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.

Frozen in time: 3-million-year-old landscape still exists beneath the Greenland ice sheet

This is a camp at the edge of the Greenland ice sheet. -  Paul Bierman, University of Vermont
This is a camp at the edge of the Greenland ice sheet. – Paul Bierman, University of Vermont

Some of the landscape underlying the massive Greenland ice sheet may have been undisturbed for almost 3 million years, ever since the island became completely ice-covered, according to researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Basing their discovery on an analysis of the chemical composition of silts recovered from the bottom of an ice core more than 3,000 meters long, the researchers argue that the find suggests “pre-glacial landscapes can remain preserved for long periods under continental ice sheets.”

In the time since the ice sheet formed “the soil has been preserved and only slowly eroded, implying that an ancient landscape underlies 3,000 meters of ice at Summit, Greenland,” they conclude.

They add that “these new data are most consistent with [the concept of] a continuous cover of Summit? by ice ? with at most brief exposure and minimal surface erosion during the warmest or longest interglacial [periods].”

They also note that fossils found in northern Greenland indicated there was a green and forested landscape prior to the time that the ice sheet began to form. The new discovery indicates that even during the warmest periods since the ice sheet formed, the center of Greenland remained stable, allowing the landscape to be locked away, unmodified, under ice through millions of years of cyclical warming and cooling.

“Rather than scraping and sculpting the landscape, the ice sheet has been frozen to the ground, like a giant freezer that’s preserved an antique landscape”, said Paul R. Bierman, of the Department of Geology and Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont and lead author of the paper.

Bierman’s work was supported by two NSF grants made by its Division of Polar Programs, 1023191 and 0713956. Thomas A. Neumann, also of the University of Vermont, but now at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, a co-author on the paper, also was a co-principal investigator on the latter grant.

Researchers from Idaho State University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre at the University of Glasgow also contributed to the paper.

The research also included contributions from two graduate students, both supported by NSF, one of whom was supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program.

The team’s analysis was published on line on April 17 and will appear in Science magazine the following week.

Understanding how Greenland’s ice sheet behaved in the past, and in particular, how much of the ice sheet melted during previous warm periods as well as how it re-grew is important to developing a scientific understanding of how the ice sheet might behave in the future.

As global average temperatures rise, scientists are concerned about how the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will respond. Vast amounts of freshwater are stored in the ice and may be released by melting, which would raise sea levels, perhaps by many meters.

The magnitude and rate of sea level rise are unknown factors in climate models.

The team based its analysis on material taken from the bottom of an ice core retrieved by the NSF-funded Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2), which drilled down into the ice sheet near NSF’s Summit Station. An ice core is a cylinder of ice in which individual layers of ice, compacted from snowfall, going back over millennia can be observed and sampled.

Summit is situated at an elevation of 3,216 meters (10,551 feet) above sea level.

In the case of GISP2, the core itself, taken from the center of the present-day Greenland ice sheet, was 3,054 meters (10,000 feet) deep. It provides a history of the balance of gases that made up the atmosphere at time the snow fell as well as movements in the ice sheet stretching back more than 100,000 years. It also contains a mix of silts and sediments at its base where ice and rock come together.

The scientists looked at the proportions of the elements carbon, nitrogen and Beryllium-10, the source of which is cosmic rays, in sediments taken from the bottom 13 meters (42 feet) of the GISP2 ice core.

They also compared levels of the various elements with soil samples taken in Alaska, leading them to the conclusion that the landscape under the ice sheet was indeed an ancient one that predates the advent of the ice sheet. The soil comparisons were supported by two NSF grants: 0806394 and 0806399.

Enormous aquifer discovered under Greenland ice sheet

Glaciologist Lora Koenig (left) operates a video recorder that has been lowered into the bore hole to observe the ice structure of the aquifer in April 2013. -  University of Utah/Clément Miège
Glaciologist Lora Koenig (left) operates a video recorder that has been lowered into the bore hole to observe the ice structure of the aquifer in April 2013. – University of Utah/Clément Miège

Buried underneath compacted snow and ice in Greenland lies a large liquid water reservoir that has now been mapped by researchers using data from NASA’s Operation IceBridge airborne campaign.

