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Human action speeds glacial melting

The Sermeq Kujualleq glacier discharges icebergs into the sea (I. Quaile, Ilulissat 2009)

The Sermeq Kujualleq glacier discharges icebergs into the sea (I. Quaile, Ilulissat 2009)

It might sound like stating the obvious, but in fact it is not easy to find clear evidence that human behavior is behind the retreat of glaciers being monitored in different parts of the world. Hence my interest in a study just published in the journal Science.

The main problem is that it usually takes decades or even centuries for glaciers to adjust to climate change, says climate researcher Ben Marzeion from the Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics of the University of Innsbruck. He and his team of researchers have just published the results of a study for which they simulated glacier changes during the period from 1851 to 2010 in a model of glacier evolution. They used the recently established “Randolph Glacier Inventory” (RGI) of almost all glaciers worldwide to run the model, which included all glaciers outside Antarctica.

“Melting glaciers are an icon of anthropogenic climate change”, the authors say. However, they stress that the present-day glacier retreat is a mixed response to past and current natural climate variability and “current anthropogenic forcing”. Their modeling shows though that whereas only 25% of global glacier mass loss between 1851 and 2010 can be attributed to human-related causes, the fraction increases to around 69% looking at the period between 1991 and 2010. So human contribution to glacier mass loss is on the increase, the experts write.

Marzeion says the global retreat of glaciers observed today started around the middle of the 19th century at the end of the Little Ice Age, responding both to naturally caused climate change of past centuries (like solar variability), and to human-induced changes. Until now, the real extent of human contribution was unclear. The authors say their latest piece of work provides clear evidence of the human contribution.

Once more I am happy to refer to the Climate News Network, in this case to Tim Radford, for an easy-to-read summary of the main research results and the background. There is no doubt that glaciers are losing mass, retreating uphill and melting at a faster rate, says Radford. He refers to some Andes glaciers and the the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland, or Sermeq Kujualleq as I prefer to call it, using the indigenous name. Ice Blog followers may remember my own trip to Greenland and that particular glacier. I have also written on the speeding of the melt there on the Ice Blog and on the DW website.

Alpine glacier like these in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, have declined dramtically in recent decades. (I.Quaile)

Alpine glacier like these in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, have declined dramatically in recent decades. (I.Quaile)

Radford also refers to ascertaining the melting of alpine glaciers by comparing historic paintings and other documentation with the current ice mass. That decline is something I have observed at first hand in Valais in Switzerland during regular visits over the past 30 years. Look out for a comparative photo gallery of my own pics, when I get time to put it together. Since most of the shots are from the pre-digital era, that will be a time-consuming task.

I also remember a trip to the Visitor Centre of the Begich Boggs glacier in Alaska in 2008. The glacier has already retreated so far you can’t see it at all from the Centre built specially for the purpose of viewing it.

The question until now was how much of all this was caused by natural developments and how much to changes in land use and the emission of greenhouse gases? The latest study supported, among others, by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and the research area Scientific Computing at the University of Innsbruck, has come up with some answers. Since the climate researchers were able to include different factors contributing to climate change in their model, they can differentiate between natural and anthropogenic influences on glacier mass loss

“While we keep factors such as solar variability and volcanic eruptions unchanged, we are able to modify land use changes and greenhouse gas emissions in our models,” says Ben Marzeion, who sums up the study: “In our data we find unambiguous evidence of anthropogenic contribution to glacier mass loss.”

As always, there is still need for further research – and a lot more monitoring. The scientists say the current observation data is insufficient in general to derive any clear results for specific regions, even though anthropogenic influence is detectable in a few regions such as North America and the Alps, where glaciers changes are particularly well documented.

With global glacier retreat contributing to rising sea-levels, changing seasonal water availability and increasing geo-hazards, the study’s conclusions should help put a little more pressure on the world’s decision-makers to get serious about emissions reductions.

Date

August 18, 2014 | 1:03 pm

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Arctic thaw – carry on regardless?

 

Svalbard ice (Irene Quaile)

Svalbard ice (Irene Quaile)

When a colleague who has a lot of sympathy for those who do NOT accept that humans are responsible for global warming drew attention to the fact that this had been the hottest June on record, following hard on the hottest May, I must admit I was temporarily put of my guard. Aha, I thought. Is he finally getting the message? Alas, the answer is no. There is a small minority of people that still argues – for whatever reason – that natural variation could be responsible for all this, while acknowledging the record concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. “And all that stuff”. Hm.

