Letter | Published:

Sharply increased mass loss from glaciers and ice caps in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago

Nature volume 473, pages 357360 (19 May 2011) | Download Citation


Mountain glaciers and ice caps are contributing significantly to present rates of sea level rise and will continue to do so over the next century and beyond1,2,3,4,5. The Canadian Arctic Archipelago, located off the northwestern shore of Greenland, contains one-third of the global volume of land ice outside the ice sheets6, but its contribution to sea-level change remains largely unknown. Here we show that the Canadian Arctic Archipelago has recently lost 61 ± 7 gigatonnes per year (Gt yr−1) of ice, contributing 0.17 ± 0.02 mm yr−1 to sea-level rise. Our estimates are of regional mass changes for the ice caps and glaciers of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago referring to the years 2004 to 2009 and are based on three independent approaches: surface mass-budget modelling plus an estimate of ice discharge (SMB+D), repeat satellite laser altimetry (ICESat) and repeat satellite gravimetry (GRACE). All three approaches show consistent and large mass-loss estimates. Between the periods 2004–2006 and 2007–2009, the rate of mass loss sharply increased from 31 ± 8 Gt yr−1 to 92 ± 12 Gt yr−1 in direct response to warmer summer temperatures, to which rates of ice loss are highly sensitive (64 ± 14 Gt yr−1 per 1 K increase). The duration of the study is too short to establish a long-term trend, but for 2007–2009, the increase in the rate of mass loss makes the Canadian Arctic Archipelago the single largest contributor to eustatic sea-level rise outside Greenland and Antarctica.

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We thank A. Arendt for reviewing the manuscript and S. Luthcke and A. Arendt for providing the updated glacier mass anomalies for Alaska. We thank H. Blatter, W. Colgan, E. Dowdeswell, M. Huss, S. Marshall and D. Mueller for contributing observational data sets. We thank R. Riva and P. Stocchi for providing glacial isostatic adjustment models. This work was supported by funding to A.S.G. from NSERC Canada and the Alberta Ingenuity Fund, funding to G.M. by the European Union 7th Framework Program (grant number 226375) through the ice2sea programme (contribution number 017), and funding to M.J.S. from NSERC and CFCAS (through the Polar Climate Stability Network). The SMB modelling was conducted using the infrastructure and resources of AICT of the University of Alberta.

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  1. Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2E3, Canada

    • Alex S. Gardner
    •  & Martin J. Sharp
  2. Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA

    • Alex S. Gardner
  3. Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo, N-0316 Oslo, Norway

    • Geir Moholdt
  4. Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California 92093, USA

    • Geir Moholdt
  5. The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, NL-3730 AE De Bilt, Netherlands

    • Bert Wouters
  6. Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Fairbanks, Alaska 99709, USA

    • Gabriel J. Wolken
  7. Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0E8, Canada

    • David O. Burgess
  8. Department of Geography, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, K9J 7B8, Canada

    • J. Graham Cogley
  9. Department of Geography and Regional Planning, Westfield State University, Westfield, Massachusetts 01086, USA

    • Carsten Braun
  10. Campbell Scientific Canada Corp., Edmonton, Alberta, T5M 1W7, Canada

    • Claude Labine


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A.S.G. developed the study and wrote the paper. A.S.G, G.M. and B.W. all contributed equally to the analysis, using SMB+D, ICESat and GRACE, respectively. G.J.W. provided ice and basin outlines, model topography and created Fig. 1. The remaining authors provided in situ measurements. All authors discussed and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alex S. Gardner.

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