A team of glaciologists serendipitously found the aquifer while drilling in southeast Greenland in 2011 to study snow accumulation. Two of their ice cores were dripping water when the scientists lifted them to the surface, despite air temperatures of minus 4 F (minus 20 C). The researchers later used NASA’s Operation Icebridge radar data to confine the limits of the water reservoir, which spreads over 27,000 square miles (69,930 square km) – an area larger than the state of West Virginia. The water in the aquifer has the potential to raise global sea level by 0.016 inches (0.4 mm).

“When I heard about the aquifer, I had almost the same reaction as when we discovered Lake Vostok [in Antarctica]: it blew my mind that something like that is possible,” said Michael Studinger, project scientist for Operation IceBridge, a NASA airborne campaign studying changes in ice at the poles. “It turned my view of the Greenland ice sheet upside down – I don’t think anyone had expected that this layer of liquid water could survive the cold winter temperatures without being refrozen.”

Southeast Greenland is a region of high snow accumulation. Researchers now believe that the thick snow cover insulates the aquifer from cold winter surface temperatures, allowing it to remain liquid throughout the year. The aquifer is fed by meltwater that percolates from the surface during the summer.

The new research is being presented in two papers: one led by University of Utah’s Rick Forster that was published on Dec. 22 in the journal Nature Geoscience and one led by NASA’s Lora Koenig that has been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The findings will significantly advance the understanding of how melt water flows through the ice sheet and contributes to sea level rise.

When a team led by Forster accidentally drilled into water in 2011, they weren’t able to continue studying the aquifer because their tools were not suited to work in an aquatic environment. Afterward, Forster’s team determined the extent of the aquifer by studying radar data from Operation IceBridge together with ground-based radar data. The top of the water layer clearly showed in the radar data as a return signal brighter than the ice layers.

Koenig, a glaciologist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., co-led another expedition to southeast Greenland with Forster in April 2013 specifically designed to study the physical characteristics of the newly discovered water reservoir. Koenig’s team extracted two cores of firn (aged snow) that were saturated with water. They used a water-resistant thermoelectric drill to study the density of the ice and lowered strings packed with temperature sensors down the holes, and found that the temperature of the aquifer hovers around 32 F (zero C), warmer than they had expected it to be.

Koenig and her team measured the top of the aquifer at around 39 feet (12 meters) under the surface. This was the depth at which the boreholes filled with water after extracting the ice cores. They then determined the amount of water in the water-saturated firn cores by comparing them to dry cores extracted nearby. The researchers determined the depth at which the pores in the firn close, trapping the water inside the bubbles – at this point, there is a change in the density of the ice that the scientists can measure. This depth is about 121 feet (37 meters) and corresponds to the bottom of the aquifer. Once Koenig’s team had the density, depth and spatial extent of the aquifer, they were able to come up with an estimated water volume of about 154 billion tons (140 metric gigatons). If this water was to suddenly discharge to the ocean, this would correspond to 0.016 inches (0.4 mm) of sea level rise.

Researchers think that the perennial aquifer is a heat reservoir for the ice sheet in two ways: melt water carries heat when it percolates from the surface down the ice to reach the aquifer. And if the trapped water were to refreeze, it would release latent heat. Altogether, this makes the ice in the vicinity of the aquifer warmer, and warmer ice flows faster toward the sea.

“Our next big task is to understand how this aquifer is filling and how it’s discharging,” said Koenig. “The aquifer could offset some sea level rise if it’s storing water for long periods of time. For example after the 2012 extreme surface melt across Greenland, it appears that the aquifer filled a little bit. The question now is how does that water leave the aquifer on its way to the ocean and whether it will leave this year or a hundred years from now.”

Late Cretaceous Period was likely ice-free

In a new study, MacLeod found evidence that a continental ice sheet did not form during the Late Cretaceous Period more than 90 million years ago. This information could help scientists predict changes in earth's climate as our temperatures rise. -  University of Missouri
In a new study, MacLeod found evidence that a continental ice sheet did not form during the Late Cretaceous Period more than 90 million years ago. This information could help scientists predict changes in earth’s climate as our temperatures rise. – University of Missouri

For years, scientists have thought that a continental ice sheet formed during the Late Cretaceous Period more than 90 million years ago when the climate was much warmer than it is today. Now, a University of Missouri researcher has found evidence suggesting that no ice sheet formed at this time. This finding could help environmentalists and scientists predict what the earth’s climate will be as carbon dioxide levels continue to rise.

