Death of an Ice Cap

Thirty years ago, I flew with two of my students to the northeastern corner of the Canadian High Arctic, not far from the edge of the Arctic Ocean. The plane was equipped with skis and we landed in deep soft snow on top of a small un-named ice cap. We decided to call it the Hazen Ice Cap, as it was located on the high Hazen Plateau. It had only been visited once before, by a Canadian research group, who had written an article about how the ice cap appeared to be growing, expanding across the tundra. We wanted to study how an ice cap, cold and white, modifies its local climate, perhaps cooling the nearby air enough to create a chilly world around it, and in so doing, helping it to survive or perhaps even to grow.
It was an amazing place; we camped near the summit, setting up a network of stakes and weather instruments to monitor the snow that built up each winter, and the amount of summer melting. We suspended instruments from a large tethered balloon to see how far up in the atmosphere the influence of the ice cap extended. And we monitored temperatures around the ice cap to determine the extent to which it affected conditions on the adjacent plateau, once the winter snow had melted away. On a clear day, you could see forever in all directions–to the Greenland Ice Cap off to the east, and the British Empire Range to the west. Far to the north, the Arctic Ocean glistened in the sun that often shone for a full 24 hours. But on cloudy days–and there were many of those–we found ourselves immersed in a ground fog, which eliminated all sense of distance or direction. These “whiteout” conditions led to some —> Read More