Date

July 24, 2014 | 2:16 pm

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World Cup Champs for Arctic Climate?

Greenpeace Arctic protest in Bonn

Greenpeace Arctic info stand in Germany. Climate champions? (IQ)

Chancellor Merkel is on her way from the World Cup Final in Brazil to Berlin, where she will address the Petersberg Climate Dialogue. This is an informal but influential meeting of 35 international ministers, co-chaired by Peru, the host of the next world climate conference this December. UNFCCC chief Figueres is also in attendance, hoping progress will be made towards a successful Peru conference and a new world climate agreement to be signed in Paris in 2015. Yes, it is a kind of conference to prepare the conference to prepare the conference…. but every little step helps. As I wrote here and on the DW website during the last round of preparatory talks in Bonn, things are looking more positive than they once did, with the big players USA and China finally coming into the game. Here’s hoping Frau Merkel can bring some of the energy and enthusiasm from the World Cup into the “Petersberg Dialogue” (initiated on the Petersberg here in Bonn, but since moved to Berlin) and the climate process. I interviewed Martin Kaiser, the climate policy chief at Greenpeace about the current state of play. You can read the interview here. But I also talked to him about that key ice blog issue, the relevance of all this to the Arctic.

Greenpeace Climate Chief Martin Kaiser on board the Esperanza off the coast of Svalberd, 2010 (IQ)

Greenpeace Climate Chief Martin Kaiser on board the Esperanza off the coast of Svalbard, 2010 (IQ)

Here is his response, if you would like to listen: For those who prefer a read, this is what Martin Kaiser had to say about the UN climate process and the Arctic:

“If we want to limit the ice melt in the Arctic, we have to address the issue of climate change. If we don’t manage to get countries like China and the US, to drastically reduce emissions from burning coal and oil, the ice melt is unstoppable. The Arctic is one of the places in the world where you can see the drastic changes caused by global warming in a most visible way. We expect a historic minimum ice melt this September, and this will give a clear warning when heads of state are going to meet in New York at around the same time.

It’s quite contradictory that oil companies are going to the Arctic to drill for more fossil energy which will fuel global warming even more. This needs to stop. That’s why Greenpeace is calling for a sanctuary in the Arctic which prohibits commercial exploitation of the region.

(Ice Blogger: How does that look in the countries with Arctic regions?)

If we look at Canada  – It has one of the most regressive climate policies in place, Prime minister Harper is one of the worst climate deniers, and Canada is investing a lot into tar sands in the west of the country – a business model that is not sustainable. Russia’s  business model is based on the export of oil and gas, so it is problematic to talk to Russia about the protection of the Arctic at the moment. Greenpeace has had experience of how they prioritize this business model over preserving the rare ecosystem. There are more countries like China and India coming in to the Arctic, and wanting to get a share of the resources extraction, and that is a worrying sign. Instead of protecting the Arctic, it’s opening like the Wild North for the big corporates investing into oil and gas. That means we have to have a political process which clearly determines a sanctuary in the Arctic and limits commercial exploitation of it.

Finland has been quite progressive so far to move forward the idea of a sanctuary in the Arctic. We hope that rich countries like Norway or also Iceland will join that group. But that’s a long way to go.”

Date

July 14, 2014 | 10:36 am

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Keeping Greenland in focus

Greenland ice wall

The Greenland ice sheet, photographed 2009 (I.Quaile)

Two interesting publications relating to Greenland caught my eye over the past few days. But it has not proved easy to get them onto the international news agenda. Given the huge importance of the Greenland ice sheet to the planet’s future, this is frustrating to say the least. Fortunately there is the Ice Blog.

The first research relates to a study about the role of ash from fires in bringing about large-scale surface melting. The other predicts Greenland will be a far greater contributor to sea rise than expected.

Let me start with the latter, published in Nature Geoscience. Scientists from the University of California – Irvine and NASA glaciologists have found previously uncharted long deep valleys under the Greenland Ice Sheet. Since these bedrock canyons are well below sea level, they are much more vulnerable to warm ocean waters than previously thought. When warmer Atlantic water hits the fronts of hundreds of glaciers, the edges will erode much further than previously assumed, releasing far greater amounts of water.