“Currently, carbon dioxide levels are just above 400 parts per million (ppm), up approximately 120 ppm in the last 150 years and rising about 2 ppm each year,” said Ken MacLeod, a professor of geological sciences at MU. “In our study, we found that during the Late Cretaceous Period, when carbon dioxide levels were around 1,000 ppm, there were no continental ice sheets on earth. So, if carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, the earth will be ice-free once the climate comes into balance with the higher levels.”

In his study, MacLeod analyzed the fossilized shells of 90 million-year-old planktic and benthic foraminifera, single-celled organisms about the size of a grain of salt. Measuring the ratios of different isotopes of oxygen and carbon in the fossils gives scientists information about past temperatures and other environmental conditions. The fossils, which were found in Tanzania, showed no evidence of cooling or changes in local water chemistry that would have been expected if a glacial event had occurred during that time period.

“We know that the carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are rising currently and are at the highest they have been in millions of years. We have records of how conditions have changed as CO2 levels have risen from 280 to 400 ppm, but I believe it also is important to know what could happen when those levels reach 600 to 1000 ppm,” MacLeod said. “At the rate that carbon dioxide levels are rising, we will reach 600 ppm around the end of this century. At that level of CO2, will ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica be stable? If not, how will their melting affect the planet?”

Previously, many scientists have thought that doubling CO2 levels would cause earth’s temperature to increase as much as 3 degrees Celsius, or approximately 6 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the temperatures MacLeod believes existed in Tanzania 90 million years ago are more consistent with predictions that a doubling of CO2 levels would cause the earth’s temperature could rise an average of 6 degrees Celsius, or approximately 11 degrees Fahrenheit.

“While studying the past can help us predict the future, other challenges with modern warming still exist,” MacLeod said. “The Late Cretaceous climate was very warm, but the earth adjusted as changes occurred over millions of years. We’re seeing the same size changes, but they are happening over a couple of hundred years, maybe 10,000 times faster. How that affects the equation is a big and difficult question.”

MacLeod’s study was published in the October issue of the journal Geology.

West Antarctica ice sheet existed 20 million years earlier than previously thought

Adelie penguins walk in file on sea ice in front of US research icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer in McMurdo Sound. -  John Diebold
Adelie penguins walk in file on sea ice in front of US research icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer in McMurdo Sound. – John Diebold

The results of research conducted by professors at UC Santa Barbara and colleagues mark the beginning of a new paradigm for our understanding of the history of Earth’s great global ice sheets. The research shows that, contrary to the popularly held scientific view, an ice sheet on West Antarctica existed 20 million years earlier than previously thought.

The findings indicate that ice sheets first grew on the West Antarctic subcontinent at the start of a global transition from warm greenhouse conditions to a cool icehouse climate 34 million years ago. Previous computer simulations were unable to produce the amount of ice that geological records suggest existed at that time because neighboring East Antarctica alone could not support it. The findings were published today in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Given that more ice grew than could be hosted only on East Antarctica, some researchers proposed that the missing ice formed in the northern hemisphere, many millions of years before the documented ice growth in that hemisphere, which started about 3 million years ago. But the new research shows it is not necessary to have ice hosted in the northern polar regions at the start of greenhouse-icehouse transition.

Earlier research published in 2009 and 2012 by the same team showed that West Antarctica bedrock was much higher in elevation at the time of the global climate transition than it is today, with much of its land above sea level. The belief that West Antarctic elevations had always been low lying (as they are today) led researchers to ignore it in past studies. The new research presents compelling evidence that this higher land mass enabled a large ice sheet to be hosted earlier than previously realized, despite a warmer ocean in the past.

“Our new model identifies West Antarctica as the site needed for the accumulation of the extra ice on Earth at that time,” said lead author Douglas S. Wilson, a research geophysicist in UCSB’s Department of Earth Science and Marine Science Institute. “We find that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet first appeared earlier than the previously accepted timing of its initiation sometime in the Miocene, about 14 million years ago. In fact, our model shows it appeared at the same time as the massive East Antarctic Ice Sheet some 20 million years earlier.”

