Research provides new theory on cause of ice age 2.6 million years ago

New research published today (Friday 27th June 2014) in the journal Nature Scientific Reports has provided a major new theory on the cause of the ice age that covered large parts of the Northern Hemisphere 2.6 million years ago.

The study, co-authored by Dr Thomas Stevens, from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, found a previously unknown mechanism by which the joining of North and South America changed the salinity of the Pacific Ocean and caused major ice sheet growth across the Northern Hemisphere.

The change in salinity encouraged sea ice to form which in turn created a change in wind patterns, leading to intensified monsoons. These provided moisture that caused an increase in snowfall and the growth of major ice sheets, some of which reached 3km thick.

The team of researchers analysed deposits of wind-blown dust called red clay that accumulated between six million and two and a half million years ago in north central China, adjacent to the Tibetan plateau, and used them to reconstruct changing monsoon precipitation and temperature.

“Until now, the cause of the Quaternary ice age had been a hotly debated topic”, said Dr Stevens. “Our findings suggest a significant link between ice sheet growth, the monsoon and the closing of the Panama Seaway, as North and South America drifted closer together. This provides us with a major new theory on the origins of the ice age, and ultimately our current climate system.”

Surprisingly, the researchers found there was a strengthening of the monsoon during global cooling, instead of the intense rainfall normally associated with warmer climates.

Dr Stevens added: “This led us to discover a previously unknown interaction between plate tectonic movements in the Americas and dramatic changes in global temperature. The intensified monsoons created a positive feedback cycle, promoting more global cooling, more sea ice and even stronger precipitation, culminating in the spread of huge glaciers across the Northern Hemisphere.”

Ancient ocean currents may have changed pace and intensity of ice ages

About 950,000 years ago, North Atlantic currents and northern hemisphere ice sheets underwent changes. -  NASA
About 950,000 years ago, North Atlantic currents and northern hemisphere ice sheets underwent changes. – NASA

Climate scientists have long tried to explain why ice-age cycles became longer and more intense some 900,000 years ago, switching from 41,000-year cycles to 100,000-year cycles.

In a paper published this week in the journal Science, researchers report that the deep ocean currents that move heat around the globe stalled or may have stopped at that time, possibly due to expanding ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere.

“The research is a breakthrough in understanding a major change in the rhythm of Earth’s climate, and shows that the ocean played a central role,” says Candace Major, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.

The slowing currents increased carbon dioxide (CO2) storage in the oceans, leaving less CO2 in the atmosphere. That kept temperatures cold and kicked the climate system into a new phase of colder, but less frequent, ice ages, the scientists believe.

“The oceans started storing more carbon dioxide for a longer period of time,” says Leopoldo Pena, the paper’s lead author and a paleoceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). “Our evidence shows that the oceans played a major role in slowing the pace of the ice ages and making them more severe.”

The researchers reconstructed the past strength of Earth’s system of ocean currents by sampling deep-sea sediments off the coast of South Africa, where powerful currents originating in the North Atlantic Ocean pass on their way to Antarctica.

How vigorously those currents moved can be inferred by how much North Atlantic water made it that far, as measured by isotope ratios of the element neodymium bearing the signature of North Atlantic seawater.

Like tape recorders, the shells of ancient plankton incorporate these seawater signals through time, allowing scientists to approximate when currents grew stronger and when weaker.

Over the last 1.2 million years, the conveyor-like currents strengthened during warm periods and lessened during ice ages, as previously thought.

But at about 950,000 years ago, ocean circulation slowed significantly and stayed weak for 100,000 years.

During that period the planet skipped an interglacial–the warm interval between ice ages. When the system recovered, it entered a new phase of longer, 100,000-year ice age cycles.

After this turning point, deep ocean currents remained weak during ice ages, and ice ages themselves became colder.

“Our discovery of such a major breakdown in the ocean circulation system was a big surprise,” said paper co-author Steven Goldstein, a geochemist at LDEO. “It allowed the ice sheets to grow when they should have melted, triggering the first 100,000-year cycle.”

Ice ages come and go at predictable intervals based on the changing amount of sunlight that falls on the planet, due to variations in Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Orbital changes alone, however, are not enough to explain the sudden switch to longer ice age intervals.

