Icebergs once drifted to Florida, new climate model suggests

This is a map showing the pathway taken by icebergs from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Florida. The blue colors (behind the arrows) are an actual snapshot from the authors' high resolution model showing how much less salty the water is than normal. The more blue the color the less salty it is than normal. In this case, blue all the way along the coast shows that very fresh, cold waters are flowing along the entire east coast from Hudson Bay to Florida. -  UMass Amherst
This is a map showing the pathway taken by icebergs from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Florida. The blue colors (behind the arrows) are an actual snapshot from the authors’ high resolution model showing how much less salty the water is than normal. The more blue the color the less salty it is than normal. In this case, blue all the way along the coast shows that very fresh, cold waters are flowing along the entire east coast from Hudson Bay to Florida. – UMass Amherst

Using a first-of-its-kind, high-resolution numerical model to describe ocean circulation during the last ice age about 21,000 year ago, oceanographer Alan Condron of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has shown that icebergs and meltwater from the North American ice sheet would have regularly reached South Carolina and even southern Florida. The models are supported by the discovery of iceberg scour marks on the sea floor along the entire continental shelf.

Such a view of past meltwater and iceberg movement implies that the mechanisms of abrupt climate change are more complex than previously thought, Condron says. “Our study is the first to show that when the large ice sheet over North America known as the Laurentide ice sheet began to melt, icebergs calved into the sea around Hudson Bay and would have periodically drifted along the east coast of the United States as far south as Miami and the Bahamas in the Caribbean, a distance of more than 3,100 miles, about 5,000 kilometers.”

His work, conducted with Jenna Hill of Coastal Carolina University, is described in the current advance online issue of Nature Geosciences. “Determining how far south of the subpolar gyre icebergs and meltwater penetrated is vital for understanding the sensitivity of North Atlantic Deep Water formation and climate to past changes in high-latitude freshwater runoff,” the authors say.

Hill analyzed high-resolution images of the sea floor from Cape Hatteras to Florida and identified about 400 scour marks on the seabed that were formed by enormous icebergs plowing through mud on the sea floor. These characteristic grooves and pits were formed as icebergs moved into shallower water and their keels bumped and scraped along the ocean floor.

“The depth of the scours tells us that icebergs drifting to southern Florida were at least 1,000 feet, or 300 meters thick,” says Condron. “This is enormous. Such icebergs are only found off the coast of Greenland today.”

To investigate how icebergs might have drifted as far south as Florida, Condron simulated the release of a series of glacial meltwater floods in his high-resolution ocean circulation model at four different levels for two locations, Hudson Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Condron reports, “In order for icebergs to drift to Florida, our glacial ocean circulation model tells us that enormous volumes of meltwater, similar to a catastrophic glacial lake outburst flood, must have been discharging into the ocean from the Laurentide ice sheet, from either Hudson Bay or the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

Further, during these large meltwater flood events, the surface ocean current off the coast of Florida would have undergone a complete, 180-degree flip in direction, so that the warm, northward flowing Gulf Stream would have been replaced by a cold, southward flowing current, he adds.

As a result, waters off the coast of Florida would have been only a few degrees above freezing. Such events would have led to the sudden appearance of massive icebergs along the east coast of the United States all the way to Florida Keys, Condron points out. These events would have been abrupt and short-lived, probably less than a year, he notes.

“This new research shows that much of the meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet may be redistributed by narrow coastal currents and circulate through subtropical regions prior to reaching the subpolar ocean. It’s a more complicated picture than we believed before,” Condron says. He and Hill say that future research on mechanisms of abrupt climate change should take into account coastal boundary currents in redistributing ice sheet runoff and subpolar fresh water.

International team maps nearly 200,000 global glaciers in quest for sea rise answers

CU-Boulder Professor Tad Pfeffer, shown here on Alaska's Columbia Glacier, is part of a team that has mapped nearly 200,000 individual glaciers around the world as part of an effort to track ongoing contributions to global sea rise as the planet heats up. -  University of Colorado
CU-Boulder Professor Tad Pfeffer, shown here on Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, is part of a team that has mapped nearly 200,000 individual glaciers around the world as part of an effort to track ongoing contributions to global sea rise as the planet heats up. – University of Colorado

An international team led by glaciologists from the University of Colorado Boulder and Trent University in Ontario, Canada has completed the first mapping of virtually all of the world’s glaciers — including their locations and sizes — allowing for calculations of their volumes and ongoing contributions to global sea rise as the world warms.

