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Research Grants

2015 RCGS Studentship in Northern Geography

Adrienne White, University of Ottawa
Interactions between terrestrial and marine ice losses on Northern Ellesmere Island

Over the past 15 years dramatic changes have occurred to marine ice masses along northern Ellesmere Island, including >50% loss in ice shelf area since mid-2000s and the complete loss of >690 km square of 55-60 year old multiyear landfast sea ice from Yelverton Bay. In connection with these losses, terrestrial ice masses including marine-terminating glacier tongues in Yelverton Inlet have been exposed to young seat ice and open water events for the first time since records began. Similar marine ice losses in Antarctica have triggered the rapid acceleration and collapse of adjacent glaciers, but it is currently unknown if this process also occurs on tidewater glaciers in the Canadian Arctic. The objective of this study is to complete an inventory of current glacier extents and recent changes on northern Ellesmere Island, and the examine whether changes in one ice type can have cascading effects on the stability of remaining ice types (e.g., whether sea ice reductions lead to ice shelf collapse; whether ice shelf collapses lead to glacier accelerations).

Adrienne White in July 2014, near Milne Fiord on northern Ellesmere Island. (Courtesy Adrienne White)

Based on where she conducts most of her master’s research, Adrienne White’s last name is fitting. Ellesmere Island — where she has embarked on an ambitious, overarching assessment of glaciers and ice shelves — is usually white as far as the eye can see.

“I’ve chosen the most inaccessible part of the Canadian Arctic,” she says. “The pristine nature of the island blew my mind.” But Ellesmere’s remote location doesn’t protect it from outside influence; White hopes her research will help people understand the huge and far-reaching impacts of climate change.

Over the past 15 years, northern Ellesmere Island has lost more than 50 per cent of its ice-shelf area. These giant floating ice slabs, which can form where glaciers ooze into cold ocean waters, help plug glaciers’ flow into the ocean, thereby slowing sea level rise.

With the help of a Studentship in Northern Geography research grant from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, White is using a variety of methods (including remote sensing and field research) to look for changes in Ellesmere’s glaciers, ice shelves and surrounding sea ice. She wants to know if changes in one type of ice can trigger a domino effect, causing instability across remaining ice types. For example, does weakening sea ice lead to ice shelf collapse? Does that in turn quicken the disappearance of glaciers?

Although White has two more years to complete her study, she predicts widespread retreat of the island’s ice coverage. “I feel really connected to that area,” she says, “but eventually, the ice shelves will all be gone.”

— Sabrina Doyle

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