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.”

Ice-loss moves the Earth 250 miles down

At the surface, Antarctica is a motionless and frozen landscape. Yet hundreds of miles down the Earth is moving at a rapid rate, new research has shown.

The study, led by Newcastle University, UK, and published this week in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, explains for the first time why the upward motion of the Earth’s crust in the Northern Antarctic Peninsula is currently taking place so quickly.

Previous studies have shown the earth is ‘rebounding’ due to the overlying ice sheet shrinking in response to climate change. This movement of the land was understood to be due to an instantaneous, elastic response followed by a very slow uplift over thousands of years.

But GPS data collected by the international research team, involving experts from Newcastle University, UK; Durham University; DTU, Denmark; University of Tasmania, Australia; Hamilton College, New York; the University of Colorado and the University of Toulouse, France, has revealed that the land in this region is actually rising at a phenomenal rate of 15mm a year – much greater than can be accounted for by the present-day elastic response alone.

And they have shown for the first time how the mantle below the Earth’s crust in the Antarctic Peninsula is flowing much faster than expected, probably due to subtle changes in temperature or chemical composition. This means it can flow more easily and so responds much more quickly to the lightening load hundreds of miles above it, changing the shape of the land.

Lead researcher, PhD student Grace Nield, based in the School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University, explains: “You would expect this rebound to happen over thousands of years and instead we have been able to measure it in just over a decade. You can almost see it happening which is just incredible.

“Because the mantle is ‘runnier’ below the Northern Antarctic Peninsula it responds much more quickly to what’s happening on the surface. So as the glaciers thin and the load in that localised area reduces, the mantle pushes up the crust.

“At the moment we have only studied the vertical deformation so the next step is to look at horizontal motion caused by the ice unloading to get more of a 3-D picture of how the Earth is deforming, and to use other geophysical data to understand the mechanism of the flow.”

Since 1995 several ice shelves in the Northern Antarctic Peninsula have collapsed and triggered ice-mass unloading, causing the solid Earth to ‘bounce back’.

“Think of it a bit like a stretched piece of elastic,” says Nield, whose project is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). “The ice is pressing down on the Earth and as this weight reduces the crust bounces back. But what we found when we compared the ice loss to the uplift was that they didn’t tally – something else had to be happening to be pushing the solid Earth up at such a phenomenal rate.”

Collating data from seven GPS stations situated across the Northern Peninsula, the team found the rebound was so fast that the upper mantle viscosity – or resistance to flow – had to be at least ten times lower than previously thought for the region and much lower than the rest of Antarctica.

Professor Peter Clarke, Professor of Geophysical Geodesy at Newcastle University and one of the authors of the paper, adds: “Seeing this sort of deformation of the earth at such a rate is unprecedented in Antarctica. What is particularly interesting here is that we can actually see the impact that glacier thinning is having on the rocks 250 miles down.”

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.

Network for tracking earthquakes exposes glacier activity

Alaska’s seismic network records thousands of quakes produced by glaciers, capturing valuable data that scientists could use to better understand their behavior, but instead their seismic signals are set aside as oddities. The current earthquake monitoring system could be “tweaked” to target the dynamic movement of the state’s glaciers, suggests State Seismologist Michael West, who will present his research today at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America (SSA).

“In Alaska, these glacial events have been largely treated as a curiosity, a by-product of earthquake monitoring,” said West, director of the Alaska Earthquake Center, which is responsible for detecting and reporting seismic activity across Alaska.

The Alaska seismic network was upgraded in 2007-08, improving its ability to record and track glacial events. “As we look across Alaska’s glacial landscape and comb through the seismic record, there are thousands of these glacial events. We see patterns in the recorded data that raise some interesting questions about the glaciers,” said West.

As a glacier loses large pieces of ice on its leading edge, a process called calving, the Alaska Earthquake Center’s monitoring system automatically records the event as an earthquake. Analysts filter out these signals in order to have a clear record of earthquake activity for the region. In the discarded data, West sees opportunity.