The team mapped and catalogued some 198,000 glaciers around the world as part of the massive Randolph Glacier Inventory, or RGI, to better understand rising seas over the coming decades as anthropogenic greenhouse gases heat the planet. Led by CU-Boulder Professor Tad Pfeffer and Trent University Professor Graham Cogley, the team included 74 scientists from 18 countries, most working on an unpaid, volunteer basis.

The project was undertaken in large part to provide the best information possible for the recently released Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. While the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are both losing mass, it is the smaller glaciers that are contributing the most to rising seas now and that will continue to do so into the next century, said Pfeffer, a lead author on the new IPCC sea rise chapter and fellow at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

“I don’t think anyone could make meaningful progress on projecting glacier changes if the Randolph inventory was not available,” said Pfeffer, the first author on the RGI paper published online today in the Journal of Glaciology. Pfeffer said while funding for mountain glacier research has almost completely dried up in the United States in recent years with the exception of grants from NASA, there has been continuing funding by a number of European groups.

Since the world’s glaciers are expected to shrink drastically in the next century as the temperatures rise, the new RGI — named after one of the group’s meeting places in New Hampshire — is critical, said Pfeffer. In the RGI each individual glacier is represented by an accurate, computerized outline, making forecasts of glacier-climate interactions more precise.

“This means that people can now do research that they simply could not do before,” said Cogley, the corresponding author on the new Journal of Glaciology paper. “It’s now possible to conduct much more robust modeling for what might happen to these glaciers in the future.”

As part of the RGI effort, the team mapped intricate glacier complexes in places like Alaska, Patagonia, central Asia and the Himalayas, as well as the peripheral glaciers surrounding the two great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, said Pfeffer. “In order to model these glaciers, we have to know their individual characteristics, not simply an average or aggregate picture. That was one of the most difficult parts of the project.”

The team used satellite images and maps to outline the area and location of each glacier. The researchers can combine that information with a digital elevation model, then use a technique known as “power law scaling” to determine volumes of various collections of glaciers.

In addition to impacting global sea rise, the melting of the world’s glaciers over the next 100 years will severely affect regional water resources for uses like irrigation and hydropower, said Pfeffer. The melting also has implications for natural hazards like “glacier outburst” floods that may occur as the glaciers shrink, he said.

The total extent of glaciers in the RGI is roughly 280,000 square miles or 727,000 square kilometers — an area slightly larger than Texas or about the size of Germany, Denmark and Poland combined. The team estimated that the corresponding total volume of sea rise collectively held by the glaciers is 14 to 18 inches, or 350 to 470 millimeters.

The new estimates are less than some previous estimates, and in total they are less than 1 percent of the amount of water stored in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which collectively contain slightly more than 200 feet, or 63 meters, of sea rise.

“A lot of people think that the contribution of glaciers to sea rise is insignificant when compared with the big ice sheets,” said Pfeffer, also a professor in CU-Boulder’s civil, environmental and architectural engineering department. “But in the first several decades of the present century it is going to be this glacier reservoir that will be the primary contributor to sea rise. The real concern for city planners and coastal engineers will be in the coming decades, because 2100 is pretty far off to have to make meaningful decisions.”

Part of the RGI was based on the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space Initiative, or GLIMS, which involved more than 60 institutions from around the world and which contributed the baseline dataset for the RGI. Another important research data tool for the RGI was the European-funded program “Ice2Sea,” which brings together scientific and operational expertise from 24 leading institutions across Europe and beyond.

The GLIMS glacier database and website are maintained by CU-Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, or NSIDC. The GLIMS research team at NSIDC includes principal investigator Richard Armstrong, technical lead Bruce Raup and remote-sensing specialist Siri Jodha Singh Khalsa.

NSIDC is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES, a joint venture between CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Geochemical ‘fingerprints’ leave evidence that megafloods eroded steep gorge

This 2005 image shows a concentration of grains of zircon taken from sand deposits, where it occurs with other heavy minerals such as magnetite and ilmenite. -  U.S. Geological Survey
This 2005 image shows a concentration of grains of zircon taken from sand deposits, where it occurs with other heavy minerals such as magnetite and ilmenite. – U.S. Geological Survey

The Yarlung-Tsangpo River in southern Asia drops rapidly through the Himalaya Mountains on its way to the Bay of Bengal, losing about 7,000 feet of elevation through the precipitously steep Tsangpo Gorge.

