Underwater ‘tree rings’

This alga can be found in coastal regions of the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Arctic Ocean, where it can live for hundreds of years. -  Nick Caloyianus
This alga can be found in coastal regions of the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Arctic Ocean, where it can live for hundreds of years. – Nick Caloyianus

Almost 650 years of annual change in sea-ice cover can been seen in the calcite crust growth layers of seafloor algae, says a new study from the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM).

“This is the first time coralline algae have been used to track changes in Arctic sea ice,” says Jochen Halfar, an associate professor in UTM’s Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences. “We found the algal record shows a dramatic decrease in ice cover over the last 150 years.”

With colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution, Germany and Newfoundland, Halfar collected and analyzed samples of the alga Clathromorphum compactum. This long-lived plant species forms thick rock-like calcite crusts on the seafloor in shallow waters 15 to 17 metres deep. It is widely distributed in the Arctic and sub-Arctic Oceans.

Divers retrieved the specimens from near-freezing seawater during several research cruises led by Walter Adey from the Smithsonian.

The algae’s growth rates depend on the temperature of the water and the light they receive. As snow-covered sea ice accumulates on the water over the algae, it turns the sea floor dark and cold, stopping the plants’ growth. When the sea ice melts in the warm months, the algae resume growing their calcified crusts.

This continuous cycle of dormancy and growth results in visible layers that can be used to determine the length of time the algae were able to grow each year during the ice-free season.

“It’s the same principle as using rings to determine a tree’s age and the levels of precipitation,” says Halfar. “In addition to ring counting, we used radiocarbon dating to confirm the age of the algal layers.”

After cutting and polishing the algae, Halfar used a specialized microscope to take thousands of images of each sample. The images were combined to give a complete overview of the fist-sized specimens.

Halfar corroborated the length of the algal growth periods through the magnesium levels preserved in each growth layer. The amount of magnesium is dependent on both the light reaching the algae and the temperature of the sea water. Longer periods of open and warm water result in a higher amount of algal magnesium.

During the Little Ice Age, a period of global cooling that lasted from the mid-1500s to the mid-1800s, the algae’s annual growth increments were as narrow as 30 microns due to the extensive sea-ice cover, Halfar says. However, since 1850, the thickness of the algae’s growth increments have more than doubled, bearing witness to an unprecedented decline in sea ice coverage that has accelerated in recent decades.

Halfar says the coralline algae represent not only a new method for climate reconstruction, but are vital to extending knowledge of the climate record back in time to permit more accurate modeling of future climate change.

Currently, observational information about annual changes in the Earth’s temperature and climate go back 150 years. Reliable information about sea-ice coverage comes from satellites and dates back only to the late 1970s.

“In the north, there is nothing in the shallow oceans that tells us about climate, water temperature or sea ice coverage on an annual basis,” says Halfar. “These algae, which live over a thousand years, can now provide us with that information.”

NASA data reveals mega-canyon under Greenland Ice Sheet

Data from a NASA airborne science mission reveals evidence of a large and previously unknown canyon hidden under a mile of Greenland ice.

The canyon has the characteristics of a winding river channel and is at least 460 miles (750 kilometers) long, making it longer than the Grand Canyon. In some places, it is as deep as 2,600 feet (800 meters), on scale with segments of the Grand Canyon. This immense feature is thought to predate the ice sheet that has covered Greenland for the last few million years.

“One might assume that the landscape of the Earth has been fully explored and mapped,” said Jonathan Bamber, professor of physical geography at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, and lead author of the study. “Our research shows there’s still a lot left to discover.”

Bamber’s team published its findings Thursday in the journal Science.

The scientists used thousands of miles of airborne radar data, collected by NASA and researchers from the United Kingdom and Germany over several decades, to piece together the landscape lying beneath the Greenland ice sheet.

A large portion of this data was collected from 2009 through 2012 by NASA’s Operation IceBridge, an airborne science campaign that studies polar ice. One of IceBridge’s scientific instruments, the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder, can see through vast layers of ice to measure its thickness and the shape of bedrock below.

In their analysis of the radar data, the team discovered a continuous bedrock canyon that extends from almost the center of the island and ends beneath the Petermann Glacier fjord in northern Greenland.

At certain frequencies, radio waves can travel through the ice and bounce off the bedrock underneath. The amount of times the radio waves took to bounce back helped researchers determine the depth of the canyon. The longer it took, the deeper the bedrock feature.