“We have amassed a large record of glacial events by accident,” said West. “The seismic network can act as an objective tool for monitoring glaciers, operating 24/7 and creating a data flow that can alert us to dynamic changes in the glaciers as they are happening.” It’s when a glacier is perturbed or changing in some way, says West, that the scientific community can learn the most.

Since 2007, the Alaska Earthquake Center has recorded more than 2800 glacial events along 600 km of Alaska’s coastal mountains. The equivalent earthquake sizes for these events range from about 1 to 3 on the local magnitude scale. While calving accounts for a significant number of the recorded quakes, each glacier’s terminus – the end of any glacier where the ice meets the ocean – behaves differently. Seasonal variations in weather cause glaciers to move faster or slower, creating an expected seasonal cycle in seismic activity. But West and his colleagues have found surprises, too.

In mid-August 2010, the Columbia Glacier’s seismic activity changed radically from being relatively quiet to noisy, producing some 400 quakes to date. These types of signals from the Columbia Glacier have been documented every single month since August 2010, about the time when the Columbia terminus became grounded on sill, stalling its multi-year retreat.

That experience highlighted for West the value of the accidental data trove collected by the Alaska Earthquake Center. “The seismic network is blind to the cause of the seismic events, cataloguing observations that can then be validated,” said West, who suggests the data may add value to ongoing field studies in Alaska.

Many studies of Alaska’s glaciers have focused on single glacier analyses with dedicated field campaigns over short periods of time and have not tracked the entire glacier complex over the course of years. West suggests leveraging the data stream may help the scientific community observe the entire glacier complex in action or highlight in real time where scientists could look to catch changes in a glacier.

“This is low-hanging fruit,” said West of the scientific advances waiting to be gleaned from the data.

Scientists successfully use krypton to accurately date ancient Antarctic ice

This is the sampling trench for dust studies on Taylor Glacier. Windblown dust from local sources contaminates the upper ice layers and uncontaminated samples are obtained from a meter below the glacier's surface. -  (Photo courtesy of Hinrich Schaefer)
This is the sampling trench for dust studies on Taylor Glacier. Windblown dust from local sources contaminates the upper ice layers and uncontaminated samples are obtained from a meter below the glacier’s surface. – (Photo courtesy of Hinrich Schaefer)

A team of scientists has successfully identified the age of 120,000-year-old Antarctic ice using radiometric krypton dating – a new technique that may allow them to locate and date ice that is more than a million years old.

The ability to discover ancient ice is critical, the researchers say, because it will allow them to reconstruct the climate much farther back into Earth’s history and potentially understand the mechanisms that have triggered the planet to shift into and out of ice ages.

Results of the discovery are being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

“The oldest ice found in drilled cores is around 800,000 years old and with this new technique we think we can look in other regions and successfully date polar ice back as far as 1.5 million years,” said Christo Buizert, a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon State University and lead author on the PNAS article. “That is very exciting because a lot of interesting things happened with the Earth’s climate prior to 800,000 years ago that we currently cannot study in the ice core record.”

Krypton dating is much like the more-heralded carbon-14 dating technique that measures the decay of a radioactive isotope – which has constant and well-known decay rates – and compares it to a stable isotope. Unlike carbon-14, however, krypton is a noble gas that does not interact chemically and is much more stable with a half-life of around 230,000 years. Carbon dating doesn’t work well on ice because carbon-14 is produced in the ice itself by cosmic rays and only goes back some 50,000 years.

Krypton is produced by cosmic rays bombarding the Earth and then stored in air bubbles trapped within Antarctic ice. It has a radioactive isotope (krypton-81) that decays very slowly, and a stable isotope (krypton-83) that does not decay. Comparing the proportion of stable-to-radioactive isotopes provides the age of the ice.