For the first time, scientists have direct geochemical evidence that the 150-mile long gorge, possibly the world’s deepest, was the conduit by which megafloods from glacial lakes, perhaps half the volume of Lake Erie, drained suddenly and catastrophically through the Himalayas when their ice dams failed at times during the last 2 million years.

“You would expect that if a three-day long flood occurred, there would be some pretty significant impacts downstream,” said Karl Lang, a University of Washington doctoral candidate in Earth and space sciences.

In this case, the water moved rapidly through bedrock gorge, carving away the base of slopes so steep they already were near the failure threshold. Because the riverbed through the Tsangpo Gorge is essentially bedrock and the slope is so steep and narrow, the deep flood waters could build enormous speed and erosive power.

As the base of the slopes eroded, areas higher on the bedrock hillsides tumbled into the channel, freeing microscopic grains of zircon that were carried out of the gorge by the fast-moving water and deposited downstream.

Uranium-bearing zircon grains carry a sort of geochemical signature for the place where they originated, so grains found downstream can be traced back to the rocks from which they eroded. Lang found that normal annual river flow carries about 40 percent of the grains from the Tsangpo Gorge downstream. But grains from the gorge found in prehistoric megaflood deposits make up as much as 80 percent of the total.

He is the lead author of a paper documenting the work published in the September edition of Geology. Co-authors are Katharine Huntington and David Montgomery, both UW faculty members in Earth and space sciences.

The Yarlung-Tsangpo is the highest major river in the world. It begins on the Tibetan Plateau at about 14,500 feet, or more than 2.5 miles, above sea level. It travels more than 1,700 miles, crossing the plateau and plunging through the Himalayas before reaching India’s Assam Valley, where it becomes the Brahmaputra River. From there it continues its course to the Ganges River delta and the Bay of Benga

At the head of the Tsangpo Gorge, the river makes a sharp bend around Namche Barwa, a 25,500-foot peak that is the eastern anchor of the Himalayas. Evidence indicates that giant lakes were impounded behind glacial dams farther inland from Namche Barwa at various times during the last 2.5 million years ago.

Lang matched zircons in the megaflood deposits far downstream with zircons known to come only from Namche Barwa, and those signature zircons turned up in the flood deposits at a much greater proportion than they would in sediments from normal river flows. Finding the zircons in deposits so far downstream is evidence for the prehistoric megafloods and their role in forming the gorge.

Lang noted that a huge landslide in early 2000 created a giant dam on the Yiggong River, a tributary of the main river just upstream from the Gorge. The dam failed catastrophically in June 2000, triggering a flood that caused numerous fatalities and much property damage downstream.

That provided a vivid, though much smaller, illustration of what likely occurred when large ice dams failed millions of years ago, he said. It also shows the potential danger if humans decide to build dams in that area for hydroelectric generation.

“We are interested in it scientifically, but there is certainly a societal element to it,” Lang said. “This takes us a step beyond speculating what those ancient floods did. There is circumstantial evidence that, yes, they did do a lot of damage.”

The process in the Tsangpo Gorge is similar to what happened with Lake Missoula in Western Montana 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. That lake was more than 10,000 feet lower in elevation than lakes associated with the Tsangpo Gorge, though its water discharge was 10 times greater. Evidence suggests that Lake Missoula’s ice dam failed numerous times, unleashing a torrent equal to half the volume of Lake Michigan across eastern Washington, where it carved the Channeled Scablands before continuing down the Columbia River basin.

“This is a geomorphic process that we know shapes the landscape, and we can look to eastern Washington to see that,” Lang said.

Research shows part of Alaska inundated by ancient megafloods

This map shows the flood-formed dunes in the area of Wasilla, Alaska. Flood waters flowed from right to left across the image. The dunes reach more than 110 feet high and are spaced more than a half-mile apart. -  Michael Wiedmer
This map shows the flood-formed dunes in the area of Wasilla, Alaska. Flood waters flowed from right to left across the image. The dunes reach more than 110 feet high and are spaced more than a half-mile apart. – Michael Wiedmer

New research indicates that one of the largest fresh-water floods in Earth’s history happened about 17,000 years ago and inundated a large area of Alaska that is now occupied in part by the city of Wasilla, widely known because of the 2008 presidential campaign.

The event was one of at least four “megafloods” as Glacial Lake Atna breached ice dams and discharged water. The lake covered more than 3,500 square miles in the Copper River Basin northeast of Anchorage and Wasilla.