“Two things helped lead to this discovery,” said Michael Studinger, IceBridge project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “It was the enormous amount of data collected by IceBridge and the work of combining it with other datasets into a Greenland-wide compilation of all existing data that makes this feature appear in front of our eyes.”

The researchers believe the canyon plays an important role in transporting sub-glacial meltwater from the interior of Greenland to the edge of the ice sheet into the ocean. Evidence suggests that before the presence of the ice sheet, as much as 4 million years ago, water flowed in the canyon from the interior to the coast and was a major river system.

“It is quite remarkable that a channel the size of the Grand Canyon is discovered in the 21st century below the Greenland ice sheet,” said Studinger. “It shows how little we still know about the bedrock below large continental ice sheets.”

The IceBridge campaign will return to Greenland in March 2014 to continue collecting data on land and sea ice in the Arctic using a suite of instruments that includes ice-penetrating radar.




Video
Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
Hidden for all of human history, a 460-mile-long canyon has been discovered below Greenland’s ice sheet. Using radar data from NASA’s Operation IceBridge and other airborne campaigns, scientists led by a team from the University of Bristol found the canyon runs from near the center of the island northward to the fjord of the Petermann Glacier.

A large portion of the data was collected by IceBridge from 2009 through 2012. One of the mission’s scientific instruments, the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder, operated by the Center for the Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas, can see through vast layers of ice to measure its thickness and the shape of bedrock below.

This is a narrated version of an animation that can be found, along with more detailed information, here:

Greenland’s Mega-Canyon beneath the Ice Sheet (id 4097) – NASA SVS

Ice ages only thanks to feedback

Ice ages and warm periods have alternated fairly regularly in the Earth’s history: the Earth’s climate cools roughly every 100,000 years, with vast areas of North America, Europe and Asia being buried under thick ice sheets. Eventually, the pendulum swings back: it gets warmer and the ice masses melt. While geologists and climate physicists found solid evidence of this 100,000-year cycle in glacial moraines, marine sediments and arctic ice, until now they were unable to find a plausible explanation for it.

Using computer simulations, a Japanese, Swiss and American team including Heinz Blatter, an emeritus professor of physical climatology at ETH Zurich, has now managed to demonstrate that the ice-age/warm-period interchange depends heavily on the alternating influence of continental ice sheets and climate.

“If an entire continent is covered in a layer of ice that is 2,000 to 3,000 metres thick, the topography is completely different,” says Blatter, explaining this feedback effect. “This and the different albedo of glacial ice compared to ice-free earth lead to considerable changes in the surface temperature and the air circulation in the atmosphere.” Moreover, large-scale glaciation also alters the sea level and therefore the ocean currents, which also affects the climate.

Weak effect with a strong impact


As the scientists from Tokyo University, ETH Zurich and Columbia University demonstrated in their paper published in the journal Nature, these feedback effects between the Earth and the climate occur on top of other known mechanisms. It has long been clear that the climate is greatly influenced by insolation on long-term time scales. Because the Earth’s rotation and its orbit around the sun periodically change slightly, the insolation also varies. If you examine this variation in detail, different overlapping cycles of around 20,000, 40,000 and 100,000 years are recognisable (see box).

Given the fact that the 100,000-year insolation cycle is comparatively weak, scientists could not easily explain the prominent 100,000-year-cycle of the ice ages with this information alone. With the aid of the feedback effects, however, this is now possible.

Simulating the ice and climate

The researchers obtained their results from a comprehensive computer model, where they combined an ice-sheet simulation with an existing climate model, which enabled them to calculate the glaciation of the northern hemisphere for the last 400,000 years. The model not only takes the astronomical parameter values, ground topography and the physical flow properties of glacial ice into account but also especially the climate and feedback effects. “It’s the first time that the glaciation of the entire northern hemisphere has been simulated with a climate model that includes all the major aspects,” says Blatter.

Using the model, the researchers were also able to explain why ice ages always begin slowly and end relatively quickly. The ice-age ice masses accumulate over tens of thousands of years and recede within the space of a few thousand years. Now we know why: it is not only the surface temperature and precipitation that determine whether an ice sheet grows or shrinks. Due to the aforementioned feedback effects, its fate also depends on its size. “The larger the ice sheet, the colder the climate has to be to preserve it,” says Blatter. In the case of smaller continental ice sheets that are still forming, periods with a warmer climate are less likely to melt them. It is a different story with a large ice sheet that stretches into lower geographic latitudes: a comparatively brief warm spell of a few thousand years can be enough to cause an ice sheet to melt and herald the end of an ice age.