According to one earlier hypothesis for the transition, advancing glaciers in North America stripped away soils in Canada, causing thicker, longer-lasting ice to build up on the remaining bedrock.

Building on that idea, the researchers believe that the advancing ice might have triggered the slowdown in deep ocean currents, leading the oceans to vent less carbon dioxide, which suppressed the interglacial that should have followed.

“The ice sheets must have reached a critical state that switched the ocean circulation system into a weaker mode,” said Goldstein.

Neodymium, a key component of cellphones, headphones, computers and wind turbines, also offers a good way of measuring the vigor of ancient ocean currents.

Goldstein and colleagues had used neodymium ratios in deep-sea sediment samples to show that ocean circulation slowed during past ice ages.

They used the same method to show that changes in climate preceded changes in ocean circulation.

A trace element in Earth’s crust, neodymium washes into the oceans through erosion from the continents, where natural radioactive decay leaves a signature unique to the land mass from which it originated.

When Goldstein and Lamont colleague Sidney Hemming pioneered this method in the late 1990s, they rarely worried about surrounding neodymium contaminating their samples.

The rise of consumer electronics has changed that.

“I used to say you could do sample processing for neodymium analysis in a parking lot,” said Goldstein. “Not anymore.”

Fracking flowback could pollute groundwater with heavy metals

Partially wetted sand grains (grey) with colloids (red) are shown. -  Cornell University
Partially wetted sand grains (grey) with colloids (red) are shown. – Cornell University

The chemical makeup of wastewater generated by “hydrofracking” could cause the release of tiny particles in soils that often strongly bind heavy metals and pollutants, exacerbating the environmental risks during accidental spills, Cornell University researchers have found.

Previous research has shown 10 to 40 percent of the water and chemical solution mixture injected at high pressure into deep rock strata, surges back to the surface during well development. Scientists at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences studying the environmental impacts of this “flowback fluid” found that the same properties that make it so effective at extracting natural gas from shale can also displace tiny particles that are naturally bound to soil, causing associated pollutants such as heavy metals to leach out.

They described the mechanisms of this release and transport in a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The particles they studied are colloids – larger than the size of a molecule but smaller than what can be seen with the naked eye – which cling to sand and soil due to their electric charge.

In experiments, glass columns were filled with sand and synthetic polystyrene colloids. They then flushed the column with different fluids – deionized water as a control, and flowback fluid collected from a Marcellus Shale drilling site – at different rates of flow and measured the amount of colloids that were mobilized.

On a bright field microscope, the polystyrene colloids were visible as red spheres between light-grey sand grains, which made their movement easy to track. The researchers also collected and analyzed the water flowing out of the column to quantify the colloid concentration leaching out.

They found that fewer than five percent of colloids were released when they flushed the columns with deionized water. That figure jumped to 32 to 36 percent when flushed with flowback fluid. Increasing the flow rate of the flowback fluid mobilized an additional 36 percent of colloids.

They believe this is because the chemical composition of the flowback fluid reduced the strength of the forces that allow colloids to remain bound to the sand, causing the colloids to actually be repelled from the sand.

“This is a first step into discovering the effects of flowback fluid on colloid transport in soils,” said postdoctoral associate Cathelijne Stoof, a co-author on the paper.

The authors hope to conduct further experiments using naturally occurring colloids in more complex field soil systems, as well as different formulations of flowback fluid collected from other drilling sites.

Stoof said awareness of the phenomenon and an understanding of the mechanisms behind it can help identify risks and inform mitigation strategies.

“Sustainable development of any resource requires facts about its potential impacts, so legislators can make informed decisions about whether and where it can and cannot be allowed, and to develop guidelines in case it goes wrong,” Stoof said. “In the case of spills, you want to know what happens when the fluid moves through the soil.”




