‘Irreversible’ thaw in store for Canada’s glaciers, says study

Scott Sutherland
March 10, 2013

The glaciers in the Canadian Arctic represent the third largest repository of frozen water on the planet — after Antarctica and Greenland — and a new study suggests that these glaciers face an irreversible thaw due to climate change.

These glaciers, such as those on Ellesmere Island and Devon Island, could lose up to 20 per cent of their ice-mass by the end of this century, contributing around 3.5 cm to the global rise in sea levels. Also, according to the study, the melting experienced in these regions is likely to be "irreversible in the foreseeable future", due to the ice-loss exposing more darker tundra, resulting in more heating of the ground, and thus even more ice-loss.

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To put that 3.5 cm rise into perspective: the total surface area of the oceans is 361 million square kilometres, so a 3.5 cm rise represents an additional 12 trillion cubic metres of water being dumped into the ocean. The total amount of sea-level rise predicted for this century ranges between 18 and 59 cm, and possibly more if melting in Greenland and the Antarctic accelerates.

So, why are scientists interested in this tiny portion of additional sea water from the third-largest store of glacial ice? They are trying to understand every contribution to sea level rise, no matter how small, so that governments can plan for the effects this will have on coastal cities around the world. In some places, even a few centimetres of water rise can mean the difference between dry ground and submerged, and it can have a profound effect on both the level and quality of coastal groundwater, causing even more flooding issues and impacting on the quality of our drinking water supply.

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"Most attention goes out to Greenland and Antarctica which is understandable because they are the two largest ice bodies in the world," said study co-author Michiel van den Broeke, a professor of polar meteorology at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands.

"We want to show that the Canadian ice caps should be included in the calculations."

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