The birth of an ice island is rarely seen. But what begins in remote high Arctic latitudes can, in the years and decades that follow, have a real impact on places that are far more visible, such as shipping lanes and offshore oil platforms.
Recent years have produced a wave of ice islands. Researchers tracking the giant formations have tabulated roughly 1,000 square kilometers that have broken free from Greenland and Canada’s Arctic islands, according to The (Ottawa) Globe and Mail.
At a time when new research suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is melting five times faster than it was in the 1990s — and roughly a quarter of that is in the form of icebergs, according to the Swiss Federal Research Institute — a frozen area the size of Hong Kong is wandering south, breaking into hundreds and thousands of smaller bits, some too small to be seen by ship radar, as they drift.
That volume of ice stands to present hazards to marine industries along Canada’s northern and eastern coasts for years to come, researchers are now warning. Ice islands, especially if they stay in northern latitudes, can last for decades as they slowly splinter apart, so the potential for problems is a lengthy one.
Roughly half the volume has come from the coast of Ellesmere Island at the top of the Arctic archipelago.
“These are ice islands that are drifting to the west and will be of concern for any infrastructure or shipping in the western Arctic,” Derek Mueller, an assistant professor in the department of geography and environmental studies at Carleton University who studies icy regions, told the paper.
The Greenland ice is headed into better-traveled trans-Atlantic shipping lanes. A large section of one ice island has already found its way near the Strait of Belle Isle, between Labrador and Newfoundland, a shortcut used by vessels crossing between northern Europe and the St. Lawrence River.
“If they break up into smaller pieces and you get bergy bits and growlers”— concrete-hard chunks the size of houses and cars, some of which can be submerged in heavy wave conditions, making them difficult to spot — “they’re impossible to track at that scale,” Mueller said. “So any one of those pieces of ice could potentially be a hazard to shipping.”