Box: The Milankovitch cycles


The explanation for the cyclical alternation of ice and warm periods stems from Serbian mathematician Milutin Milankovitch (1879-1958), who calculated the changes in the Earth’s orbit and the resulting insolation on Earth, thus becoming the first to describe that the cyclical changes in insolation are the result of an overlapping of a whole series of cycles: the tilt of the Earth’s axis fluctuates by around two degrees in a 41,000-year cycle. Moreover, the Earth’s axis gyrates in a cycle of 26,000 years, much like a spinning top. Finally, the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun changes in a cycle of around 100,000 years in two respects: on the one hand, it changes from a weaker elliptical (circular) form into a stronger one. On the other hand, the axis of this ellipsis turns in the plane of the Earth’s orbit. The spinning of the Earth’s axis and the elliptical rotation of the axes cause the day on which the Earth is closest to the sun (perihelion) to migrate through the calendar year in a cycle of around 20,000 years: currently, it is at the beginning of January; in around 10,000 years, however, it will be at the beginning of July.

Based on his calculations, in 1941 Milankovitch postulated that insolation in the summer characterises the ice and warm periods at sixty-five degrees north, a theory that was rejected by the science community during his lifetime. From the 1970s, however, it gradually became clearer that it essentially coincides with the climate archives in marine sediments and ice cores. Nowadays, Milankovitch’s theory is widely accepted. “Milankovitch’s idea that insolation determines the ice ages was right in principle,” says Blatter. “However, science soon recognised that additional feedback effects in the climate system were necessary to explain ice ages. We are now able to name and identify these effects accurately.”

Climate change occurring 10 times faster than at any time in past 65 million years

The planet is undergoing one of the largest changes in climate since the dinosaurs went extinct. But what might be even more troubling for humans, plants and animals is the speed of the change. Stanford climate scientists warn that the likely rate of change over the next century will be at least 10 times quicker than any climate shift in the past 65 million years.

If the trend continues at its current rapid pace, it will place significant stress on terrestrial ecosystems around the world, and many species will need to make behavioral, evolutionary or geographic adaptations to survive.

Although some of the changes the planet will experience in the next few decades are already “baked into the system,” how different the climate looks at the end of the 21st century will depend largely on how humans respond.

The findings come from a review of climate research by Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of environmental Earth system science, and Chris Field, a professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science and the director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution. The work is part of a special report on climate change in the current issue of Science.

Diffenbaugh and Field, both senior fellows at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, conducted the targeted but broad review of scientific literature on aspects of climate change that can affect ecosystems, and investigated how recent observations and projections for the next century compare to past events in Earth’s history.

For instance, the planet experienced a 5 degree Celsius hike in temperature 20,000 years ago, as Earth emerged from the last ice age. This is a change comparable to the high-end of the projections for warming over the 20th and 21st centuries.

The geologic record shows that, 20,000 years ago, as the ice sheet that covered much of North America receded northward, plants and animals recolonized areas that had been under ice. As the climate continued to warm, those plants and animals moved northward, to cooler climes.

“We know from past changes that ecosystems have responded to a few degrees of global temperature change over thousands of years,” said Diffenbaugh. “But the unprecedented trajectory that we’re on now is forcing that change to occur over decades. That’s orders of magnitude faster, and we’re already seeing that some species are challenged by that rate of change.”

Some of the strongest evidence for how the global climate system responds to high levels of carbon dioxide comes from paleoclimate studies. Fifty-five million years ago, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was elevated to a level comparable to today. The Arctic Ocean did not have ice in the summer, and nearby land was warm enough to support alligators and palm trees.

“There are two key differences for ecosystems in the coming decades compared with the geologic past,” Diffenbaugh said. “One is the rapid pace of modern climate change. The other is that today there are multiple human stressors that were not present 55 million years ago, such as urbanization and air and water pollution.”

Record-setting heat

Diffenbaugh and Field also reviewed results from two-dozen climate models to describe possible climate outcomes from present day to the end of the century. In general, extreme weather events, such as heat waves and heavy rainfall, are expected to become more severe and more frequent.

For example, the researchers note that, with continued emissions of greenhouse gases at the high end of the scenarios, annual temperatures over North America, Europe and East Asia will increase 2-4 degrees C by 2046-2065. With that amount of warming, the hottest summer of the last 20 years is expected to occur every other year, or even more frequently.