Ice melt from the subcontinent has already accelerated, as warmer marine currents have migrated north, the authors say. Older models predicted that once higher ground was reached in a few years, the ocean-induced melting would halt. Greenland’s frozen mass would stop shrinking, and its effect on higher sea waters would be curtailed.

“That turns out to be incorrect. The glaciers of Greenland are likely to retreat faster and farther inland than anticipated – and for much longer – according to this very different topography we’ve discovered beneath the ice,” says lead author Mathieu Morlighem, a UC Irvine associate project scientist, on the university website. “This has major implications, because the glacier melt will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe.”

IMG_1172

Icebergs from a Greenland glacier melt on.. (I.Quaile)

To obtain the results, Morlighem developed what he says is a breakthrough method that for the first time offers a comprehensive view of Greenland’s entire periphery. It’s nearly impossible to accurately survey at ground level the subcontinent’s rugged, rocky subsurface, which descends as much as 3 miles beneath the thick ice cap.

Since the 1970s, limited ice thickness data has been collected via radar pinging of the boundary between the ice and the bedrock. Along the coastline, though, rough surface ice and pockets of water cluttered the radar sounding, so large swaths of the bed remained invisible.

Measurements of Greenland’s topography have tripled since 2009, thanks to NASA Operation IceBridge flights. But Morlighem says he quickly realized that while that data provided a fuller picture than the earlier radar readings, there were still major gaps between the flight lines.

To reveal the full subterranean landscape, he designed a novel “mass conservation algorithm” that combined the previous ice thickness measurements with information on the velocity and direction of its movement and estimates of snowfall and surface melt.

The difference was dramatic, says Morlighem. What appeared to be shallow glaciers at the very edges of Greenland are actually long, deep fingers stretching more than 100 kilometers (almost 65 miles) inland.

“We anticipate that these results will have a profound and transforming impact on computer models of ice sheet evolution in Greenland in a warming climate,” the researchers conclude.

“Operation IceBridge vastly improved our knowledge of bed topography beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet,” said co-author Eric Rignot of UC Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This new study takes a quantum leap at filling the remaining, critical data gaps on the map.”

Other co-authors are Jeremie Mouginot of UC Irvine and Helene Seroussi and Eric Larour of JPL. Funding was provided by NASA.

This is the same team that reported on accelerated glacial melt in West Antarctica, as discussed in an earlier Ice Blog post.  Together, the papers “suggest that the globe’s ice sheets will contribute far more to sea level rise than current projections show,” Rignot said.

Indeed. These scientists are telling us the IPCC forecasts were way too low. This could have huge consequences for coastal communities all around the globe.

Unfortunately, a lot of people (even those you would expect to know better) tend to mix up “Arctic” and “Antarctic”. It all goes into the category of “melting ice”, and they think they have heard it all before. What they still don’t realize is that this is something that concerns us all, and that these two polar areas are of huge significance to the world climate as a whole and global sea level. When those two Antarctic studies were released, there was a flurry of news coverage. The challenge for us journalists is how to follow this up and stop the attention curve from dropping.

Plodding on... (I.Quaile)

Plodding on… (I.Quaile)

The other interesting piece of recent Greenland research was conducted by the Dartmouth College Thayer School of Engineering and the Desert Research Institute and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of

Sciences. It concludes that ash from Northern hemisphere forest fires combined with rising temperatures to cause large-scale surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet in 1889 and 2012.

The researchers say their findings contradict conventional thinking that the melting was driven by warming alone.

The findings suggest that continued climate change will result in nearly annual widespread melting of the ice sheet’s surface by the year 2100.

Melting in the dry snow region does not contribute to sea level rise, but when the meltwater percolates into the snowpack and refreezes, the surface is less reflective. This reduces the albedo.

Let me give the (almost) last word to the study’s lead author Kaitlin Keegan.

“With both the frequency of forest fires and warmer temperatures predicted to increase with climate change, widespread melt events are likely to happen much more frequently in the future”.

It figures.

 

Date

May 23, 2014 | 2:39 pm

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Cryosphere in Crisis?

Melting...

Melting…

You can’t  say the latest research results on the thinning of the West Antarctic ice sheet didn’t make the media. From the news agencies through the quality media and even publications not known for their detailed science or environment coverage – nearly all reported that two separate studies each independently come to the conclusion that parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet are already “collapsing”. They say this could result in a considerable sea level rise within the next century or two. This would have devastating consequences for low-lying coastal areas around the globe.

