Arctic epishelf lakes as sentinel ecosystems: Past, present and future


  • Veillette, J.
  • Mueller, D.R.
  • Antoniades, D.
  • Vincent, W.F.




[1] Ice shelves are a prominent but diminishing feature of the northern coastline of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian High Arctic (latitude 82–83°N). By blocking embayments and fiords, this thick coastal ice can create epishelf lakes, which are characterized by a perennially ice-capped water column of freshwater overlying seawater. The goal of this study was to synthesize new, archived, and published data on Arctic epishelf lakes in the context of climate change. Long-term changes along this coastline were evaluated using historical reports, cartographic analysis, RADARSAT imagery, and field measurements. These data, including salinity-temperature profiling records from Disraeli Fiord spanning 54 years, show the rapid decline and near disappearance of this lake type in the Arctic. Salinity-temperature profiling of Milne Fiord, currently blocked by the Milne Ice Shelf, confirmed that it contained an epishelf lake composed of a 16-m thick freshwater layer overlying seawater. A profiling survey along the coast showed that there was a continuum of ice-dammed lakes from shallow systems dammed by multiyear landfast sea ice to deep epishelf lakes behind ice shelves. The climate warming recently observed in this region likely contributed to the decline of epishelf lakes over the last century, and the air temperature trend predicted for the Arctic over the next several decades implies the imminent loss of this ecosystem type. Our results underscore the distinctive properties of coastal ice-dammed lakes and their value as sentinel ecosystems for the monitoring of regional and global climate change.


AGU Publications/Wiley

Peer Review: 

Published in Peer Reviewed Journal

Faculty Name: 

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Department Name: 

Department of Geography and Environmental Studies

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