By the end of the century, should the current emissions of greenhouse gases remain unchecked, temperatures over the northern hemisphere will tip 5-6 degrees C warmer than today’s averages. In this case, the hottest summer of the last 20 years becomes the new annual norm.

“It’s not easy to intuit the exact impact from annual temperatures warming by 6 C,” Diffenbaugh said. “But this would present a novel climate for most land areas. Given the impacts those kinds of seasons currently have on terrestrial forests, agriculture and human health, we’ll likely see substantial stress from severely hot conditions.”

The scientists also projected the velocity of climate change, defined as the distance per year that species of plants and animals would need to migrate to live in annual temperatures similar to current conditions. Around the world, including much of the United States, species face needing to move toward the poles or higher in the mountains by at least one kilometer per year. Many parts of the world face much larger changes.

The human element

Some climate changes will be unavoidable, because humans have already emitted greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere and oceans have already been heated.

“There is already some inertia in place,” Diffenbaugh said. “If every new power plant or factory in the world produced zero emissions, we’d still see impact from the existing infrastructure, and from gases already released.”

The more dramatic changes that could occur by the end of the century, however, are not written in stone. There are many human variables at play that could slow the pace and magnitude of change – or accelerate it.

Consider the 2.5 billion people who lack access to modern energy resources. This energy poverty means they lack fundamental benefits for illumination, cooking and transportation, and they’re more susceptible to extreme weather disasters. Increased energy access will improve their quality of life – and in some cases their chances of survival – but will increase global energy consumption and possibly hasten warming.

Diffenbaugh said that the range of climate projections offered in the report can inform decision-makers about the risks that different levels of climate change pose for ecosystems.

“There’s no question that a climate in which every summer is hotter than the hottest of the last 20 years poses real risks for ecosystems across the globe,” Diffenbaugh said. “However, there are opportunities to decrease those risks, while also ensuring access to the benefits of energy consumption.”

Ice-free Arctic winters could explain amplified warming during Pliocene

Year-round ice-free conditions across the surface of the Arctic Ocean could explain why the Earth was substantially warmer during the Pliocene Epoch than it is today, despite similar concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to new research carried out at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In early May, instruments at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii marked a new record: The concentration of carbon dioxide climbed to 400 parts per million for the first time in modern history.

The last time researchers believe the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reached 400 ppm-between 3 and 5 million years ago during the Pliocene-the Earth was about 3.5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer (2 to 5 degrees Celsius) than it is today. During that time period, trees overtook the tundra, sprouting right to the edges of the Arctic Ocean, and the seas swelled, pushing ocean levels 65 to 80 feet higher.

Scientists’ understanding of the climate during the Pliocene has largely been pieced together from fossil records preserved in sediments deposited beneath lakes and on the ocean floor.

“When we put 400 ppm carbon dioxide into a model, we don’t get as warm a planet as we see when we look at paleorecords from the Pliocene,” said Jim White, director of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and co-author of the new study published online in the journal Palaeogeography, Paleoclimatology, Palaeoecology. “That tells us that there may be something missing in the climate models.”

Scientists have proposed several hypotheses in the past to explain the warmer Pliocene climate. One idea, for example, was that the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow strip of land linking North and South America, could have altered ocean circulations during the Pliocene, forcing warmer waters toward the Arctic. But many of those hypotheses, including the Panama possibility, have not proved viable.

For the new study, led by Ashley Ballantyne, a former CU-Boulder doctoral student who is now an assistant professor of bioclimatology at the University of Montana, the research team decided to see what would happen if they forced the model to assume that the Arctic was free of ice in the winter as well as the summer during the Pliocene. Without these additional parameters, climate models set to emulate atmospheric conditions during the Pliocene show ice-free summers followed by a layer of ice reforming during the sunless winters.

“We tried a simple experiment in which we said, ‘We don’t know why sea ice might be gone all year round, but let’s just make it go away,’ ” said White, who also is a professor of geological sciences. “And what we found was that we got the right kind of temperature change and we got a dampened seasonal cycle, both of which are things we think we see in the Pliocene.”

In the model simulation, year-round ice-free conditions caused warmer conditions in the Arctic because the open water surface allowed for evaporation. Evaporation requires energy, and the water vapor then stored that energy as heat in the atmosphere. The water vapor also created clouds, which trapped heat near the planet’s surface.

“Basically, when you take away the sea ice, the Arctic Ocean responds by creating a blanket of water vapor and clouds that keeps the Arctic warmer,” White said.