Video
Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
This video visualizes the effects of hydrofracking flowback fluid on colloid mobilization in unsaturated sand. Included are the injection of the colloids into the sand column at the beginning of the experiment, the deionized water flush at 0.3 ml/min, the flowback water flush at 0.3 ml/min, and the flowback water flush at 1.5 ml/min. – Cornell University

Fracking flowback could pollute groundwater with heavy metals

Partially wetted sand grains (grey) with colloids (red) are shown. -  Cornell University
Partially wetted sand grains (grey) with colloids (red) are shown. – Cornell University

The chemical makeup of wastewater generated by “hydrofracking” could cause the release of tiny particles in soils that often strongly bind heavy metals and pollutants, exacerbating the environmental risks during accidental spills, Cornell University researchers have found.

Previous research has shown 10 to 40 percent of the water and chemical solution mixture injected at high pressure into deep rock strata, surges back to the surface during well development. Scientists at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences studying the environmental impacts of this “flowback fluid” found that the same properties that make it so effective at extracting natural gas from shale can also displace tiny particles that are naturally bound to soil, causing associated pollutants such as heavy metals to leach out.

They described the mechanisms of this release and transport in a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The particles they studied are colloids – larger than the size of a molecule but smaller than what can be seen with the naked eye – which cling to sand and soil due to their electric charge.

In experiments, glass columns were filled with sand and synthetic polystyrene colloids. They then flushed the column with different fluids – deionized water as a control, and flowback fluid collected from a Marcellus Shale drilling site – at different rates of flow and measured the amount of colloids that were mobilized.

On a bright field microscope, the polystyrene colloids were visible as red spheres between light-grey sand grains, which made their movement easy to track. The researchers also collected and analyzed the water flowing out of the column to quantify the colloid concentration leaching out.

They found that fewer than five percent of colloids were released when they flushed the columns with deionized water. That figure jumped to 32 to 36 percent when flushed with flowback fluid. Increasing the flow rate of the flowback fluid mobilized an additional 36 percent of colloids.

They believe this is because the chemical composition of the flowback fluid reduced the strength of the forces that allow colloids to remain bound to the sand, causing the colloids to actually be repelled from the sand.

“This is a first step into discovering the effects of flowback fluid on colloid transport in soils,” said postdoctoral associate Cathelijne Stoof, a co-author on the paper.

The authors hope to conduct further experiments using naturally occurring colloids in more complex field soil systems, as well as different formulations of flowback fluid collected from other drilling sites.

Stoof said awareness of the phenomenon and an understanding of the mechanisms behind it can help identify risks and inform mitigation strategies.

“Sustainable development of any resource requires facts about its potential impacts, so legislators can make informed decisions about whether and where it can and cannot be allowed, and to develop guidelines in case it goes wrong,” Stoof said. “In the case of spills, you want to know what happens when the fluid moves through the soil.”




Video
Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
This video visualizes the effects of hydrofracking flowback fluid on colloid mobilization in unsaturated sand. Included are the injection of the colloids into the sand column at the beginning of the experiment, the deionized water flush at 0.3 ml/min, the flowback water flush at 0.3 ml/min, and the flowback water flush at 1.5 ml/min. – Cornell University

Oklahoma quakes induced by wastewater injection, study finds

The dramatic increase in earthquakes in central Oklahoma since 2009 is likely attributable to subsurface wastewater injection at just a handful of disposal wells, finds a new study to be published in the journal Science on July 3, 2014.

The research team was led by Katie Keranen, professor of geophysics at Cornell University, who says Oklahoma earthquakes constitute nearly half of all central and eastern U.S. seismicity from 2008 to 2013, many occurring in areas of high-rate water disposal.

“Induced seismicity is one of the primary challenges for expanded shale gas and unconventional hydrocarbon development. Our results provide insight into the process by which the earthquakes are induced and suggest that adherence to standard best practices may substantially reduce the risk of inducing seismicity,” said Keranen. “The best practices include avoiding wastewater disposal near major faults and the use of appropriate monitoring and mitigation strategies.”

The study also concluded:

  • Four of the highest-volume disposal wells in Oklahoma (~0.05% of wells) are capable of triggering ~20% of recent central U.S. earthquakes in a swarm covering nearly 2,000 square kilometers, as shown by analysis of modeled pore pressure increase at relocated earthquake hypocenters.