The megaflood that covered the Wasilla region released as much as 1,400 cubic kilometers, or 336 cubic miles, of water, enough to cover an area the size of Washington, D.C., to a depth of nearly 5 miles. That water volume drained from the lake in about a week and, at such great velocity, formed dunes higher than 110 feet, with at least a half-mile between crests. The dunes appear on topographical maps but today are covered by roads, buildings and other development.

“Your mind doesn’t get around dunes of that size. Obviously the water had to be very deep to form them,” said Michael Wiedmer, an Anchorage native who is pursuing graduate studies in forest resources at the University of Washington.

Wiedmer is the lead author of a paper describing the Wasilla-area megaflood, published in the May edition of the journal Quaternary Research. Co-authors are David R. Montgomery and Alan Gillespie, UW professors of Earth and space sciences, and Harvey Greenberg, a computer specialist in that department.

By definition, a megaflood has a flow of at least 1 million cubic meters of water per second (a cubic meter is about 264 gallons). The largest known fresh-water flood, at about 17 million cubic meters per second, originated in Glacial Lake Missoula in Montana and was one of a series of cataclysmic floods that formed the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington.

The megaflood from Glacial Lake Atna down what is now the Matanuska River to the Wasilla region might have had a flow of about 3 million cubic meters per second. Another suspected Atna megaflood along a different course to the Wasilla region, down the Susitna River, might have had a flow of about 11 million cubic meters per second. The researchers also found evidence for two smaller Atna megafloods, down the Tok and Copper rivers.

Wiedmer, who retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2006, began the research in 2005 when he discovered pygmy whitefish living in Lake George, a glacial lake 50 miles from Anchorage. The lake has essentially emptied numerous times in its history and was not thought to support much life. Examination of physical traits indicate those fish are more closely related to pygmy whitefish in three other mountain lakes, all remnants of Lake Atna, than they are to any others of that species. Their existence in Lake George, some distance from the other lakes, is one piece of evidence for a megaflood from Lake Atna.

“Lake Atna linked up with four distinct drainages, and we think that helped it act like a pump for freshwater organisms,” he said.

The megaflood also could explain some of the catastrophic damage that occurred in the magnitude 9.2 Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964. Wiedmer noted that much of Anchorage is built on marine sediments, and one layer of those sediments liquefied and collapsed, allowing the layer above to slide toward the sea. As the upper layer moved toward the water, structures built on top of it collapsed.

Though the marine sediments extend about 200 feet deep, the failure only occurred within a narrow 3-foot layer. Scientists later discovered that layer had been infused with fresh water, which was unexpected in sediments deposited under salt water. The ancient megaflood could account for the fresh water.

“We suspect that this is evidence of the flood that came down the Matanuska,” Wiedmer said. “The location is right at the mouth of where the flood came down, and the time appears to be right.”

Comparing Mars to Earth: Catastrophe and history

GSA Special Paper 453: Preservation of Random Megascale Events on Mars and Earth: Influence on Geologic History, edited by Mary G. Chapman and Laszlo P. Keszthelyi. -  Geological Society of America
GSA Special Paper 453: Preservation of Random Megascale Events on Mars and Earth: Influence on Geologic History, edited by Mary G. Chapman and Laszlo P. Keszthelyi. – Geological Society of America

This GSA Special Paper focuses on the catastrophic events that have influenced both Mars and Earth and is part of the ongoing search for the correct balance between catastrophic and uniformitarian processes. The book aims to “expand the geoscience horizons” of a wide range of readers by examining evidence for various geologic catastrophes on both Earth and Mars, their preservation on Earth as compared to Mars, and how these events may have influenced Earth’s evolution.

Catastrophic events discussed in this volume include impact cratering, megafloods, megascale eruptions, sub-ice volcanism on Earth, and natural disasters and human behavior.

Volume editors Mary G. Chapman and Lazlo P. Keszthelyi of the U.S. Geological Survey’s astrogeology team want to know why such large, catastrophic, and unusual events are readily apparent on the surface of Mars but are relatively poorly recorded on Earth. They ask whether the differences are solely the result of the poor preservation on Earth due to gradualistic processes such as tectonics and erosion, or whether they are due to inherent differences in the gravity, atmosphere, climate, and materials of the two planets.

The six chapters in this volume also address the questions, “What is the relative importance of non-uniform, catastrophic, and unusual processes as compared to gradualistic, uniformitarian processes in shaping the geomorphic, climatic, and biotic history of the Earth? What can we learn about these processes on Mars that we can extend to our knowledge of the Earth?”