Though scientists have been interested in radiokrypton dating for more than four decades, krypton-81 atoms are so limited and difficult to count that it wasn’t until a 2011 breakthrough in detector technology that krypton-81 dating became feasible for this kind of research. The new atom counter, named Atom Trap Trace Analysis, or ATTA, was developed by a team of nuclear physicists led by Zheng-Tian Lu at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

In their experiment at Taylor Glacier in Antarctica, the researchers put several 300-kilogram (about 660 pounds) chunks of ice into a container and melted it to release the air from the bubbles, which was then stored in flasks. The krypton was isolated from the air at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and sent to Argonne for krypton-81 counting.

“The atom trap is so sensitive that it can capture and count individual atoms,” said Buizert, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “The only problem is that there isn’t a lot of krypton in the air, and thus there isn’t much in the ice, either. That’s why we need such large samples to melt down.”

The group at Argonne is continually improving the ATTA detector, researchers there say, and they aim to perform analysis on an ice sample as small as 20 kilograms in the near future.

The researchers determined from the isotope ratio that the Taylor Glacier samples were 120,000 years old, and validated the estimate by comparing the results to well-dated ice core measurements of atmospheric methane and oxygen from that same period.

Now the challenge is to locate some of the oldest ice in Antarctica, which may not be as easy as it sounds.

“Most people assume that it’s a question of just drilling deeper for ice cores, but it’s not that simple,” said Edward Brook, an Oregon State University geologist and co-author on the study. “Very old ice probably exists in small isolated patches at the base of the ice sheet that have not yet been identified, but in many places it has probably melted and flowed out into the ocean.”

There also are special regions where old ice is exposed at the edges of an ice field, Brook pointed out.

“The international scientific community is really interested in exploring for old ice in both types of places and this new dating will really help,” Brook said. “There are places where meteorites originating from Mars have been pushed out by glaciers and collect at the margins. Some have been on Earth for a million years or more, so the ice in these spots may be that old as well.”

Buizert said reconstructing the Earth’s climate back to 1.5 million years is important because a shift in the frequency of ice ages took place in what is known as the Middle Pleistocene transition. The Earth is thought to have shifted in and out of ice ages every 100,000 years or so during the past 800,000 years, but there is evidence that such a shift took place every 40,000 years prior to that time.

“Why was there a transition from a 40,000-year cycle to a 100,000-year cycle?” Buizert said. “Some people believe a change in the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide may have played a role. That is one reason we are so anxious to find ice that will take us back further in time so we can further extend data on past carbon dioxide levels and test this hypothesis.”

Study shows air temperature influenced African glacial movements

Changes in air temperature, not precipitation, drove the expansion and contraction of glaciers in Africa’s Rwenzori Mountains at the height of the last ice age, according to a Dartmouth-led study funded by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation.

The results – along with a recent Dartmouth-led study that found air temperature also likely influenced the fluctuating size of South America’s Quelccaya Ice Cap over the past millennium — support many scientists’ suspicions that today’s tropical glaciers are rapidly shrinking primarily because of a warming climate rather than declining snowfall or other factors. The two studies will help scientists to understand the natural variability of past climate and to predict tropical glaciers’ response to future global warming.

The most recent study, which marks the first time that scientists have used the beryllium-10 surface exposure dating method to chronicle the advance and retreat of Africa’s glaciers, appears in the journal Geology. A PDF is available on request.

Africa’s glaciers, which occur atop the world’s highest tropical mountains, are among the most sensitive components of the world’s frozen regions, but the climatic controls that influence their fluctuations are not fully understood. Dartmouth glacial geomorphologist Meredith Kelly and her team used the beryllium-10 method to determine the ages of quartz-rich boulders atop moraines in the Rwenzori Mountains on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These mountains have the most extensive glacial and moraine systems in Africa. Moraines are ridges of sediments that mark the past positions of glaciers.