White and his colleagues are now trying to understand what types of conditions could bridge the standard model simulations with the simulations in which ice-free conditions in the Arctic are imposed. If they’re successful, computer models would be able to model the transition between a time when ice reformed in the winter to a time when the ocean remained devoid of ice throughout the year.

Such a model also would offer insight into what could happen in our future. Currently, about 70 percent of sea ice disappears during the summertime before reforming in the winter.

“We’re trying to understand what happened in the past but with a very keen eye to the future and the present,” White said. “The piece that we’re looking at in the future is what is going to happen as the Arctic Ocean warms up and becomes more ice-free in the summertime.

“Will we continue to return to an ice-covered Arctic in the wintertime? Or will we start to see some of the feedbacks that now aren’t very well represented in our climate models? If we do, that’s a big game changer.”

Corn syrup model splits Yellowstone’s mantle plume in 2

A corn syrup mantle plume rises near the subducting plate, which induces fluid flow that distorts and deforms the plume as it rises toward the surface. -  Kelsey Druken
A corn syrup mantle plume rises near the subducting plate, which induces fluid flow that distorts and deforms the plume as it rises toward the surface. – Kelsey Druken

One of the greatest controversies in science is what’s underneath the Yellowstone supervolcano. The controversy surrounds a unique relationship between a mantle plume (like the one that powers Hawaiian volcanoes) and the subduction zone off the Washington-Oregon coast. Cutting-edge research using a common kitchen ingredient is explored in the latest issue of EARTH Magazine.

Recently published research explores this problem in 3-D, using a model created with corn syrup, fiberglass and a series of hydraulic pistons. What the scientists saw was a plume sliced in half by the subducting plate. Before this research, different scientific teams had only investigated the subducting tectonic plate or the mantle plume, but not both at the same time.

The resulting model of a bifurcated mantle plume potentially answers key questions about the Yellowstone supervolcano. Read about how these results impact volcano research in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and the South Pacific in the July issue of EARTH Magazine: http://bit.ly/153lVat. For complete access – including to see the corn syrup apparatus subscribe to Earth Magazine at: http://www.earthmagazine.org/digital.

Don’t miss the other great articles in the July issue of EARTH Magazine. Uncover ancient earthquake damage in a Roman Mausoleum, Arctic ozone depletion, and plankton growth caused by Icelandic volcanoes, all in this month’s issue of EARTH, now available on the digital newsstand at http://www.earthmagazine.org/digital.

Arctic current flowed under deep freeze of last ice age, study says

Arctic sea ice formation feeds global ocean circulation. New evidence suggests that this dynamic process persisted through the last ice age. -  National Snow & Ice Data Center
Arctic sea ice formation feeds global ocean circulation. New evidence suggests that this dynamic process persisted through the last ice age. – National Snow & Ice Data Center

During the last ice age, when thick ice covered the Arctic, many scientists assumed that the deep currents below that feed the North Atlantic Ocean and help drive global ocean currents slowed or even stopped. But in a new study in Nature, researchers show that the deep Arctic Ocean has been churning briskly for the last 35,000 years, through the chill of the last ice age and warmth of modern times, suggesting that at least one arm of the system of global ocean currents that move heat around the planet has behaved similarly under vastly different climates.

“The Arctic Ocean must have been flushed at approximately the same rate it is today regardless of how different things were at the surface,” said study co-author Jerry McManus, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Researchers reconstructed Arctic circulation through deep time by measuring radioactive trace elements buried in sediments on the Arctic seafloor. Uranium eroded from the continents and delivered to the ocean by rivers, decays into sister elements thorium and protactinium. Thorium and protactinium eventually attach to particles falling through the water and wind up in mud at the bottom. By comparing expected ratios of thorium and protactinium in those ocean sediments to observed amounts, the authors showed that protactinium was being swept out of the Arctic before it could settle to the ocean bottom.From the amount of missing protactinium, scientists can infer how quickly the overlying water must have been flushed at the time the sediments were accumulating.

“The water couldn’t have been stagnant, because we see the export of protactinium,” said the study’s lead author, Sharon Hoffmann, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty.

The upper part of the modern Arctic Ocean is flushed by North Atlantic currents while the Arctic’s deep basins are flushed by salty currents formed during sea ice formation at the surface. “The study shows that both mechanisms must have been active from the height of glaciation until now,” said Robert Newton, an oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty who was not involved in the research. “There must have been significant melt-back of sea ice each summer even at the height of the last ice age to have sea ice formation on the shelves each year. This will be a surprise to many Arctic researchers who believe deep water formation shuts down during glaciations.”

