Message in a Bottle Sends Out Glacier's SOS

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Nearly 34 years ago, the band the Police sent out an S.O.S. to the world with the song “Message in a Bottle.” Likewise, a geologist’s 54-year-old note was recently found tucked into a bottle in the Canadian Arctic, and it sent a distress signal about the world’s rapidly disappearing glaciers.

On July 10, 1959, while exploring Ward Hunt Island, American geologist Paul Walker measured the distance from a glacier to where he buried a bottled sheet of paper. The paper recorded the distance at 1.2 meters, reported the Chronicle Herald.

Walker’s note included a request that anyone who found the note contact him with an update on the glacier’s distance to the bottle site. Walker never got his update. During his research in Arctic, Walker had to be evacuated for medical reasons and died the same year he left his message in a bottle.

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The message remained hidden under a pile of stones until this summer when Warwick Vincent, a geologist at Laval University, discovered Walker’s note in a glass vessel. Vincent measured 101.5 meters between the bottle’s resting place and the glacier. In little more than 50 years, approximately a soccer field’s length of ice melted away.

NASA satellite pictures show the break-up of parts of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf in August 2002.
MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC, Wikimedia Commons

“In the ’50s, it was unthinkable that this would melt,” Vincent told the Chronicle Herald.

Yet, Vincent watched the glacier melt with his own eyes.

“With our camera, we captured the complete loss of this ice shelf,” Vincent told the Chronicle Herald. “Suddenly our camera caught this open water, we think for the first time in thousands of years. The changes are extraordinary, particularly the last 10 years, and especially the last two years.”

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Vincent placed the original note back in the bottle after adding his updated measurements.

Around the world, glaciers are dripping into nothingness with grave repercussions for people and other life. Glaciers naturally melt in spring and summer then reform in fall and winter.

However, as the planet’s average temperature increases, the glaciers do more melting that growing. The loss of glaciers threatens the farms, cities, forests and other ecosystems that depend on rivers fed by the glaciers’ spring thaw, according to numerous studies.

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For example, some rivers fed by the ice and snow of the Rocky Mountains now receive an increased flow in the early spring, but greatly reduced flow in late spring and summer, according to a study in the Journal of Hydrology. That decreased summer flow occurs just when forests most need the moisture.The study’s authors predicted that these forests in the rivers’ floodplains will shrink as the glaciers continue to melt.