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Canadian ice shelf larger than Manhattan collapses into the sea

CNN logo CNN 8/8/2020 By Haley Brink and Allison Chinchar, CNN Meteorologists
a sandy beach: Looking north along a rift in the Milne Ice shelf. This rift is still intact but the ice shelf broke away along a smaller one to the west (left) in July 2020. © Derek Mueller/WIRL Looking north along a rift in the Milne Ice shelf. This rift is still intact but the ice shelf broke away along a smaller one to the west (left) in July 2020.

The size of Canada's last fully intact ice shelf was reduced by 43% over July 30 and 31 when the Milne Ice Shelf on Ellesmere Island in the northern territory of Nunavut collapsed into the ocean.

This large sheet of ice then drifted into the Arctic Sea, further breaking into two large chunks. This entire calving event -- the scientific term for the breaking of ice chunks off glaciers -- was captured by the Copernicus Sentinel satellite.

The piece that broke off was around 80 square kilometers -- larger than the 60-square-kilometer Manhattan.

"Above-normal air temperatures, offshore winds and open water in front of the ice shelf are all part of the recipe for ice shelf break up," according to the Canadian Ice Service.

"Due to the presence of pre-existing fractures in the remaining Milne Ice Shelf, there is a potential for further destabilization," the Water and Ice Research Laboratory (WIRL) said in a press release on August 7. The ice shelf is still unstable and further ice breaks are possible in the coming days and weeks, WIRL warned.

Meltwater lakes form every summer in depressions on the Milne Ice Shelf. © Jérémie Bonneau/WIRL Meltwater lakes form every summer in depressions on the Milne Ice Shelf.

A research site on the ice shelf was razed during this collapse.

"It is lucky that we were not on the ice shelf when this happened, our camp area and instruments were all destroyed in this event," said Derek Mueller, professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in a blog post on August 2.

Mueller and his team have visited Milne Ice Shelf numerous times, but the trip this year was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The last known epishelf lake in the Arctic could be gone because of the ice shelf break. An epishelf lake is a body of freshwater trapped by an ice shelf that floats on top of ocean water.

When the Milne Ice Shelf collapsed, it potentially sent once-contained freshwater into the salty waters of the Arctic Ocean. Researchers are unsure about the extent of this damage "as this depends on the integrity of the remaining part of the Milne Ice Self."

Ice shelves like these can help limit global sea level rise by acting like a dam, slowing the flow of melting ice and water into the oceans. These large calving events can also create hazards for the shipping industry by creating essentially large icebergs floating across the northern oceans.

The Arctic has continued to warm far more rapidly than any other region across the world as arctic heatwaves continuously impact the region. Temperatures across the Arctic continued to rise in July this year across Canada and Siberia, where large wildfires continue to burn.

"Globally, it was the third warmest July in this data record, behind 2016 and 2019," Copernicus ECMWF said in their monthly climate bulletin.

This is not the first time this year that the Canadian Arctic has lost significant ice features.

Earlier this summer two of Canada's St. Patrick Bay ice caps completely disappeared. The two ice caps were located on the same Ellesmere Island as the Milne Ice Shelf in Nunavut.

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