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On thinning ice: This summer season I received up shut and private with glaciers

This summer season I ventured into the land of ice on the prime of the world. I wandered amongst towering icebergs, and got here nose to nose with calving glaciers.

Canada has an infinite quantity of glacial ice—the third most on the planet after Greenland and Antarctica. A portion of that is within the mountains of the west, however most is within the excessive Arctic. Over time I’ve had the privilege of visiting these frozen options and witnessing first-hand the adjustments which have taken place as many begin to vanish earlier than our eyes.

My first go to to a glacier was in 1973 on the Columbia Icefield between Banff and Jasper in Alberta. The icefield feeds six glaciers, together with the well-known Athabasca Glacier. It’s the solely glacier in Canada you can drive as much as and stroll on.

However every time I’ve returned during the last half century, I have been stounded at how a lot the glacier has modified, not solely by how a lot it is retreated — greater than a kilometer again — but additionally the way it has thinned, now sitting decrease within the valley.

Vacationers hike as much as the Athabasca glacier in Jasper Nationwide Park. This stroll will get about 10 meters longer yearly. Because the mid-1800s, the glacier has receded round 1.75 kilometers and misplaced about 60 per cent of its ice mass. (Amanda Buckiewicz/CBC)

This previous summer season I had the chance to repeat a distinct journey to see northern glaciers. It was again in 2008 that I might first sailed to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic aboard a cruise ship.

This time, we began in Kangerlussuaq on the south western coast of Greenland. Our route carried us up the rugged coast, then over to Baffin Island and Devon Island in Canada. The ship was outfitted with 12-person zodiacs that ferried us to shore to go to communities situated on the mouths of rugged fjords. There are not any timber that far north. The land is roofed in tundra, which is kind of vibrant, however the vegetation would not develop greater than ankle excessive.

From a couple of kilometers offshore, trying alongside the Greenland coast, you may see a number of glaciers directly, dripping like candle wax between the coastal mountain peaks. I may see a distinction within the panorama since my first go to in 2008. Many tongues of ice are farther up the valleys with massive areas of uncovered rock on the backside that was coated in ice.

Mountain peaks between rivers of glacial ice descending to the sea.
Greenland is generally coated by a single massive ice sheet which measures 1,730,000 sq. kilometres, with smaller glaciers lining the periphery. As Bob went across the coast, he was in a position to spot a number of glaciers directly, dripping like candle wax between the coastal mountain peaks. (Bob McDonald/CBC)

Some glaciers nonetheless do attain all the best way all the way down to the ocean, particularly at Ilulissat, a World Heritage Website, the place a fast-paced glacier calves icebergs the dimensions of ten-storey buildings that drift off into the North Atlantic.

Approaching one in all these gleaming mountains of ice in a small boat is a nerve-wracking expertise, particularly when you think about that the majority of it’s beneath the floor of the water. The zodiac drivers are instructed to stay 3 times the peak of the iceberg away as a result of these monsters are continuously altering and might roll over or break into massive items with out warning.

Scattered throughout the floor of the water are smaller chunks of ice often called growlers and bergy bits relying on their dimension. I managed to achieve over and scoop up a small piece that I broke aside and handed round to fellow passengers to style. Popping a chunk in my mouth, it crackled and popped as air bubbles that had been trapped within the ice when it froze had been launched. I noticed that these bubbles had been doubtless tens of 1000’s of years outdated, so I used to be respiratory air that might have handed by way of a wooly mammoth. It’s those self same bubbles that scientists measure to hint the historical past of the Earth’s local weather.

Small boats float in front of an ice wall on an island
The zodiac boats allowed Bob and his fellow adventurers the prospect to stand up near glaciers like this one on Croker Bay in Devon Island. (Bob Mcdonald)

Farther north, in Croker Bay on Canada’s Devon Island, we motored alongside the face of a two-kilometre-wide glacier that runs proper all the way down to the ocean. The jumbled wall of ice towered above our tiny boats. Abruptly, a loud cracking sound adopted by a thunderous rumble rolled throughout the floor of the water. We turned to see a big chunk of ice tumble off the ice wall, sink down, then emerge like a white whale, slowly settling. A brand new iceberg was born.

Sooner or later, as glaciers retreat inland, this can be a a lot rarer expertise.

On the return journey throughout the huge expanse of Baffin Bay, about 100 kilometers from shore, we encountered a big swath of floating sea ice. This was not glacial ice, however small floes of the ocean ice that varieties on Arctic waters in winter.

Wandering among the many ice floes within the zodiacs, we noticed standing on one in all them the long-lasting image of the north, a polar bear, attempting to find seals. That ice is their looking floor, however there’s much less of it than there was. The Arctic’s everlasting sea ice is shrinking. It is thinner than previously, and its minimal extent in the summertime is just a bit greater than half of what it was within the early Eighties — a results of the Arctic warming far quicker than the remainder of the planet — maybe as a lot as 4 occasions quicker, based on one NASA scientist.

polar bear on an ice floe
Throughout Bob McDonald’s cruise this summer season he noticed melting ice first-hand, in addition to arctic animals just like the polar bear. (Steven Rose Images)

As you’ll hear on this week’s episode of Quirks & Quarks, scientists are learning Canada’s glaciers, gleaning details about the present and previous local weather, volcanic eruptions — even forest fires — tracing adjustments over very very long time intervals. Ice is a useful archive of previous local weather knowledge, which is why scientists are making the hassle to review it, and even protect samples of it, earlier than it disappears.

Greenland has already misplaced almost 4 trillion tons of ice for the reason that Nineties, and the pattern is predicted to proceed. The lack of glacial ice will have an effect on river flows all over the world and contribute to sea-level rise. The lack of sea ice will change the temperature and biology of the Arctic Ocean.

Seeing for myself how a lot ice has been misplaced in solely 14 years, I’m wondering if we’re among the many final generations to see many of those magnificent frozen rivers.

WATCH | CBC meteorologist Christy Climenhaga explores the state of Canada’s glaciers.

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