The results indicate that glaciers in equatorial East Africa advanced between 24,000 and 20,000 years ago at the coldest time of the world’s last ice age. A comparison of the moraine ages with nearby climate records indicates that Rwenzori glaciers expanded contemporaneously with regionally dry, cold conditions and retreated when air temperature increased. The results suggest that, on millennial time scales, past fluctuations of Rwenzori glaciers were strongly influenced by air temperature.

Ancient Indonesian climate shift linked to glacial cycle

Using sediments from a remote lake, researchers from Brown University have assembled a 60,000-year record of rainfall in central Indonesia. The analysis reveals important new details about the climate history of a region that wields a substantial influence on the global climate as a whole.

The Indonesian archipelago sits in the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool, an expanse of ocean that supplies a sizable fraction of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere and plays a role in propagating El NiƱo cycles. Despite the region’s importance in the global climate system, not much is known about its own climate history, says James Russell, associate professor of geological sciences at Brown.

“We wanted to assess long-term climate variation in the region,” Russell said, “not just to assess how global climate influences Indonesia, but to see how that feeds back into the global climate system.”

The data are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study found that the region’s normally wet, tropical climate was interrupted by a severe dry period from around 33,000 years ago until about 16,000 years ago. That period coincides with peak of the last ice age, when glaciers covered vast swaths of the northern hemisphere. Climate models had suggested that glacial ice could shift the track of tropical monsoons, causing an Indonesian dry period. But this is the first hard data to show that was indeed the case.

It’s also likely, Russell and his colleagues say, that the drying in Indonesia created a feedback loop that amplified ice age cooling.

“A very large fraction of the Earth’s water vapor comes from evaporation of the ocean around Indonesia, and water vapor is the Earth’s most important greenhouse gas,” Russell said. “As you start varying the hydrological cycle of Indonesia, you almost have to vary the Earth’s water vapor concentration. If you reduce the water vapor content it should cool the climate globally. So the fact that we have this very strong drying in the tropics during glaciation would argue for a strong feedback of water vapor concentration to the global climate during glacial-interglacial cycles.”

Surprisingly absent from the data, Russell says, is the influence of other processes known to drive climate elsewhere in the tropics. In particular, there was no sign of climate change in Indonesia associated with Earth’s orbital precession, a wobble caused by Earth’s axis tilt that generates differences in sunlight in a 21,000-year cycle.

“There’s very little indication of the 21,000-year cycle that dominates much of the tropics,” he said. “Instead we see this very big set of changes that appear linked to the amount of ice on earth.”

To arrive at those conclusions, the researchers used sediment cores from Lake Towuti, an ancient lake on the island of Sulawesi in central Indonesia. By looking at how concentrations of chemical elements in the sediment change with depth, the researchers can develop a continuous record of how much surface runoff poured into the lake. The rate of runoff is directly related to the rate of rainfall.

In this case, Russell and his colleagues looked at titanium, an element commonly used to gauge surface runoff. They found a marked dip in titanium levels in sediments dated to between 33,000 and 16,000 years ago – a strong indicator that surface runoff slowed during that period.

That finding was buttressed by another proxy of rainfall: carbon isotopes from plant leaf wax. Leaves are covered with a carbon-based wax that protects them from losing too much water to evaporation. Different plants have different carbon isotopes in their leaf wax. Tropical grasses, which are adapted for dryer climates, tend to have the C-13 isotope. Trees, which thrive in wetter environs, use the C-12 isotope. The ratio of those two isotopes in the sediment cores is an indicator of the relative abundance of grass versus trees.

The cores showed an increase in abundance of grass in the same sediments that showed a decrease in surface runoff. Taken together, the results suggest a dry period strong enough to alter the region’s vegetation that was closely correlated with the peak glaciation in the northern hemisphere.

The next step for Russell and his colleagues is to see if this pattern is repeated in multiple glacial cycles. Glacial periods run on cycles of about 100,000 years. Core samples from deeper in the Lake Towuti sediment will show whether this drying evident during the last ice age also happened in previous ice ages. It’s estimated that Lake Tuwuti sediments record up to 800,000 years of climate data, and Russell recently received funding to take deeper cores.

