Death of an Ice Cap

Thirty years ago, I flew with two of my students to the northeastern corner of the Canadian High Arctic, not far from the edge of the Arctic Ocean. The plane was equipped with skis and we landed in deep soft snow on top of a small un-named ice cap. We decided to call it the Hazen Ice Cap, as it was located on the high Hazen Plateau. It had only been visited once before, by a Canadian research group, who had written an article about how the ice cap appeared to be growing, expanding across the tundra. We wanted to study how an ice cap, cold and white, modifies its local climate, perhaps cooling the nearby air enough to create a chilly world around it, and in so doing, helping it to survive or perhaps even to grow.

It was an amazing place; we camped near the summit, setting up a network of stakes and weather instruments to monitor the snow that built up each winter, and the amount of summer melting. We suspended instruments from a large tethered balloon to see how far up in the atmosphere the influence of the ice cap extended. And we monitored temperatures around the ice cap to determine the extent to which it affected conditions on the adjacent plateau, once the winter snow had melted away. On a clear day, you could see forever in all directions -- to the Greenland Ice Cap off to the east, and the British Empire Range to the west. Far to the north, the Arctic Ocean glistened in the sun that often shone for a full 24 hours. But on cloudy days -- and there were many of those -- we found ourselves immersed in a ground fog, which eliminated all sense of distance or direction. These "whiteout" conditions led to some eerie experiences. On one occasion, we set out to measure the stakes, which ran in a straight line across the ice cap. After stumbling along for what seemed like far too long without finding a single stake, we were startled to see footprints in the snow. Our immediate reaction was incredulity -- how could there be anybody else up here without us knowing about it? Where could they have come from? Then it slowly dawned on us -- without realizing it, we had walked in a complete circle, utterly lost in the whiteout. At such moments, you begin to understand how easily you can lose touch with reality.

We had many other memorable experiences up on the ice cap, and I would love to go back.
Alas, that simply can't happen. The latest satellite images of the region show the ice cap has almost completely disappeared, due to the relentless build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Half of all the post-industrial era carbon dioxide that has entered the atmosphere has done so since we were camped on the ice cap. As a result, temperatures have risen significantly, the ice has melted, and all that is now left is a small snow patch in a sheltered gulley.

We talk a lot about global warming, and its consequences but nothing prepares you for something so monumental, so seemingly huge and timeless, to quietly disappear. There was no great splash, like we see when the ends of massive glaciers break off and fall into the ocean. It just melted away, leaving behind only memories in the minds of the few of us who had stumbled around in the mist, and who were blessed by the wondrous views as we skied across the endless dome of snow and ice. Hazen Ice Cap -- gone but not forgotten... R.I.P.

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