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These Satellite Images Show the Final Days of Canada's Last Ice Shelf

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You can see the ice shelf breaking here between July 26 and July 31, 2020.
Image: Planet Labs Inc.

Canada lost its last ice shelf last week, but a set of new satellite images show the crack that pushed the shelf to its edge in macabre detail.

Satellite company Planet Labs Inc. released the satellite images Monday, showing some of the final days of the Milne Ice Shelf. It once sat along the northern edge of Ellesmere Island in Canada. Now, it’s collapsed into the ocean. Though the collapse of ice shelves doesn’t contribute to sea level rise because the ice is already floating in the water, losing them can still exacerbate an already bad situation because it speeds up the flow of land ice into the ocean. We all suffer as a result when that happens.


The Canadian Ice Service reported the tragedy on August 2, but these images show the shelf had been in a state of decay a few days before. The images Planet Labs Inc. shared show the ice shelf was intact July 26. By July 31, a giant crack had formed, eventually cleaving off a 30 square mile (78 square kilometer) ice island.

This is the result of global warming. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The Canadian Arctic, in particular, hasn’t been this warm in at least 115,000 years, and 2020 hasn’t been forgiving there or elsewhere in the northern part of the globe. Arctic heat waves have been roasting what’s supposed to be one of the coldest regions on Earth. These warm temperatures even pushed two ice caps also on Ellesmere Island to disappear completely. The world is transforming before our very eyes—especially the cryosphere. The death if this ice shelf is only a sliver of the decline unfolding from pole to pole.

Image for article titled These Satellite Images Show the Final Days of Canada's Last Ice Shelf
Image: Planet Labs Inc.

Melt ponds could have played a role in the breakup of the Milne Ice Shelf. Satellite images show melt ponds on the shelf and as BBC reports, the formation of these ponds can speed up ice shelves demise because the darker water absorbs more heat than white ice.


Separately from the Milne Ice Shelf news, a study published in Nature Climate Change on Monday that sea ice in the region is also in danger due to melt ponds. The findings show that we could see ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean as early as 2035 if leaders continue to take insufficient action on the crisis. That’s because melt ponds on the ice are projected to form earlier in the season, speeding up the melting process. Losing sea ice could in turn quicken global warming with the dark ocean exposed absorbing even more of the sun’s energy.

All this makes clear that climate change is just a series of feedback loops where one catastrophe leads to another, creating a cascade of chaos. It’s important to remember, though, that we can prevent further damage if our elected officials actually do something about reducing carbon pollution. The future will see much tragedy, but the level of it is completely up to them.