Ultimately, Russell hopes his work will help to predict how the region might be influenced by human-forced global warming.

“This provides the kind of fundamental data we need to understand how the climate of this region operates on long timescales,” he said. “That can then anchor our understanding of how it might respond to global warming.”

Shale could be long-term home for problematic nuclear waste

Shale, the source of the United States’ current natural gas boom, could help solve another energy problem: what to do with radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. The unique properties of the sedimentary rock and related clay-rich rocks make it ideal for storing the potentially dangerous spent fuel for millennia, according to a geologist studying possible storage sites who made a presentation here today.

The talk was one of more than 10,000 presentations at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society, taking place here through Thursday.

About 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel currently sit in temporary above-ground storage facilities, said Chris Neuzil, Ph.D., who led the research, and it will remain dangerous for tens or hundreds of thousands of years or longer.

“Surface storage for that length of time requires maintenance and security,” he said. “Hoping for stable societies that can continue to provide those things for millennia is not a good idea.” He also pointed out that natural disasters can threaten surface facilities, as in 2011 when a tsunami knocked cooling pumps in storage pools offline at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

Since the U.S. government abandoned plans to develop a long-term nuclear-waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada in 2009, Neuzil said finding new long-term storage sites must be a priority. It is crucial because nuclear fuel continues to produce heat and harmful radiation after its useful lifetime. In a nuclear power plant, the heat generated by uranium, plutonium and other radioactive elements as they decay is used to make steam and generate electricity by spinning turbines. In temporary pool storage, water absorbs heat and radiation. After spent fuel has been cooled in a pool for several years, it can be moved to dry storage in a sealed metal cask, where steel and concrete block radiation. This also is a temporary measure.

But shale deep under the Earth’s surface could be a solution. France, Switzerland and Belgium already have plans to use shale repositories to store nuclear waste long-term. Neuzil proposes that the U.S. also explore the possibility of storing spent nuclear fuel hundreds of yards underground in layers of shale and other clay-rich rock. He is with the U.S. Geological Survey and is currently investigating a site in Ontario with the Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

Neuzil explained that these rock formations may be uniquely suited for nuclear waste storage because they are nearly impermeable – barely any water flows through them. Experts consider water contamination by nuclear waste one of the biggest risks of long-term storage. Unlike shale that one might see where a road cuts into a hillside, the rocks where Neuzil is looking are much more watertight. “Years ago, I probably would have told you shales below the surface were also fractured,” he said. “But we’re seeing that that’s not necessarily true.” Experiments show that water moves extremely slowly through these rocks, if at all.

Various circumstances have conspired to create unusual pressure systems in these formations that result from minimal water flow. In one well-known example, retreating glaciers in Wellenberg, Switzerland, squeezed the water from subsurface shale. When they retreated, the shale sprung back to its original shape faster than water could seep back in, creating a low-pressure pocket. That means that groundwater now only flows extremely slowly into the formation rather than through it. Similar examples are also found in North America, Neuzil said.

Neuzil added that future glaciation probably doesn’t pose a serious threat to storage sites, as most of the shale formations he’s looking at have gone through several glaciations unchanged. “Damage to waste containers, which will be surrounded by a filler material, is also not seen as a concern,” he said.

He noted that one critical criterion for a good site must be a lack of oil or natural gas that could attract future interest.

Current ice melt rate in Pine Island Glacier may go on for decades

A study of the Pine Island Glacier could provide insight into the patterns and duration of glacial melt.

The Pine Island Glacier, a major outlet of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, has been undergoing rapid melting and retreating for the past two decades. But new research by an international team including researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows that this same glacier also experienced rapid thinning about 8,000 years ago.

Using LLNL’s Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry to measure beryllium-10 produced by cosmic rays in glacially transported rocks, Lawrence Livermore researchers Bob Finkel and Dylan Rood reported that the melting 8,000 years ago was sustained for decades to centuries at an average rate of more than 100 centimeters per year. This is comparable to modern-day melting rates.