Wilson and his team used a sophisticated numerical ice sheet model to support this view. Using their new bedrock elevation map for the Antarctic continent, the researchers created a computer simulation of the initiation of the Antarctic ice sheets. Unlike previous computer simulations of Antarctic glaciation, this research found the nascent Antarctic ice sheet included substantial ice on the subcontinent of West Antarctica. The modern West Antarctic Ice Sheet contains about 10 percent of the total ice on Antarctica and is similar in scale to the Greenland Ice Sheet.

West Antarctica and Greenland are both major players in scenarios of sea level rise due to global warming because of the sensitivity of the ice sheets on these subcontinents. Recent scientific estimates conclude that global sea level would rise an average of 11 feet should the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melt. This amount would add to sea level rise from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet (about 24 feet).

The UCSB researchers computed a range of ice sheets that consider the uncertainty in the topographic reconstructions, all of which show ice growth on East and West Antarctica 34 million years ago. A surprising result is that the total volume of ice on East and West Antarctica at that time could be more than 1.4 times greater than previously realized and was likely larger than the ice sheet on Antarctica today.

“We feel it is important for the public to know that the origins of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are under increased scrutiny and that scientists are paying close attention to its role in Earth’s climate now and in the past,” concluded co-author Bruce Luyendyk, UCSB professor emeritus in the Department of Earth Science and research professor at the campus’s Earth Research Institute.

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

Melting water’s lubricating effect on glaciers has only ‘minor’ role in future sea-level rise

Scientists had feared that melt-water which trickles down through the ice could dramatically speed up the movement of glaciers as it acts as a lubricant between the ice and the ground it moves over.

But in a paper published today in PNAS, a team led by scientists from the University of Bristol found it is likely to have a minor role in sea-level rise compared with other effects like iceberg production and surface melt.

The results of computer modelling, based on fieldwork observations in Greenland, revealed that by the year 2200 lubrication would only add a maximum of 8mm to sea-level rise – less than 5 per cent of the total projected contribution from the Greenland ice sheet.

In fact in some of their simulations the lubricating effect had a negative impact on sea-level rise – in other words it alone could lead to a lowering of sea-level (ignoring the other major factors).

Lead author, Dr Sarah Shannon, from the University of Bristol, said: “This is an important step forward in our understanding of the factors that control sea-level rise from the Greenland Ice Sheet. Our results show that melt-water enhanced lubrication will have a minor contribution to future sea-level rise. Future mass loss will be governed by changes in surface melt-water runoff or iceberg calving.”

Previous studies of the effects of melt-water on the speed of ice movement had assumed the water created cavities at the bottom of ice masses. These cavities lifted the ice slightly and acted as a lubricant, speeding up flow.

This theory had led scientists to think that increased melt-water would lead directly to more lubrication and a consequent speeding up of the ice flow.

But the Bristol-led study took into account recent observations that indicate larger amounts of melt-water may form channels beneath the ice that drain the water away, reducing the water’s lubricating effect. The scientists found that no matter whether more melt-water increases or decreases the speed of ice flow, the effect on sea level is small.

Dr Shannon said: “We found that the melt-water would lead to a redistribution of the ice, but not necessarily to an increase in flow.”

The findings are part of research undertaken through the European funded ice2sea programme. Earlier research from the programme has shown that changes in surface melting of the ice sheet will be the major factor in sea-level rise contributions from Greenland.

Professor David Vaughan, ice2sea co-ordinator based at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, said: “This is important work but it’s no reason for complacency. While this work shows that the process of lubrication of ice flow by surface melting is rather insignificant, our projections are still that Greenland will be a major source of future sea-level rise. As we have reported earlier this year, run-off of surface melt water directly into the ocean and increased iceberg calving are likely to dominate.”

Greenland ice is melting — also from below

The Greenland ice sheet is melting from below, caused by a high heat flow from the mantle into the lithosphere. This influence is very variable spatially and has its origin in an exceptionally thin lithosphere. Consequently, there is an increased heat flow from the mantle and a complex interplay between this geothermal heating and the Greenland ice sheet. The international research initiative IceGeoHeat led by the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences establishes in the current online issue of Nature Geoscience (Vol 6, August 11, 2013) that this effect cannot be neglected when modeling the ice sheet as part of a climate study.