  • Earthquakes are induced at distances over 30 km from the disposal wells. These distances are far beyond existing criteria of 5 km from the well for diagnosis of induced earthquakes.

  • The area of increased pressure related to these wells continually expands, increasing the probability of encountering a larger fault and thus increasing the risk of triggering a higher-magnitude earthquake.

“Earthquake and subsurface pressure monitoring should be routinely conducted in regions of wastewater disposal and all data from those should be publicly accessible. This should also include detailed monitoring and reporting of pumping volumes and pressures,” said Keranen. ‘In many states the data are more difficult to obtain than for Oklahoma; databases should be standardized nationally. Independent quality assurance checks would increase confidence. ”

Oklahoma quakes induced by wastewater injection, study finds

The dramatic increase in earthquakes in central Oklahoma since 2009 is likely attributable to subsurface wastewater injection at just a handful of disposal wells, finds a new study to be published in the journal Science on July 3, 2014.

The research team was led by Katie Keranen, professor of geophysics at Cornell University, who says Oklahoma earthquakes constitute nearly half of all central and eastern U.S. seismicity from 2008 to 2013, many occurring in areas of high-rate water disposal.

“Induced seismicity is one of the primary challenges for expanded shale gas and unconventional hydrocarbon development. Our results provide insight into the process by which the earthquakes are induced and suggest that adherence to standard best practices may substantially reduce the risk of inducing seismicity,” said Keranen. “The best practices include avoiding wastewater disposal near major faults and the use of appropriate monitoring and mitigation strategies.”

The study also concluded:

  • Four of the highest-volume disposal wells in Oklahoma (~0.05% of wells) are capable of triggering ~20% of recent central U.S. earthquakes in a swarm covering nearly 2,000 square kilometers, as shown by analysis of modeled pore pressure increase at relocated earthquake hypocenters.

  • Earthquakes are induced at distances over 30 km from the disposal wells. These distances are far beyond existing criteria of 5 km from the well for diagnosis of induced earthquakes.

  • The area of increased pressure related to these wells continually expands, increasing the probability of encountering a larger fault and thus increasing the risk of triggering a higher-magnitude earthquake.

“Earthquake and subsurface pressure monitoring should be routinely conducted in regions of wastewater disposal and all data from those should be publicly accessible. This should also include detailed monitoring and reporting of pumping volumes and pressures,” said Keranen. ‘In many states the data are more difficult to obtain than for Oklahoma; databases should be standardized nationally. Independent quality assurance checks would increase confidence. ”

Resolving apparent inconsistencies in optimality principles for flow processes in geosystems

Optimality principles have been used, in a holistic approach, to describe flow processes in several important geosystems. Optimality principles refer to the state of a physical system that is controlled by an optimal condition subject to physical and/or resource constraints.

While significant successes have been achieved in applying them, some principles appear to contradict each other.

For example, scientists have found that the formation of channel networks in a river basin follows the minimization of energy expenditure (MEE) rate, while the Earth-atmosphere system can be described by the maximum entropy production (MEP) principle.

Under isothermal conditions the energy expenditure rate is proportional to the entropy production rate; therefore, MEE and MEP do not appear to be consistent.

The physical origin of these optimality principles is an issue of active research. They cannot be directly deduced from existing thermodynamic laws that deal largely with processes within black-boxes (systems) and were not developed to describe flow structures for flow processes within these boxes.

The apparent inconsistency between different optimality principles calls for the development of a more precise understanding of fundamental physical laws within the context of thermodynamics.

In a recent article published in the Chinese Science Bulletin, Hui-Hai Liu, a scientist in the Earth Sciences Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of the University of California, proposed a new thermodynamic hypothesis.

In order to resolve the seemingly inconsistent optimality principles for flow processes in geosystems, this hypothesis states that a nonlinear natural system that is not isolated and involves positive feedback mechanisms tends to minimize its resistance to the flow process through it that are imposed by its environment.

The key discovery of this research is that a system does not tend to provide minimum resistance to all the involved flow processes, but only to the driving process imposed by its environment. The optimality principle corresponding to minimizing flow resistance applies solely to the driving process. This is a significant refinement of traditional optimality principles that do not single out the driving process.

