Canadian Geographic
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The North from Space


Currently, the Canadian Space Agency contributes to several satellite missions that cover the Arctic.

The polar ice cap is more than just the homogeneous white mass depicted on most globes and maps. Arctic ice comes in many varieties, each depending on how the ice is formed and where it is located and each playing a particular role in the Arctic ecosystem.

Scientists call any frozen surface — be it snow cover, floating ice, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, seasonally frozen ground or permafrost — the cryosphere. Changes in the cryosphere affect not only the Arctic ecosystem but also the economy, infrastructure and health of those who live in the Far North, which in turn, affects the livelihoods, culture and identity of indigenous peoples. Coastal ice protects shorelines from pounding waves and storms; with less ice cover, much of that protection is lost.

As temperatures rise in the Arctic due to climate change, the composition of the polar ice cap is changing. In September 2011, the polar ice cap covered 2.69 million square kilometres at its lowest point. Around 285,000 square kilometres smaller than the average extent in September, that figure is expected to decline as the ice continues to shrink. Satellites like RADARSAT-2 and the European Space Agency’s CryoSat help monitor these changes and detect trends in Arctic ice coverage.

Reduced ice cover does open up that once elusive Northwest Passage, making the Arctic more accessible to shipping and tourism. Satellites provide vital information for the ships and planes that venture into the icy, remote areas. Arctic search and rescue efforts also rely on satellite images to determine the safest way to operate.

Studies have shown that the seawater and freshwater ice cover is not only shrinking in the Arctic but also thinning. With the winter ice season becoming shorter every year, the distribution of wildlife and plant species is changing. Satellite images from CryoSat-2, launched by the European Space Agency in 2010, reveal ice thickness.


This piece outlines the types of ice that can be encountered in the Arctic, the lifecycle of ice formation and the effect that climate change has on them. The piece contains two sections: sea ice and freshwater ice. Each section contains a self-running slideshow of ice formation images to complement narration.


On the next page:

Weather patterns

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Quiz :

What does the MORSE initiative aim to do?

Make Arctic coastines more accessible
Reduce environmental impact of Arctic exploration
Maintain ice thickness