village of Shishmaref, which lies on a tiny island on the edge of the Arctic Circle. It's also why four other coastal communities – Kivalina, Koyukuk, and Newtok in Alaska and Tuktoyaktuk in Canada – may have to be evacuated as well within the next 50 years.
Mike Demuth won't deny he had ancient animals and Stone Age hunters like those found by the Kuzyks in mind when he got the idea of skiing across the Brintnell Glacier in the spring of 2007.
But the glaciologist's main goal, he said when he invited me along, was to determine how quickly the icefield north of Nahanni National Park in the Northwest Territories has been retreating, and what impact it is having.
"My wife Margie and I found the bones of caribou scattered across the Brintnell Glacier when we were planting poles in the ice (to measure changes in depth) last summer," said Demuth, who works for the Geological Survey of Canada. "But those looked relatively fresh, like they had just been killed by a pack of wolves. But who knows? They may be a lot older than they looked."
Shrouded in fog or clouds for most of the spring and summer, the Brintnell is one of the most remote and difficult places to reach in the western Arctic.
But the sun was burning bright when we began an afternoon ascent to find the four poles the Demuths had planted the summer before. There were four of us on the expedition: Demuth, Canadian biologist Steve Bertollo, Matt Beedle, an Alaskan native who was doing a PhD in glaciology, and me.
Despite the sun, a nasty storm front was moving in from the valley below. Within the hour we were in and out of the clouds and snow, sweating buckets one minute and then pulling up our hoods the next to stay warm.
We never did find any sign of ancient life. But thanks to a global positioning device, it didn't take too long to find the first of the four poles. It was sticking a metre out of the ice beneath another metre of snow that Bertollo had shovelled off.
The fact that a metre of ice had melted off the surface of the glacier in the six weeks it took for the deep autumn freeze to set in was no surprise to Demuth. Satellite images and a 58-year-old aerial photograph had already told him that the entire icefield in the Ragged Range has been shrinking fast.
Most Canadian glaciers are small compared with the massive sheets of ice that cover Greenland and Antarctica. But that makes them more sensitive to climate change. Roy Koerner, the dean of glaciology in Canada, sees them as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, an early warning to the rest of the world of the consequences of climate change.
This spring, Koerner was shocked when he and David Burgess, the scientist who is taking over his position at the Geological Survey, set off across the Melville ice cap high in the western half of the Arctic Archipelago.
"It's a small glacier," says Koerner. "I thought I knew every inch of it until we came across this big lump that was sticking out. I couldn't figure out what it was until Dave took a look and realized that it was not ice but earth and rock under that snow. The glacier had melted back so much that parts of it were now gone."
Over in Greenland, the glaciers are also shrinking. Coastal glaciers there are melting into the Atlantic Ocean twice as fast as previously believed. But snow and ice have also been building up in the interior.
This has led climate change skeptics to claim that the ice sheet is not thawing.
Thanks to radio echo data and 10 years of radar information, scientists have recently confirmed that the Greenland Ice Sheet is, in fact, slimming dramatically.
The data show that the annual loss of mass has risen from 90 cubic kilometres in 1996 to 150 cubic kilometres in 2005.
Demuth and other glaciologists believe more investment in research and technology is the only way scientists will be able to provide policy makers with the information they need to understand what the melting of Canada's glaciers means for the environment and the economy.
"Up until very recently, we've been relying on pretty rudimentary data," he pointed out at camp one night. "But ... the complexity of the problems we're being asked to investigate involves solutions that can no longer be obtained by one researcher doing things the old way."