The findings indicate that modern-day melting and thinning could last for several more decades or even centuries. The research appears in the Feb. 20 issue of Science Express.

“Pine Island Glacier has experienced rapid thinning at least once in the past. Once set in motion, rapid ice sheet changes in this region can persist for centuries,” said Finkel, one of the authors of the new findings.

Ice mass loss from the Pine Island-Thwaites sector dramatically contributes to the sea level of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The Pine Island Glacier is currently experiencing significant acceleration, thinning and retreat. The rate of thinning from 2002-2007 on the grounding line (the part where the glaciers export the ice down the continent and lose contact to the ground and become a floating ice shelf) was between 1.2 meters per year and 6 meters per year.

The change is likely tied to the increased influx of warm water to the cavity under the ice shelf at the glacial front.

Dramatic changes over longer timescales — from centuries to millennia — are somewhat limited, so there is considerable uncertainty associated with model projections of the future evolution of timing and ice loss of the Pine Island Glacier. Current geological research is tied to the grounding line retreat across the continental shelf. However, little is known about the terrestrial thinning history and how the ice stream evolved from 8,000 years ago to the onset of present-day thinning.

The team found that there was a direct correlation from glacial-geological samples consisting of cobblestones and granite boulders from the Hudson Mountains to rapid thinning in the Pine Island Glacier system about 8,000 years ago.

“The melting of the Pine Island Glacier at a rate comparable to that over the past two decades is rare but not unprecedented,” Rood said. “Ongoing ocean-driven melting of the glacial ice shelf in current times may result in continued rapid thinning and ground line retreat for several more decades or even centuries.”

What the past tells us about modern sea-level rise

Researchers from the University of Southampton and the Australian National University report that sea-level rise since the industrial revolution has been fast by natural standards and – at current rates – may reach 80cm above the modern level by 2100 and 2.5 metres by 2200.

The team used geological evidence of the past few million years to derive a background pattern of natural sea-level rise. This was compared with historical tide-gauge and satellite observations of sea-level change for the ‘global warming’ period, since the industrial revolution. The study, which was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (iGlass consortium) and Australian Research Council (Laureate Fellowship), is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Lead author Professor Eelco Rohling, from the Australian National University and formerly of the University of Southampton, says: “Our natural background pattern from geological evidence should not be confused with a model-based prediction. It instead uses data to illustrate how fast sea level might change if only normal, natural processes were at work. There is no speculation about any new mechanisms that might develop due to man-made global warming. Put simply, we consider purely what nature has done before, and therefore could do again.”

Co-author Dr Gavin Foster, a Reader in Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton, who is based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS), explains: “Geological data showed that sea level would likely rise by nine metres or more as the climate system adjusts to today’s greenhouse effect. But the timescale for this was unclear. So we studied past rates and timescales of sea-level rise, and used these to determine the natural background pattern.”

Co-author Dr Ivan Haigh, lecturer in coastal oceanography at the University of Southampton and also based at NOCS, adds: “Historical observations show a rising sea level from about 1800 as sea water warmed up and melt water from glaciers and ice fields flowed into the oceans. Around 2000, sea level was rising by about three mm per year. That may sound slow, but it produces a significant change over time.”

The natural background pattern allowed the team to see whether recent sea-level changes are exceptional or within the normal range, and whether they are faster, equal, or slower than natural changes.

Professor Rohling concludes: “For the first time, we can see that the modern sea-level rise is quite fast by natural standards. Based on our natural background pattern, only about half the observed sea-level rise would be expected.

“Although fast, the observed rise still is (just) within the ‘natural range’. While we are within this range, our current understanding of ice-mass loss is adequate. Continued monitoring of future sea-level rise will show if and when it goes outside the natural range. If that happens, then this means that our current understanding falls short, potentially with severe consequences.”