This hypothesis resolves the seeming inconsistency between minimization of energy expenditure for a river basin and the maximum entropy production principle for the Earth-atmosphere system.

Water flow is the driving process in forming the channel network of a river basin; without water flow, there would not be a soil erosion process to generate river patterns.

On the other hand, the Earth receives radiation from the hot Sun and transfers this heat into space. The atmosphere and oceans act as a fluid system that transports heat from hot regions to cold ones with general circulation, and the convection process is more efficient in transferring heat than the conduction process. In this system, the driving flow process is the heat flow, which is also the initiator for other flow processes.

Under steady-state flow conditions, the average heat flow rate is closely related to entropy production in the Earth-atmosphere system, and the MEP corresponds to the maximum convective heat transport. In this case, maximum entropy production happens to be a byproduct of this heat-flow optimization process.

Observed and understood this way, the maximum entropy production principle in the Earth-atmosphere system and the minimization of energy expenditure in a river basin are consistent and can be unified in terms of minimizing resistance to the “flow process imposed by its environment”, or the driving process.

This research also outlines the conditions under which the corresponding optimality principle can apply, in a nonlinear system that is not isolated and involves positive feedback mechanisms.

Examples in subsurface liquid flow processes were used to demonstrate that the minimization of flow resistance does not hold when these conditions are not met.

This new hypothesis has important applications in practice.

Hui-Hai Liu posits that this new understanding can serve as the physical basis for successfully developing subsurface flow laws in hydrogeology, including the base-case theory for modeling unsaturated flow and transport in the well-known Yucca Mountain Project related to the US high-level nuclear waste repository site.

“I can see some direct applications of the theory in areas including fingering flow in the subsurface, hydraulic fracturing process, and rock damage mechanics,” said Hui-Hai Liu.

Resolving apparent inconsistencies in optimality principles for flow processes in geosystems

Optimality principles have been used, in a holistic approach, to describe flow processes in several important geosystems. Optimality principles refer to the state of a physical system that is controlled by an optimal condition subject to physical and/or resource constraints.

While significant successes have been achieved in applying them, some principles appear to contradict each other.

For example, scientists have found that the formation of channel networks in a river basin follows the minimization of energy expenditure (MEE) rate, while the Earth-atmosphere system can be described by the maximum entropy production (MEP) principle.

Under isothermal conditions the energy expenditure rate is proportional to the entropy production rate; therefore, MEE and MEP do not appear to be consistent.

The physical origin of these optimality principles is an issue of active research. They cannot be directly deduced from existing thermodynamic laws that deal largely with processes within black-boxes (systems) and were not developed to describe flow structures for flow processes within these boxes.

The apparent inconsistency between different optimality principles calls for the development of a more precise understanding of fundamental physical laws within the context of thermodynamics.

In a recent article published in the Chinese Science Bulletin, Hui-Hai Liu, a scientist in the Earth Sciences Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of the University of California, proposed a new thermodynamic hypothesis.

In order to resolve the seemingly inconsistent optimality principles for flow processes in geosystems, this hypothesis states that a nonlinear natural system that is not isolated and involves positive feedback mechanisms tends to minimize its resistance to the flow process through it that are imposed by its environment.

The key discovery of this research is that a system does not tend to provide minimum resistance to all the involved flow processes, but only to the driving process imposed by its environment. The optimality principle corresponding to minimizing flow resistance applies solely to the driving process. This is a significant refinement of traditional optimality principles that do not single out the driving process.

This hypothesis resolves the seeming inconsistency between minimization of energy expenditure for a river basin and the maximum entropy production principle for the Earth-atmosphere system.

Water flow is the driving process in forming the channel network of a river basin; without water flow, there would not be a soil erosion process to generate river patterns.

On the other hand, the Earth receives radiation from the hot Sun and transfers this heat into space. The atmosphere and oceans act as a fluid system that transports heat from hot regions to cold ones with general circulation, and the convection process is more efficient in transferring heat than the conduction process. In this system, the driving flow process is the heat flow, which is also the initiator for other flow processes.

