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Huge section of Ayles Ice Shelf broke off

Source: ice-glaces.ec.gc.ca

On August 13 2005, a huge section of the Ayles Ice Shelf broke off into the Arctic Ocean. This process is called calving. The resulting ice island is currently trapped in winter fast ice off the coast of Ellesmere Island. The ice island is approximately 66 square kilometers in size, roughly the size of 11,000 football fields. It measures 15 km long by 5km wide and is 30 to 40 m thick. The Ayles ice island represents the largest break-up of an ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic in 30 years. The ice in the Ayles Ice Island is suspected to be up to 4,500 years old.

The ice island apparently calved off from the Ayles Ice Shelf because of anomalously warmer temperatures and persistent offshore or along shore winds. The sea ice that normally presses along the north coast of Ellesmere Island, even in summer, was replaced by an open water lead in the days leading up the August 13th 2005, which allowed the shelf to slip into the water and drift rapidly to the west.

Arctic sea ice has experienced enhanced summertime retreats for several decades, adding to evidence of significant warming near the North Pole. This break-up event serves as a sentinel to the changing arctic environment.



What is the difference between an ice island and an iceberg?

An Ice Island is a large piece of floating ice protruding about 5 m above sea level, which has broken away from an Arctic ice shelf. They have a thickness of 30-50 m and an area of from a few thousand square metres to 500 sq. km or more. They are usually characterized by a regularly undulating surface giving a ribbed appearance from the air.

An Iceberg is a massive piece of ice of greatly varying shape, protruding 5 m or more above sea level, which has broken away from a glacier and which may be afloat or aground. They may be described as tabular,domed, pinnacled, wedged, drydocked or blocky. Sizes of icebergs are classed as small, medium, large and very large.

Note: Ice Island is an Arctic term. In Antarctica, ice islands and calved-off glacier ice are both called icebergs.

What is an Ice Shelf?

An Ice Shelf is a floating ice sheet of considerable thickness showing 2 m or more above sea level, attached to the coast. They usually have great horizontal extent and a level or gently undulating surface. Ice shelf growth occurs by annual snow accumulation and also by the seaward extension of land glaciers. Limited areas may be aground. The seaward edge is termed an ice front.



Would rising sea levels have contributed to the break-up of the Ayles Ice Shelf?

We have no data to indicate that there is or was a rise in the sea level. More likely offshore winds leading up to the fracture could have created a chaotic sea, pushing the arctic sea ice away from the shelf front... no doubt sea swell may have played a part in the fracture.

How was the Ayles Ice Island discovered?

The fracture of the Ayles Ice Shelf was first noticed by ice analyst Laurie Weir, of the Canadian Ice Service, during routine monitoring of the eastern Arctic. Canadian RADARSAT satellite images taken of Ellesmere Island and its surrounding ice between early August and mid August 2005 showed that a massive section of the Ayles Ice Shelf had broken way on August 13th.

A discussion with fellow sea ice forecaster Trudy Wohlleben led to a meeting with Luke Copland, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, who suggested the event be documented with a study and paper. Over the next several months, Copland (University of Ottawa), Weir (CIS) and Derek Mueller (University of Fairbanks Alaska) did post-analyses on RADARSAT, MODIS and ASTER images, and seismologic records until the fracture time was pinpointed down to the actual hour of the breakup. In less than an hour, between 1730-1830z on August 13 2005, a broad crack opened in the Ayles Ice Shelf and a massive section broke off into the sea. Once the time of the event was determined, detailed temperature and wind profiles were gathered to complete the picture.

The event came to the media's attention after Luke Copland attended and presented the case in Cambridge England in August of 2006 and also when Derek Mueller and Warwick Vincent briefed Can West Reporter Margaret Munro at the ArcticNet Annual Science Meeting (ASM) in Victoria just before Christmas 2006.

The annual ArcticNet Science Meeting focuses on climate change in the North and is one of the main Arctic science meetings in North America. The ArcticNet meeting was the first scientific opportunity to present Luke Copland and Warwick Vincent’s observations from the ArcticNet summer field season and to place them in the broader context of climate change. It was also the first opportunity to present their findings to the ArcticNet partners including Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Parks Canada. Covering the meeting was Can West reporter Margaret Munro. She had read an abstract in the ArcticNet program, written by Julie Veillette, referring to the break-up of the Ayles shelf. Margaret Munro approached Derek Mueller and Warwick Vincent for more information.



THE ARCTIC AND GLOBAL WARMING

A warmer Arctic Ocean may mean less food for the birds, fish, and baleen whales and be a significant detriment to that fragile and interconnected polar ecosystem, and that doesn’t bode well for other ocean ecosystems in the future. That’s the word from University of Miami Rosenstiel School’s Dr. Sharon Smith who will speak on “Potentially Dramatic Changes in the Pelagic Ecosystems of the Marginal Seas of the Arctic Ocean due to Anthropogenic Warming,” today at 3 p.m. HST (8 p.m. EST) in Honolulu at the American Geophysical Union’s 2006 Ocean Sciences Meeting.

“We’ve seen models of global climate change for more than 20 years, and they have shown us that warming associated with increased, man-made carbon dioxide emissions will appear first—and be the most intense—in the Arctic,” Smith said. “But what extensive satellite imagery confirms is that this Arctic warming is happening already. Permanent ice is thinning, and the duration of ice-free conditions is extending. This is changing currents and affecting feeding patterns and food source availability for the animal life there.”

According to Smith, the match of the physical forcing and the life cycles of Arctic marine organisms is crucial; both need to be relatively predictable in time and space for evolution of this food web to have taken place. Global warming is acting to disrupt predictability, a situation that could cause the rapid demise of marine mammals and birds upon which subsistence human populations depend.

A biological oceanographer, Smith has spent her career examining some of the smallest components of food webs. She is the co-director of the National Science Foundation/National Institute of Environmental Health Science Oceans and Human Health Center that is based at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science as well as a professor in marine biology and fisheries there. Her presentation was part of a session titled, Observations of Anthropogenic Climate Change in the Oceans and their Implications for Society II: Arctic and Ecosystem Responses. Dr. Rana A. Fine, also a UM Rosenstiel School faculty member, presided over the session with Dr. Richard Feely from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

Ivy F. Kupec
University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science