New satellite images from NASA show that Canada's St. Patrick Bay ice caps have completely disappeared.
"I can't say I was terribly surprised because we knew they were going, but it has happened really fast," Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, told CNN. Serreze co-authored a paper in 2017 estimating the ice caps would be gone within five years.
The two ice caps were located on the Hazen Plateau of northeastern Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. Data from 1959 suggests the area of the larger cap was 3 square miles and the smaller one 1.1 square miles, declining ever since.
Scientists estimate the glaciers, which likely formed around 5,000 years ago, would have been significantly larger between the 16th and the 19th centuries, a time frame known as the "Little Ice Age."
The very hot temperatures in the summer of 2015 reduced the longevity of the St. Patrick's Bay ice caps. "You could really see they got hit. But that heat has really just not stopped. It's just getting too warm," Serreze told CNN.
There are other glaciers near the now gone St. Patrick's Bay ice caps, such as the Murray and Simmons ice caps, which sit at a higher elevation. They have also been shrinking significantly.
"I'll make another prediction that they're gone in a decade," Serreze said.
The effects of climate change in the Arctic
Small ice caps in the Arctic are very sensitive indicators of the effects of climate change, according to Serreze.
"There's something called 'Arctic amplification,' which refers to the observation -- not the theory -- that the Arctic is warming up at a much faster rate than the rest of the globe, anywhere from two to four times faster," Serreze said.
Hotter heat waves and cold waves that are not as cold as they were in the past are contributing factors.
"We are starting to see all these things come together." Serreze told CNN.
The disappearance of the St. Patrick's Bay ice caps is "an exclamation point of what's happening in the Arctic," Serreze added.
Tom Neumann, chief of the Cryospheric Sciences Lab at NASA Goddard, further explained the 'Arctic amplification' phenomenon and its impact on rising temperatures.
"As Arctic sea ice has retreated over the past decades, that ice cover, which is very reflective and bounces sunlight back to space, has melted off and exposed ocean water, which is much darker and absorbs that solar energy, so the ocean gets warmer," Neumann told CNN.
That in turn causes the atmosphere to get warmer, in what is essentially a feedback cycle, according to Neumann.
Neumann, who studies the Earth's ice cover through satellites, told CNN that the melting of Northern Hemisphere glaciers has been an ongoing process that has worsened in recent years.
"Since about 1990, the rate at which those glaciers are shrinking has really accelerated," Neumann said.
Last year, the disappearance of the Okjökull glacier in Iceland marked the first time that a glacier was lost to climate change.
Neumann told CNN the St. Patrick's Bay ice caps won't be the last glaciers to disappear, and even though they were relatively tiny, their loss is cause for concern.
"We should care because even though this is a little glacier somewhere in Arctic Canada, collectively all of these glaciers contribute to sea level rise," he told CNN.
Neumann noted how significant advances in satellite monitoring technologies are allowing scientists to learn so much more about the changes occurring on Earth as a result of global warming.
"We have much better tools now to make better predictions about how these ice caps will change," Neumann said.
A scientist's personal journey
During his conversation with CNN, Serreze at times referred to the St. Patrick's Bay ice caps with terms of endearment such as "my little ice caps."
The scientist's connection to the now gone glaciers goes far back.
Serreze visited the ice caps in person as a graduate student in 1982. The visit cemented his desire to study the Arctic.
He reminisced about first landing there.
"It was just after a snow, and it was one of the rare kinds of clear days you have up there."
He told CNN about glistening snow crystals, the "perfect blue sky" and the "absolute pristine white" he found after landing.
"Once the airplane that dropped us off left, it's the only place in the world I can ever remember there was absolute silence."
His visit to the area predates the more recent concern with global warming among scientists. "At the time, there was even some talk of global cooling," Serreze said.
Visiting the ice caps as a young scientist made following their demise over just a few decades that much more personal for Serreze, but witnessing this process left him with an important message for the climate change doubters.
"I can tell you, it's very real. I have been there, I have watched it," Serreze said.
He told CNN how he feels we're at an inflection point in the conversation about the climate, as the country wrestles with the coronavirus pandemic and with a reckoning around racial injustices.
This moment, Serreze said, "is forcing us to look at ourselves in the mirror and realize that we're all in this together. The world is a different place, and we need to be better stewards of it."
"If the little story of my little ice caps helps to help to let us look in the mirror, then in that sense, it's got a silver lining," he added.