The researchers analyzed sediment cores collected during the U.S.-Canada Arctic Ocean Section cruise in 1994, a major Arctic research expedition that involved several Lamont-Doherty scientists. In each location, the cores showed that protactinium has been lower than expected for at least the past 35,000 years. By sampling cores from a range of depths, including the bottom of the Arctic deep basins, the researchers show that even the deepest waters were being flushed out at about the same rate as in the modern Arctic.

The only deep exit from the Arctic is through Fram Strait, which divides Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard islands. The deep waters of the modern Arctic flow into the North Atlantic via the Nordic seas, contributing up to 40 percent of the water that becomes North Atlantic Deep Water-known as the “ocean’s lungs” for delivering oxygen and salt to the rest of world’s oceans.

One direction for future research is to find out where the missing Arctic protactinium of the past ended up. “It’s somewhere,” said McManus. “All the protactinium in the ocean is buried in ocean sediments. If it’s not buried in one place, it’s buried in another. Our evidence suggests it’s leaving the Arctic but we think it’s unlikely to get very far before being removed.”

Cracking the ice code

UWM geosciences professor John Isbell (left) and postdoctoral researcher Erik Gulbranson, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, look over some of the many samples they have brought back from Antarctica. The two are part of an international team of scientists investigating the last extreme climate shift on Earth, which occurred in the late Paleozoic Era. -  Troye Fox
UWM geosciences professor John Isbell (left) and postdoctoral researcher Erik Gulbranson, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, look over some of the many samples they have brought back from Antarctica. The two are part of an international team of scientists investigating the last extreme climate shift on Earth, which occurred in the late Paleozoic Era. – Troye Fox

What happened the last time a vegetated Earth shifted from an extremely cold climate to desert-like conditions? And what does it tell us about climate change today?

John Isbell is on a quest to coax that information from the geology of the southernmost portions of the Earth. It won’t be easy, because the last transition from “icehouse to greenhouse” occurred between 335 and 290 million years ago.

An expert in glaciation from the late Paleozoic Era, Isbell is challenging many assumptions about the way drastic climate change naturally unfolds. The research helps form the all-important baseline needed to predict what the added effects of human activity will bring.

Starting from ‘deep freeze’

In the late Paleozoic, the modern continents were fused together into two huge land masses, with what is now the Southern Hemisphere, including Antarctica, called Gondwana.

During the span of more than 60 million years, Gondwana shifted from a state of deep freeze into one so hot and dry it supported the appearance of reptiles. The change, however, didn’t happen uniformly, Isbell says.

In fact, his research has shaken the common belief that Gondwana was covered by one massive sheet of ice which gradually and steadily melted away as conditions warmed.

Isbell has found that at least 22 individual ice sheets were located in various places over the region. And the state of glaciation during the long warming period was marked by dramatic swings in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

“There appears to be a direct association between low CO2 levels and glaciation,” he says. “A lot of the changes in greenhouse gases and in a shrinking ice volume then are similar to what we’re seeing today.”

When the ice finally started disappearing, he says, it did so in the polar regions first and lingered in other parts of Gondwana with higher elevations. He attributes that to different conditions across Gondwana, such as mountain-building events, which would have preserved glaciers longer.

All about the carbon

To get an accurate picture of the range of conditions in the late Paleozoic, Isbell has traveled to Antarctica 16 times and has joined colleagues from around the world as part of an interdisciplinary team funded by the National Science Foundation. They have regularly gone to places where no one has ever walked on the rocks before.

One of his colleagues is paleoecologist Erik Gulbranson, who studies plant communities from the tail end of the Paleozoic and how they evolved in concert with the climatic changes. The information contained in fossil soil and plants, he says, can reveal a lot about carbon cycling, which is so central for applying the work to climate change today.

Documenting the particulars of how the carbon cycle behaved so long ago will allow them to answer questions like, ‘What was the main force behind glaciation during the late Paleozoic? Was it mountain-building or climate change?’

Another characteristic of the late Paleozoic shift is that once the climate warmed significantly and atmospheric CO2 levels soared, the Earth’s climate remained hot and dry for another 200 million years.

“These natural cycles are very long, and that’s an important difference with what we’re seeing with the contemporary global climate change,” says Gulbranson. “Today, we’re seeing change in greenhouse gas concentrations of CO2 on the order of centuries and decades.”