The continental ice sheets play a central role in climate. Interactions and feedback processes between ice and temperature rise are complex and still a current research topic. The Greenland ice sheet loses about 227 gigatonnes of ice per year and contributes about 0.7 millimeters to the currently observed mean sea level change of about 3 mm per year. Existing model calculations, however, were based on a consideration of the ice cap and considered the effect of the lithosphere, i.e. the earth’s crust and upper mantle, too simplistic and primarily mechanical: the ice presses the crust down due to its weight. GFZ scientists Alexey Petrunin and Irina Rogozhina have now coupled an ice/climate model with a thermo-mechanical model for the Greenland lithosphere. “We have run the model over a simulated period of three million years, and taken into account measurements from ice cores and independent magnetic and seismic data”, says Petrunin. “Our model calculations are in good agreement with the measurements. Both the thickness of the ice sheet as well as the temperature at its base are depicted very accurately. “

The model can even explain the difference in temperature measured at two adjacent drill holes: the thickness of the Greenland lithosphere and thus the geothermal heat flow varies greatly in narrow confines.

What does this mean for climate modeling? “The temperature at the base of the ice, and therefore the current dynamics of the Greenland ice sheet is the result of the interaction between the heat flow from the earth’s interior and the temperature changes associated with glacial cycles,” explains corresponding author Irina Rogozhina (GFZ) who initiated IceGeoHeat. “We found areas where the ice melts at the base next to other areas where the base is extremely cold.”

The current climate is influenced by processes that go far back into the history of Earth: the Greenland lithosphere is 2.8 to 1.7 billion years old and is only about 70 to 80 kilometers thick under Central Greenland. It remains to be explored why it is so exceptionally thin. It turns out, however, that the coupling of models of ice dynamics with thermo-mechanical models of the solid earth allows a more accurate view of the processes that are melting the Greenland ice.

Sea level rise: New iceberg theory points to areas at risk of rapid disintegration

In events that could exacerbate sea level rise over the coming decades, stretches of ice on the coasts of Antarctica and Greenland are at risk of rapidly cracking apart and falling into the ocean, according to new iceberg calving simulations from the University of Michigan.

“If this starts to happen and we’re right, we might be closer to the higher end of sea level rise estimates for the next 100 years,” said Jeremy Bassis, assistant professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences at the U-M College of Engineering, and first author of a paper on the new model published in the current issue of Nature Geoscience.

Iceberg calving, or the formation of icebergs, occurs when ice chunks break off larger shelves or glaciers and float away, eventually melting in warmer waters. Although iceberg calving accounts for roughly half of the mass lost from ice sheets, it isn’t reflected in any models of how climate change affects the ice sheets and could lead to additional sea level rise, Bassis said.

“Fifty percent of the total mass loss from the ice sheets, we just don’t understand. We essentially haven’t been able to predict that, so events such as rapid disintegration aren’t included in those estimates,” Bassis said. “Our new model helps us understand the different parameters, and that gives us hope that we can better predict how things will change in the future.”

The researchers have found the physics at the heart of iceberg calving, and their model is the first that can simulate the different processes that occur on both ends of the Earth. It can show why in northern latitudes-where glaciers rest on solid ground-icebergs tend to form in relatively small, vertical slivers that rotate onto their sides as they dislodge. It can also illustrate why in the southernmost places-where vast ice shelves float in the Antarctic Ocean-icebergs form in larger, more horizontal plank shapes.

The model treats ice sheets-both floating shelves and grounded glaciers-like loosely cemented collections of boulders. Such a description reflects how scientists in the field have described what iceberg calving actually looks like. The model allows those loose bonds to break when the boulders are pulled apart or rub against one another.

The simulations showed that calving is a two-step process driven primarily by the thickness of the ice.

“Essentially, everything is driven by gravity,” Bassis said. “We identified a critical threshold of one kilometer where it seems like everything should break up. You can think of it in terms of a kid building a tower. The taller the tower is, the more unstable it gets.”