Under steady-state flow conditions, the average heat flow rate is closely related to entropy production in the Earth-atmosphere system, and the MEP corresponds to the maximum convective heat transport. In this case, maximum entropy production happens to be a byproduct of this heat-flow optimization process.

Observed and understood this way, the maximum entropy production principle in the Earth-atmosphere system and the minimization of energy expenditure in a river basin are consistent and can be unified in terms of minimizing resistance to the “flow process imposed by its environment”, or the driving process.

This research also outlines the conditions under which the corresponding optimality principle can apply, in a nonlinear system that is not isolated and involves positive feedback mechanisms.

Examples in subsurface liquid flow processes were used to demonstrate that the minimization of flow resistance does not hold when these conditions are not met.

This new hypothesis has important applications in practice.

Hui-Hai Liu posits that this new understanding can serve as the physical basis for successfully developing subsurface flow laws in hydrogeology, including the base-case theory for modeling unsaturated flow and transport in the well-known Yucca Mountain Project related to the US high-level nuclear waste repository site.

“I can see some direct applications of the theory in areas including fingering flow in the subsurface, hydraulic fracturing process, and rock damage mechanics,” said Hui-Hai Liu.

Study links Greenland ice sheet collapse, sea level rise 400,000 years ago

A research team is hiking to sample the Greenland ice-sheet margin in south Greenland. -  (Photo by Kelsey Winsor, courtesy Oregon State University)
A research team is hiking to sample the Greenland ice-sheet margin in south Greenland. – (Photo by Kelsey Winsor, courtesy Oregon State University)

A new study suggests that a warming period more than 400,000 years ago pushed the Greenland ice sheet past its stability threshold, resulting in a nearly complete deglaciation of southern Greenland and raising global sea levels some 4-6 meters.

The study is one of the first to zero in on how the vast Greenland ice sheet responded to warmer temperatures during that period, which were caused by changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, are being published this week in the journal Nature.

“The climate 400,000 years ago was not that much different than what we see today, or at least what is predicted for the end of the century,” said Anders Carlson, an associate professor at Oregon State University and co-author on the study. “The forcing was different, but what is important is that the region crossed the threshold allowing the southern portion of the ice sheet to all but disappear.

“This may give us a better sense of what may happen in the future as temperatures continue rising,” Carlson added.

Few reliable models and little proxy data exist to document the extent of the Greenland ice sheet loss during a period known as the Marine Isotope Stage 11. This was an exceptionally long warm period between ice ages that resulted in a global sea level rise of about 6-13 meters above present. However, scientists have been unsure of how much sea level rise could be attributed to Greenland, and how much may have resulted from the melting of Antarctic ice sheets or other causes.

To find the answer, the researchers examined sediment cores collected off the coast of Greenland from what is called the Eirik Drift. During several years of research, they sampled the chemistry of the glacial stream sediment on the island and discovered that different parts of Greenland have unique chemical features. During the presence of ice sheets, the sediments are scraped off and carried into the water where they are deposited in the Eirik Drift.

“Each terrain has a distinct fingerprint,” Carlson noted. “They also have different tectonic histories and so changes between the terrains allow us to predict how old the sediments are, as well as where they came from. The sediments are only deposited when there is significant ice to erode the terrain. The absence of terrestrial deposits in the sediment suggests the absence of ice.

“Not only can we estimate how much ice there was,” he added, “but the isotopic signature can tell us where ice was present, or from where it was missing.”

This first “ice sheet tracer” utilizes strontium, lead and neodymium isotopes to track the terrestrial chemistry.

The researchers’ analysis of the scope of the ice loss suggests that deglaciation in southern Greenland 400,000 years ago would have accounted for at least four meters – and possibly up to six meters – of global sea level rise. Other studies have shown, however, that sea levels during that period were at least six meters above present, and may have been as much as 13 meters higher.

Carlson said the ice sheet loss likely went beyond the southern edges of Greenland, though not all the way to the center, which has not been ice-free for at least one million years.

In their Nature article, the researchers contrasted the events of Marine Isotope Stage 11 with another warming period that occurred about 125,000 years ago and resulted in a sea level rise of 5-10 meters. Their analysis of the sediment record suggests that not as much of the Greenland ice sheet was lost – in fact, only enough to contribute to a sea level rise of less than 2.5 meters.

