Requiem for a Giant

The Milne Ice Shelf at the fringe of Ellesmere Island, in the sparsely populated northern Canadian territory of Nunavut.

It’s not everyday that one witnesses a giant fall. But one giant did fall – 80 square km of mass to be exact – in a matter of days. This took place just last month. I’m referring to the epochal collapse of the Milne Ice Shelf in the Canadian Arctic.

The Milne Ice Shelf lies at the fringe of Ellesmere Island, in the sparsely populated northern Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut. Until July this year, it was the last fully intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic and a spectacle to behold. No longer. Last month, above normal air temperatures, offshore winds and open water in front of the ice shelf have caused it to collapse. It took nature 4,000 years to build this “city of ice”; it took only two days for it to lose 80 square km or 43 percent of its area, the equivalent of 1.3 times the size of Manhattan Island in New York. The ice erosion continues as I write.

Not surprisingly, global warming is the culprit. The Arctic has been warming at twice the global rate for the last 30 years, due to a process known as Arctic amplification. But this year, temperatures in the polar region have been intense, with the polar sea ice reaching its lowest extent for July in 40 years and record heat and wildfires scorching Siberian Russia. “This was the largest remaining intact ice shelf, and it’s disintegrated, basically,” lamented Luke Copland, a glaciologist at the University of Ottawa who was part of the research team studying the Milne Ice Shelf.

Here’s a poem I wrote to remember this epochal event:


We remember them as
immovable parts of the geography
like Ayers rocks in the wrong place.
Then, one by one, we saw them go
like patients with terminal cancer.
The smaller ones went first,
and for a while, we thought that
this was the fate of the Lilliputians
which didn’t have the bulk
to stand up to the biting winds.
We were wrong of course,
spectacularly wrong.
Instinctively, we clenched our hearts
as ice sheets the size of cities
knelt into the seas
and gave up their souls, sinking
four thousand years into oblivion.
How else should one react?
Do you allow yourself to weep
knowing that weeping won’t save them?
Do you write an eulogy and
recite it from comfort of your deck?
Or do you beat your chest
knowing that you may have something
to do with their demise?
In any case, there’s no time to dither.
Another day, another thousand year
of memories will turn into vapor.
Perhaps it’s best
to leave it to the frigid waters
to compose
their well-deserved requiem.

© Wallace Fong, August 2020

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