Arctic Field Projects

Project Title: Collaborative Research: A Holocene context for current Arctic warming derived from the vanishing plateau ice caps of north-central Baffin Island. (Award# 0454662)

PI: Miller, Gifford H (
Phone: (303) 492.6962 
Institute/Department: U of Colorado, Boulder, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research 
IPY Project? NO
Funding Agency: US\Federal\NSF\GEO\OPP\ARC\ANS
Program Manager: Dr. William Wiseman (
Discipline(s): | Meteorology and Climate |

Project Web Site(s):

Science Summary:
Instrumental records show that the Earth has warmed ca. 0.7 °C over the past century, with the most dramatic increase in the decades since the 1960s. The Arctic has experienced a similar pattern, but the magnitude is greater, with average annual temperature increases of 2 to 5 °C across portions of the Arctic since the1960s. The short time span of direct observations makes it difficult to evaluate the roles of natural climate variability and greenhouse gas forcing in explaining these observations, but the pattern of change is consistent with GCM simulations of the consequences of increased greenhouse gases. This proposal is designed to provide a Holocene context for 20th century Arctic warming. How unusual is the rate and magnitude of this warming? When was the Arctic last as warm as it is now? Is this degree of warmth within the range of natural variability or is it unprecedented? The Arctic instrumental record is limited in time and space, so natural archives of proxy climate data must be exploited to address these questions. Extensive, thin, cold-based ice caps mantling the north-central plateau of Baffin Island, Arctic Canada, have receded by 97% in area since their Little Ice Age (LIA) maxima. One ice cap studied in the 1960s and early 1980s has now completely melted; many others are predicted to vanish in the next 5 to10 years, and all are expected to be gone before 2050. This proposal identifies three ways that these ice caps can contribute to the Arctic warming debate: 1) Aerial rates of ice-cap retreat over the past 50 years will be defined from air photo and satellite imagery, from which their final disappearance can be predicted. First-order estimates on the magnitude of LIA-to-present climate change can be derived from the integration of satellite imagery and digital elevation models. 2) Plant remains preserved beneath extant plateau ice caps will be collected by boring through the ice along transects from the ice margin to the ice divide. Radiocarbon ages of the entombed vegetation define the last time the Arctic was warm enough to completely melt these ice caps, 3) In situ 14C produced in quartz collected along transects from the current ice margins to beyond the edge of the LIA margin will define exposure histories across the plateau. The duration of surface exposure defines what proportion of the Holocene the plateaus have been ice-free since regional deglaciation, providing a longer-term perspective on current warming. Broader impacts: That the Arctic is warming is no longer in question. Why it is warming, and how much warmer it may become are questions of immense societal importance. Defining how unusual is the present warmth, and quantifying the rates of ice-cap melt, will help focus the debate over greenhouse gases and the potential consequences of global warming. Research activities under this award will be made accessible to indigenous peoples by translating the goals and eventual results into Inuktitut, making posters that describe the research, and by offering public lectures in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, and at Clyde River, the INSTAAR field base. This research program will train a PhD student, and provides opportunities for undergraduates to become involved with research, building on successful traditions from previous years. This proposal is a direct consequence of incorporating research into undergraduate teaching. While updating a lecture on Arctic warming for a freshman class in 2003, Miller discovered that the ice cap he studied in the1980s was unexpectedly gone, and following that lead, led to this proposal.

Logistics Summary:
With this collaborative project (Miller 0454662 and Briner 0454601), researchers hope to answer a number of questions regarding warming within the context of climate change records from the Holocene using information obtained from a number of ice caps (themselves rapidly receding due to a warming climate) on the north-central plateau of Baffin Island, Canada. For this research, a team of about three bases in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, and travels via helicopter (2005, 2009) or snowmachine (2006) to access several ice caps in the area (the Tiger and White Tiger Ice Caps along with the Pleiades, Orion, and Serpens Caput Ice Cap Clusters). Camping at several sites along the way, they collect plant remains from beneath the ice in transects running from the margin to the divide of the ice caps. They also collect quartz along transects from the current margin to the location of ice cap margin at the Little Ice Age. These samples are returned to the researchers' home institutes and analyzed to determine how long ago the Arctic was warm enough for these areas to be ice-free. In addition, the researchers use existing satellite data and aerial photography to analyze the rate of retreat of these ice caps and to predict the time of their final disappearance. During late July/ August 2007 and 2008, two researchers will travel to Clyde River to work on the coastal lowlands, both to advance this project’s goals and for dissertation research in support of a graduate student involved in the project. The team will spend about three weeks in the area, using ATVs to access field sites.

For all years of the grant CPS will provide field, communications, and safety equipment. In 2005 and 2009, CPS will coordinate and pay for helicopter support and associated fuel cache placement. In 2009 the helicopter support is provided in collaboration with PCSP. PCSP helicopters at Pond Inlet will go off charter to support this project. Charters are arranged through Canadian Arctic Logistics. PCSP will also offer daily safety check-ins and SAR support for this project. In 2006, 2007, and 2008 CPS will provide ATVs and/or snowmachines (along with maintenance for said machines), camping consumables, fuel, guide support, and sample shipment. In 2008 and 2009, CPS will pay for some enroute travel from/to Ottawa to Baffin Island .
SeasonField SiteDate InDate Out#People
2005Canada - Clyde River, Baffin Island07 / 18 / 2005 08 / 02 / 20053
2005Canada - Mary River Camp, Baffin Island07 / 20 / 2005 08 / 01 / 20053
2005Canada - Orion Ice Cap, Baffin Island07 / 23 / 2005 07 / 28 / 20053
2005Canada - Pond Inlet, Baffin Island07 / 19 / 2005 08 / 02 / 20053
2005Canada - Serpens Gap Ice Cap, Baffin Island07 / 28 / 2005 08 / 01 / 20053
2005Canada - White Tiger Ice Cap, Baffin Island07 / 20 / 2005 07 / 23 / 20053
2006Canada - Clyde River, Baffin Island3
2006Canada - Pond Inlet, Baffin Island04 / 24 / 2006 05 / 25 / 20063
2007Canada - Clyde River, Baffin Island2
2008Canada - Clyde River, Baffin Island2
2009Canada - Barnes Ice Cap, Baffin Island07 / 21 / 2009 08 / 05 / 20093
2009Canada - Pond Inlet, Baffin Island07 / 20 / 2009 08 / 06 / 20093

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