“However, other studies have shown that Antarctica may have been unstable at the time and melting there may have made up the difference,” Carlson pointed out.

The researchers say the discovery of an ice sheet tracer that can be documented through sediment core analysis is a major step to understanding the history of ice sheets in Greenland – and their impact on global climate and sea level changes. They acknowledge the need for more widespread coring data and temperature reconstructions.

“This is the first step toward more complete knowledge of the ice history,” Carlson said, “but it is an important one.”

Study links Greenland ice sheet collapse, sea level rise 400,000 years ago

A research team is hiking to sample the Greenland ice-sheet margin in south Greenland. -  (Photo by Kelsey Winsor, courtesy Oregon State University)
A research team is hiking to sample the Greenland ice-sheet margin in south Greenland. – (Photo by Kelsey Winsor, courtesy Oregon State University)

A new study suggests that a warming period more than 400,000 years ago pushed the Greenland ice sheet past its stability threshold, resulting in a nearly complete deglaciation of southern Greenland and raising global sea levels some 4-6 meters.

The study is one of the first to zero in on how the vast Greenland ice sheet responded to warmer temperatures during that period, which were caused by changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, are being published this week in the journal Nature.

“The climate 400,000 years ago was not that much different than what we see today, or at least what is predicted for the end of the century,” said Anders Carlson, an associate professor at Oregon State University and co-author on the study. “The forcing was different, but what is important is that the region crossed the threshold allowing the southern portion of the ice sheet to all but disappear.

“This may give us a better sense of what may happen in the future as temperatures continue rising,” Carlson added.

Few reliable models and little proxy data exist to document the extent of the Greenland ice sheet loss during a period known as the Marine Isotope Stage 11. This was an exceptionally long warm period between ice ages that resulted in a global sea level rise of about 6-13 meters above present. However, scientists have been unsure of how much sea level rise could be attributed to Greenland, and how much may have resulted from the melting of Antarctic ice sheets or other causes.

To find the answer, the researchers examined sediment cores collected off the coast of Greenland from what is called the Eirik Drift. During several years of research, they sampled the chemistry of the glacial stream sediment on the island and discovered that different parts of Greenland have unique chemical features. During the presence of ice sheets, the sediments are scraped off and carried into the water where they are deposited in the Eirik Drift.

“Each terrain has a distinct fingerprint,” Carlson noted. “They also have different tectonic histories and so changes between the terrains allow us to predict how old the sediments are, as well as where they came from. The sediments are only deposited when there is significant ice to erode the terrain. The absence of terrestrial deposits in the sediment suggests the absence of ice.

“Not only can we estimate how much ice there was,” he added, “but the isotopic signature can tell us where ice was present, or from where it was missing.”

This first “ice sheet tracer” utilizes strontium, lead and neodymium isotopes to track the terrestrial chemistry.

The researchers’ analysis of the scope of the ice loss suggests that deglaciation in southern Greenland 400,000 years ago would have accounted for at least four meters – and possibly up to six meters – of global sea level rise. Other studies have shown, however, that sea levels during that period were at least six meters above present, and may have been as much as 13 meters higher.

Carlson said the ice sheet loss likely went beyond the southern edges of Greenland, though not all the way to the center, which has not been ice-free for at least one million years.

In their Nature article, the researchers contrasted the events of Marine Isotope Stage 11 with another warming period that occurred about 125,000 years ago and resulted in a sea level rise of 5-10 meters. Their analysis of the sediment record suggests that not as much of the Greenland ice sheet was lost – in fact, only enough to contribute to a sea level rise of less than 2.5 meters.

“However, other studies have shown that Antarctica may have been unstable at the time and melting there may have made up the difference,” Carlson pointed out.

The researchers say the discovery of an ice sheet tracer that can be documented through sediment core analysis is a major step to understanding the history of ice sheets in Greenland – and their impact on global climate and sea level changes. They acknowledge the need for more widespread coring data and temperature reconstructions.

“This is the first step toward more complete knowledge of the ice history,” Carlson said, “but it is an important one.”