These Canadian ice caps were estimated to melt by 2022 — they’re already gone

A paper published back in 2017 estimated that the St. Patrick Bay ice caps in Canada would disappear in 5 years due to climate change. We’re barely halfway through that time, and they’ve already melted.

Satellite images show the location where the St. Patrick Bay ice caps used to exist on the Hazen Plateau of northeastern Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada.
Image credits NSIDC.

NASA imagery shows that the ice caps have melted far faster than scientists predicted — 3 years instead of 5. That initial estimation was made by scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2017.

The melting of these caps should be a very clear warning that climate warming is picking up around the world, and shows the dangers of officials choosing to ignore or confound science consensus.

Melt rate — fast

The ice sheets spread over more than 10 square kilometers (around 4 sq miles) in total back in 1950. Mark Serreze, a geographer, NSIDC director, and lead author of the 2017 paper, remembers the striking view when he visited the area in 1982.

“When I first visited those ice caps, they seemed like such a permanent fixture of the landscape,” says geographer and NSIDC director Mark Serreze. “To watch them die in less than 40 years just blows me away.”

By the time Serreze started writing the paper, these ice sheets were only 5% of the size they were in 1959. Today, satellite images from NASA’s Terra satellite shows that no trace of this ice remains — and with the way things are progressing, it won’t be back in the foreseeable future.

The ice caps are part of a larger body of ice sheets in the Hazen Plateau on Ellesmere Island. This land stretches well into the Arctic and is one of the most northerly points in all of Canada. Two other glaciers that would often link with the now-melted pair, the Murray and Simmons ice caps, are faring better due to their high altitude. However, researchers think these two will also collapse soon, as their size was at 39% and 25%, respectively, of what they were in 1959.

This outline of the St. Patrick Bay ice caps, taken from the 2017 The Cryosphere paper, is based on aerial photography from August 1959, GPS surveys conducted during August 2001, and for August of 2014 and 2015 from NASA’s Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER).
Outline of St. Patrick Bay ice caps recorded over time.
Image credits NSIDC.

One thing I find particularly heartbreaking about this story is that Serreze and his team first started work in the Hazen Plateau around 1980 as they were trying to understand whether human activity was causing climate change. At the time, scientific consensus was not yet established on the issue, and some research suggested we were actually going through a period of global cooling (at least publicly — Shell knew).

So one of the sites that helped us prove once and for all that the way we do things is hurting the planet has been destroyed exactly because of that damage.

But it’s also a sobering wake-up call that the climate isn’t changing in the future — it’s changing right now.

“We’ve long known that as climate change takes hold, the effects would be especially pronounced in the Arctic,” says Serreze. “But the death of those two little caps that I once knew so well has made climate change very personal. All that’s left are some photographs and a lot of memories.”

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