No-one can really say they didn’t know about this. For once, the Antarctic ice has made into the headlines of the mainstream media. This is the region people tend to think of as having “eternal ice”, where global warming will “not make much difference”. There are those who criticize the media for sensationalism or exaggeration by taking over the term “collapse” for a process which will still take hundreds to thousands of years. See for example Andrew Revkin’s post on Dot Earth (New York Times), (and an excellent response by Tom Yulsman in ImaGeo: (Discover Magazine). But, semantic discussions apart – as Yulsman puts it:

“On a human timescale, 200 years or more for the start of rapid disintegration is a very long time indeed. But on a geologic timescale, it is the blink of an eye. And that’s important to keep in mind too — that in a blazing flash, geologically speaking, we humans are managing to remake the life support systems of our entire planet. This is why I think today’s news may eventually be seen as having historic significance”. At any rate, he concludes “it is yet another clear sign that human-caused changes to the planet once regarded as theoretical are now very real”.

Indeed Tom. The question is: what are we going to do about it? Has it set the alarm bells ringing? Did anybody see a rash of reactions promising quick action on reducing emissions to mitigate climate change? If so, please point me in the right direction. So far, I haven’t seen any indication of anything other than business as usual.

P1010041

The West Antarctic ice sheet contains so much ice that it would raise global sea level by three to four meters if it melted completely. As it sits on bedrock that is below sea level, it is considered particularly vulnerable to warming sea water. Until now, scientists assumed it would take thousands of years for the ice sheet to collapse completely. The two new studies indicate that could happen much faster – as early as 200 years from now or, at the most, 900. Both research teams, using different methods and looking at different parts of the ice sheet, conclude that the trend is probably unstoppable.

The NASA study published in “Geophysical Research Letters” uses data from satellites, planes, ships and measurements from the shelf ice to examine six large glaciers in the Amundsen Sea over the last 20 years. The second report, from the University of Washington published in the journal “Science,” uses computer models to study the Thwaites glacier. It is considered of particular importance because it acts as a type of “lynch pin”, holding back the rest of the ice sheet.

According to NASA researcher Eric Rignot, the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica have “passed the point of no return.” He told journalists this would mean a sea level rise of at least  1.2 meters (3.93 feet) within the next 200 years.The University of Washington scientists worked out, using topographical maps, computer simulations and airborne radar, that the Thwaites glacier is also in an early stage of collapse. They expect it to disappear within several hundred years. That would raise sea levels by around 60 centimeters (23.62 inches). The NASA study showed that sea level rises of 1.2 meters are possible

The good news, according to author Ian Joughlin, is that while the word “collapse” implies a sudden change, the fastest scenario is 200 years, and the longest more than 1,000 years. The bad news, he adds, is that such a collapse may be inevitable: “Previously, when we saw thinning we didn’t necessarily know whether the glacier could slow down later, spontaneously or through some feedback,” Joughlin says. “In our model simulations it looks like all the feedbacks tend to point toward it actually accelerating over time. There’s no real stabilizing mechanism we can see.”

The latest IPCC report does not adequately factor ice loss from the West Antarctic ice sheet into its projections for global sea level rise, on account of a lack of data. These “will almost certainly be revised upwards,” according to Sridar Anandakrishnan from Pennsylvania State University at the presentation of the University of Washington study. The scientist was not involved in the research.

NASA glaciologist Rignot said he was taken aback by the speed of the changes. “We feel this is at the point where … the system is in a sort of chain reaction that is unstoppable,” he said.

Rignot also makes the key point that this development tells us not only about the area down at the South Pole, but about the whole climate system: “This system, whether Greenland or Antarctica, is changing on a faster time scale than we anticipated. We are discovering that every day.”

My last two blog posts have been about melting of the Greenland ice sheet and melting even in the East Antarctic, which is usually cited as the last bastion against ice-destroying climate change. We are subjecting our cryosphere to huge pressures and have set a “snowball” rolling, which is picking up momentum and will ultimately carry masses of ice into a rising ocean.

Rignot says even drastic measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions could not prevent the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. That is a terribly depressing thought.  I would like to think this will prove wrong. But if there is any chance to avert that disaster and preserve our polar ice for thousands of years rather than just a few hundred, surely the time for action is now?

 

 

Date

May 14, 2014 | 2:46 pm

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