What was your first reaction?
Mueller: Shock and sadness, in some ways. It’s like hearing bad news. It’s not easy to get used to.
White: I was really surprised. We consider them to be semi-permanent characteristics. But the disintegration of these ice shelves is really inevitable at this point; along the coast of the northern island of Elesmir, we see open waters and warmer temperatures almost constantly every summer.
Copeland: I got a text from Adrienne ̵
Did you see him coming?
Derek Müller: All the other ice shelves had crumbled in recent years, so it wasn’t a question of whether for this particular ice shelf. It was a question of when.
Luke Copeland: If you look at the changes [over time], we have lost over 90% of the ice shelves in the last hundred years. We saw increased melting on the surface and bottom [of the Milne]as well as long-term thinning. So we knew things were changing. Still, this ice shelf is huge, bigger than the big cities, and it’s very strange to look at a satellite image one day and then look at it. [the same area] the next day and the thing no longer exists.
Adrienne White: I’ve always thought that Milne is one of the more stable on ice shelves; we had seen large disintegrations from the adjacent ice shelves of Serson and Peterson, but Milne seemed less prone to disintegration. Part of my doctor was looking at what makes him so stable, [including] the fact that it was so much thicker and attached to the walls of this fjord.
Given that there are large fractures that have been expanding in the last few years. And we had seen the southern edge, the part of the ice shelf at the back of the fjord that was starting to melt more and more every year. Still, it was a shock to see the thickest and strongest part of the ice shelf fall apart into this large piece.
Have you ever thought that you would lose your equipment at an event like this?
Mueller: This is one of those things: We need data all year round and we can’t stay there all year round, so it’s always a risk. You can place a weather station on a tripod on a glacier and it will fall. There are many tools flying around the Arctic that people [had] quench. We received two full years of data from ours, so we consider ourselves lucky in that sense.
Does this change your plans to explore the area?
White: Absolutely not. This only shows us how important it is to continue to monitor this coastline and get images in this specific area with even higher resolution.
Copeland: We move more to [studying] satellite images. One of my colleagues actually died [in the field]; he was one of the world’s leading explorers of Arctic glaciers, and fell through a crack in Greenland’s ice sheet. And this rift seems to be full of water, which is ultimately the result of climate change.
There has also been a change in training in the last few years [the Arctic] by helicopter. There are so many measures we cannot take unless we are in the field; for example, we can’t really measure how thick the ice from space is. Moving forward, we are still planning field work, but we are very careful and planning safety.
Mueller: The ice shelf is still half there. Our key site for exploring the ice shelf has been lost, but we can potentially find another area to explore.
Is it too late to save Canada’s remaining ice shelves from further disintegration?
Copeland: For ice shelves we can lose them very quickly; when they fall apart, that piece of the ice shelf is gone, it floats away. It takes a day. But it takes hundreds to thousands of years for an ice shelf to form, because you need a gradual accumulation of snow and ice. You need a cold climate for centuries to form an ice shelf, but to lose it, you lose them immediately.
White: This is really an area that has changed since [once] being completely covered with ice. You [used to] they have old sea ice attached to the shore and ice shelves filling fjords and bays. Now every year we see open water along the entire coast of the island of Elesmir. The whole icescape has changed.
Mueller: I always have to say yes, it’s too late. The ice shelves were already vulnerable to change. But the action we are taking now will prevent this – or mitigate it, anyway – in the future, elsewhere. It is extremely important that we heed these warnings. If we can make a change and achieve these goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, there is an opportunity. If we can do this hope once, I think it would be good.