Icebergs do have a tendency to form before that threshold though, Bassis suspects, due to cracks that are already there-either formed when capsizing bergs crash into the water and send shockwaves through the surrounding ice, or when melted water on the surface cuts through. The former is believed to have led to the Helheim Glacier collapse in 2003. The glacier had begun to retreat slowly in 2002, but suddenly gave way the following year when the thinner ice had broken away, exposing a thicker ice coast.

The latter-melted water pools-are occurring more frequently due to climate change, and they’re believed to have played a role in the rapid disintegration of the Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf, which crumbled over about six weeks in 2002.

When the researchers added random cracks to their model, it could mirror both Helheim and Larsen B.

A third feature is also required for the most dramatic ice collapses to occur. Icebergs can’t float away and make room for more icebergs to break off the main sheet unless the system has access to open water. So areas that border deep, unobstructed ocean rather than fjords or other waterways are at greater risk of rapid ice loss. The researchers point to the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers in Antarctica and the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, which is already retreating rapidly, as places vulnerable to “catastrophic disintegration” because they have all three components.

“The ice in those places gets thicker as you go back. If our threshold is right, then if these places start to retreat as you expose the thicker calving font, they’re susceptible to catastrophic breakup,” Bassis said.

Retreat of the current ice coasts in these places areas could occur via melting or iceberg calving.

Ancient ice melt unearthed in Antarctic mud

Global warming five million years ago may have caused parts of Antarctica’s large ice sheets to melt and sea levels to rise by approximately 20 metres, scientists report today in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The researchers, from Imperial College London, and their academic partners studied mud samples to learn about ancient melting of the East Antarctic ice sheet. They discovered that melting took place repeatedly between five and three million years ago, during a geological period called Pliocene Epoch, which may have caused sea levels to rise approximately ten metres.

Scientists have previously known that the ice sheets of West Antarctica and Greenland partially melted around the same time. The team say that this may have caused sea levels to rise by a total of 20 metres.

The academics say understanding this glacial melting during the Pliocene Epoch may give us insights into how sea levels could rise as a consequence of current global warming. This is because the Pliocene Epoch had carbon dioxide concentrations similar to now and global temperatures comparable to those predicted for the end of this century.

Dr Tina Van De Flierdt, co-author from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, says: “The Pliocene Epoch had temperatures that were two or three degrees higher than today and similar atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to today. Our study underlines that these conditions have led to a large loss of ice and significant rises in global sea level in the past. Scientists predict that global temperatures of a similar level may be reached by the end of this century, so it is very important for us to understand what the possible consequences might be.”

The East Antarctic ice sheet is the largest ice mass on Earth, roughly the size of Australia. The ice sheet has fluctuated in size since its formation 34 million years ago, but scientists have previously assumed that it had stabilised around 14 million years ago.

The team in today’s study were able to determine that the ice sheet had partially melted during this “stable” period by analysing the chemical content of mud in sediments. These were drilled from depths of more than three kilometres below sea level off the coast of Antarctica.

Analysing the mud revealed a chemical fingerprint that enabled the team to trace where it came from on the continent. They discovered that the mud originated from rocks that are currently hidden under the ice sheet. The only way that significant amounts of this mud could have been deposited as sediment in the sea would be if the ice sheet had retreated inland and eroded these rocks, say the team.

The academics suggest that the melting of the ice sheet may have been caused in part by the fact that some of it rests in basins below sea level. This puts the ice in direct contact with seawater and when the ocean warms, as it did during the Pliocene, the ice sheet becomes vulnerable to melting.

Carys Cook, co-author and research postgraduate from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial, adds: “Scientists previously considered the East Antarctic ice sheet to be more stable than the much smaller ice sheets in West Antarctica and Greenland, even though very few studies of East Antarctic ice sheet have been carried out. Our work now shows that the East Antarctic ice sheet has been much more sensitive to climate change in the past than previously realised. This finding is important for our understanding of what may happen to the Earth if we do not tackle the effects of climate change.”

The next step will see the team analysing sediment samples to determine how quickly the East Antarctic ice sheet melted during the Pliocene. This information could be useful in the future for predicting how quickly the ice sheet could melt as a result of global warming.