Ancient trees and soil

In order to explain today’s accelerated warming, Gulbranson’s research illustrates that glaciers alone don’t tell the whole story.

Many environmental factors leave an imprint on the carbon contained in tree trunks from this period. One of the things Gulbranson hypothesizes from his research in Antarctica is that an increase in deciduous trees occurred in higher latitudes during the late Paleozoic, driven by higher temperatures.

What he doesn’t yet know is what the net effect was on the carbon cycle.

While trees soak in CO2 and give off oxygen, there are other environmental processes to consider, says Gulbranson. For example, CO2 emissions also come from soil as microbes speed up their consumption of organic matter with rising temperatures.

“The high latitudes today contain the largest amount of carbon locked up as organic material and permafrost soils on Earth today,” he says. “It actually exceeds the amount of carbon you can measure in the rain forests. So what happens to that stockpile of carbon when you warm it and grow a forest over it is completely unknown.”

Another unknown is whether the Northern Hemisphere during this time was also glaciated and warming. The pair are about to find out. With UWM backing, they will do field work in northeastern Russia this summer to study glacial deposits from the late Paleozoic.

The two scientists’ work is complementary. Dating the rock is essential to pinpointing the rate of change in the carbon cycle, which would be the warning signal we could use today to indicate that nature is becoming dangerously unbalanced.

“If we figure out what happened with the glaciers,” says Isbell, “and add it to what we know about other conditions – we will be able to unlock the answers to climate change.”

Scientist finds topography of Eastern Seaboard muddles ancient sea level changes

The distortion of the ancient shoreline and flooding surface of the U.S. Atlantic Coastal Plain are the direct result of fluctuations in topography in the region and could have implications on understanding long-term climate change, according to a new study.

Sedimentary rocks from Virginia through Florida show marine flooding during the mid-Pliocene Epoch, which correlates to approximately 4 million years ago. Several wave-cut scarps, (rock exposures) which originally would have been horizontal, are now draped over a warped surface with up to 60 meters variation.

Nathan Simmons of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and colleagues from the University of Chicago, Université du Québec à Montréal, Syracuse University, Harvard University and the University of Texas at Austin modeled the active topography using mantle convection simulations that predict the amplitude and broad spatial distribution of this distortion. The results imply that dynamic topography and, to a lesser extent, glacial adjustment, account for the current architecture of the coastal plain and nearby shelf.

The results appear in the May 16 edition of Science Express, and will appear at a later date in Science Magazine,

“Our simulations of dynamic topography of the Eastern Seaboard have implications for inferences of global long-term sea-level change,” Simmons said.

The eastern coast of the United States is considered an archetypal Atlantic-type or passive-type continental margin.

“The highlight is that mantle flow is a major component in distorting the Earth’s surface over geologic time, even in so-called ‘passive’ continental margins,” Simmons said. “Reconstructing long-term global sea-level change based on stratigraphic relations must account for this effect. In other words, did the water level change or did the ground move? This could have implications on understanding very long-term climate change.”

The mantle is not a passive player in determining long-term sea level changes. Mantle flow influences surface topography, through perturbations of the dynamic topography, in a manner that varies both spatially and temporally. As a result, it is it difficult to invert for the global long-term sea level signal and, in turn, the size of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, using east coast shoreline data.

Simmons said the new results provide another powerful piece of evidence that mantle flow is intimately involved in shaping the Earth’s surface and must be considered when attempting to unravel numerous long-term Earth processes such as sea-level variations over millions of years.

Climate record from bottom of Russian lake shows Arctic was warmer millions of years ago

The Lake El'gygytgyn drilling rig is shown at night. -  The Lake El'gygytgyn Drilling Project
The Lake El’gygytgyn drilling rig is shown at night. – The Lake El’gygytgyn Drilling Project

The Arctic was very warm during a period roughly 3.5 to 2 million years ago–a time when research suggests that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was roughly comparable to today’s–leading to the conclusion that relatively small fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels can have a major influence on Arctic climate, according to a new analysis of the longest terrestrial sediment core ever collected in the Arctic.

“One of our major findings is that the Arctic was very warm in the middle Pliocene and Early Pleistocene–roughly 3.6 to 2.2 million years ago–when others have suggested atmospheric carbon dioxide was not much higher than levels we see today,” said Julie Brigham-Grette, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Brigham-Grette is a National Science Foundation- (NSF) funded researcher on the sediment core project and a lead author of a new paper published this week in the journal Science that describes the results.

