OTTAWA — Glacier monitoring conducted by the federal government in Canada’s High Arctic shows the shrinking of ice caps that started in the late 1980s “has accelerated rapidly since 2005” and is part of a “strongly negative trend,” according to internal government documents.
The federal government data raise a number of questions about climate change in Canada’s North and what the melting ice caps mean for the country’s economy and environment in the future.
A memo requested by the deputy minister of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) — and obtained by Postmedia News under access-to-information legislation — highlights what the federal government acknowledges are rapidly melting ice caps in Canada’s Arctic over the last nine years.
The data were obtained through NRCan’s Climate Change Geoscience Program, which monitors annual glacier mass fluctuations and sea level changes at sites across the Canadian High Arctic.
The federal government maintains glacier monitoring sites in the Canadian High Arctic for four ice caps: Devon, Meighen, Melville and Agassiz.
“Glacier monitoring conducted by the Earth Sciences Sector (ESS) in Canada’s High Arctic indicates that shrinking of ice caps started in the late 1980s, and has accelerated rapidly since 2005,” says an October 2013 memo to NRCan’s deputy minister, who reports to federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.
Preliminary data and observations — including on Arctic sea-ice coverage, upper atmospheric temperatures and field camp observations — indicate 2013 was cooler than the recent trend.
While the ice melt in 2013 doesn’t appear as bad as recent years, “it does not significantly alter the strongly negative trend observed since 2005 for this region,” say the briefing materials.
David Burgess, research scientist and glaciologist with Natural Resources Canada, explained that since 2005 there has been a persistent high-pressure system over Greenland, which has acted to draw in more warm air from southerly latitudes and contributed to a warming High Arctic.
This same kind of system didn’t develop in 2013, which may explain the cooler temperatures last summer, he said.
Federal data show the Devon ice cap’s northwest sector has lost 1.6 per cent of its mass since the 1960s, the Meighen approximately 11 per cent of its mass and the Melville about 13 per cent, he said. However, approximately 30 to 40 per cent of the ice mass lost has happened since 2005.
“Since 2005 it has enhanced quite significantly,” Burgess said in an interview.
The main consequence of shrinking Arctic ice caps is increasing sea levels, he said, which can impact Canadian coastlines depending on their resiliency to erosion and inundation.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, a former senior policy adviser to the federal environment minister in the Mulroney government, said the federal information on melting ice caps is “very troubling” but also not surprising because other international data have reached similar conclusions.
All Canadians should be concerned about climate change in the Arctic, she said. Along with directly impacting Inuit hunting, melting Arctic ice also will contribute to more extreme weather events in Canada such as droughts and flooding, she said.
“What’s shocking is that the internal documents reflect this information. The government of Canada can’t claim it doesn’t know or isn’t being warned, doesn’t understand that we are rapidly losing ice in the Arctic,” May said.
“Yet, it (federal government) is basically in a state of willful blindness to a major threat to the future of the country.”
Canada signed onto the Copenhagen Accord in 2009 and committed to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. However, Environment Canada’s latest emissions trends report released last fall projects Canada will slowly drift away from that target as the economy grows, unless more is done to reduce emissions.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands, the fastest growing source of carbon pollution in Canada, increased approximately 62 per cent between 2005 and 2011, to 55 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions, from 34 million tonnes.
Oilsands emissions are projected to nearly triple between 2005 and 2020, to 101 million tonnes, according to Environment Canada.
Since coming to power in 2006, the Harper government has repeatedly promised to introduce greenhouse gas regulations for the oil and gas sector. However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and successive environment ministers have repeatedly delayed those rules.
The data from Natural Resources Canada on melting ice caps support what other international assessments have concluded in recent months.
Data compiled by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, based at the University of Colorado Boulder, revealed that summer Arctic sea ice in 2013 was more than one million square kilometres below the average observed between 1981 and 2010.
Also, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in fall 2013 that “human influence has been detected” in the warming of the atmosphere and ocean, reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise as well as changes in some climate extremes.
The report, approved by most governments around the world, including the Conservative government, concluded human activity — largely through greenhouse gases released from the consumption of fossil fuels as well as deforestation and other land-use changes — had “very likely contributed to Arctic sea ice loss since 1979.”