She added that “this could tell us where we are going in the near future. In other words, the Earth system response to small changes in carbon dioxide is bigger than suggested by earlier climate models.”

The data come from the analysis of a continuous cylinder of sediments collected by NSF-funded researchers from the bottom of ice-covered Lake El’gygytgyn, pronounced El-Guh-Git-Kin, the oldest deep lake in the northeast Russian Arctic, located 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. The drilling was an international project.

Drilling took place in the early months of 2009. The Earth Sciences and Polar Programs divisions of NSF’s Geosciences Directorate funded the drilling and analysis.

Analysis of the sediment core provides “an exceptional window into environmental dynamics” never before possible, noted Brigham-Grette.

“While existing geologic records from the Arctic contain important hints about this time period, what we are presenting is the most continuous archive of information about past climate change from the entire Arctic borderlands,” she said. “Like reading a detective novel, we can go back in time and reconstruct how the Arctic evolved with only a few pages missing here and there.”

Results of the core analysis, according to Brigham-Grette, have “major implications for understanding how the Arctic transitioned from a forested landscape without ice sheets to the ice- and snow-covered land we know today.”

“Lake E,” as it is often called, was formed 3.6 million years ago when a meteorite, perhaps a kilometer in diameter, hit the Earth and blasted out an 18-kilometer (11-mile) wide crater. The lake bottom has been accumulating layers of sediment ever since the initial impact.

The lake also is situated in one of the few areas of the Arctic that was not eroded by continental ice sheets during ice ages. So a thick, continuous sediment record was left remarkably undisturbed. Cores from Lake E reach back in geologic time nearly 25 times farther than Greenland ice cores that span only the past 140,000 years.

Important to the story are the fossil pollen found in the core, including Douglas fir and hemlock, clearly not found in this part of the Arctic today. The pollen allows the reconstruction of the vegetation living around the lake in the past, which in turn paints a picture of past temperatures and precipitation.

Another significant finding is documentation of sustained warmth in the Middle Pliocene, with summer temperatures of about 15 to 16 degrees Celsius (59 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit), about 8 degrees Celsius (14.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today, and regional precipitation three times higher.

“We show that this exceptional warmth well north of the Arctic Circle occurred throughout both warm and cold orbital cycles and coincides with a long interval of 1.2 million years when other researchers from the ANDRILL project have shown the West Antarctic Ice Sheet did not exist,” the authors point out.

Hence both poles share some common history, but the pace of change differed.

Along with Brigham-Grette, her co-authors Martin Melles of the University of Cologne, Germany, and Pavel Minyuk of Russia’s Northeast Interdisciplinary Scientific Research Institute, Magadan, led research teams on the project. Robert DeConto, also at the University of Massachusetts, led the climate-modeling efforts. These data were compared with ecosystem reconstructions performed by collaborators at University of Berlin and University of Cologne.

The Lake E cores provide a terrestrial perspective on the stepped pacing of several portions of the climate system through the transition from a warm, forested Arctic to the first occurrence of land ice, Brigham-Grette says, and the eventual onset of major glacial-interglacial cycles.

“It is very impressive that summer temperatures during warm intervals even as late as 2.2 million years ago were always warmer than in our pre-Industrial reconstructions,” she added.

Minyuk notes that they also observed a major drop in Arctic precipitation at around the same time large Northern Hemispheric ice sheets first expanded and ocean conditions changed in the North Pacific. This has major implications for understanding what drove the onset of the ice ages.

The sediment core also reveals that even during the first major “cold snap” to show up in the record 3.3 million years ago, temperatures in the western Arctic were similar to recent averages of the past 12,000 years. “Most importantly, conditions were not ‘glacial,’ raising new questions as to the timing of the first appearance of ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere,” the authors add.

This week’s paper is the second article published in Science by these authors using data from the Lake E project. Their first in July 2012 covered the period from the present to 2.8 million years ago, while the current work addresses the record from 2.2 to 3.6 million years.

“This latest paper completes our goal of providing an overview of new knowledge of the evolution of Arctic change across the Western borderlands back to 3.6 million years and places this record into a global context with comparisons to records in the Pacific, the Atlantic and Antarctica,” Melles points out.

The Lake E paleoclimate reconstructions and climate modeling are consistent with estimates made by other research groups that support the idea that Earth’s climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide may well be higher than suggested by the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.