Melting of the Greenland ice sheet mapped

This is a map of the ice core drilling locations discussed in the article. -  Center for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen
This is a map of the ice core drilling locations discussed in the article. – Center for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen

Will all of the ice on Greenland melt and flow out into the sea, bringing about a colossal rise in ocean levels on Earth, as the global temperature rises? The key concern is how stable the ice cap actually is and new Danish research from the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen can now show the evolution of the ice sheet 11,700 years back in time – all the way back to the start of our current warm period. The results are published in the esteemed journal Nature.

Numerous drillings have been made through both Greenland’s ice sheet and small ice caps near the coast. By analysing every single annual layer in the kilometres long ice cores researchers can get detailed information about the climate of the past. But now the Danish researcher Bo Vinther and colleagues from the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, in collaboration with researchers from Canada, France and Russia, have found an entirely new way of interpreting the information from the ice core drillings.

“Ice cores from different drillings show different climate histories. This could be because they were drilled at very different places on and near Greenland, but it could also be due to changes in the elevation of the ice sheet, because the elevation itself causes different temperatures” explains Bo Vinther about the theory.

Today the ice sheet is more than three kilometres thick at its highest point and thinning out towards the coast. Four of the drillings analysed are from the central ice sheet, while two of the drillings are from small ice caps outside of the ice sheet itself, at Renland on the east coast and Agassiz which lies just off of the northwest coast of Greenland in Canada.

Small ice caps show the standard


The small ice caps are stable and have not changed in elevation, and even though they lie very far apart from each other on either side of the central ice sheet, they show the same climate history. This means that one can use the small ice caps climate history as a standard reference for the others.

Bo Vinther explains, that the four drillings through the ice sheet would have had the same climate history if there had not been changes in elevation throughout the course of time. It is known that for every 100 meter increase in elevation, there is a 0.6 per mille decrease in the level of the oxygen isotope Oxygen-18, which indicates the temperature in the air. So if there is a difference of 1.2 per mille, the elevation has changed by 200 meters.

By comparing the Oxygen-18 content in all of the annual layers from the four drillings through the ice sheet with the Oxygen-18 content of the same annual layers in the small ice caps, Bo Vinther has calculated the elevation course through 11,700 years.

Temperature sensitive ice sheet


Just after the ice age the elevation of the ice sheet rose slightly. This is because when the climate transitions from ice age to warm age, there is a rapid increase in precipitation. But at the same time, the areas lying near the coast begin to decrease in size, because the ice is melting at the edge. When the ice melts at the edge, it slowly causes the entire ice sheet to ‘collapse’ and become lower.

The calculations show that in the course of about 3,000 years the elevation changed and became up to 600 meters lower in the coastal areas. But in the middle it was a slow process, where the elevation decreased around 150 meters in the course of around 6,000 years. It then stabilised.

The elevations that were found with the help of the Oxygen-18 measurements from the ice cores are checked with other methods, for example, by measuring the air content, which is also dependent upon the elevation.

The new results show the evolution of elevation of the ice sheet throughout 11,700 years and they show that the ice sheet is very sensitive to the temperature. The results can be used to make new calculations for models predicting future consequences of climate changes.

Searching for an interglacial on Greenland

This is an ice core drilled at NEEM ice camp. -  Anna Wegner, Alfred Wegener Institute
This is an ice core drilled at NEEM ice camp. – Anna Wegner, Alfred Wegener Institute

The first season of the international drilling project NEEM (North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling) in north-western Greenland was completed at August 20th. A research team, with the participation of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association, has drilled an ice core of altogether 1757.87 m length on the Greenland inland ice within 110 days. It is expected to contain data on climate history of about 38.000 years.


The oldest ice comes from a period when the Greenland climate was characterized by strong temperature fluctuations: an average of 10° to 15° Celsius within a few centuries. The drilling is to be continued in the coming years to gain information on the last interglacial period, the Eemian of about 120.000 to 130.000 years ago.

Research institutes from fourteen nations are participating in the research project which is running since 2007: Denmark, the USA, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, South Korea, Switzerland, China, Belgium, Iceland and Canada. NEEM is one of the major projects of the International Polar Year 2007-2009. It is coordinated logistically by the Centre for Ice and Climate in Denmark.

The international team has been drilling an ice core in north-western Greenland (77°45’N – 51°06’W) since April this year. The ice cover at the location has a magnitude of 2.545 m and it is meant to be completely drilled in the coming years to make Eemian climate data of about 120.000 to 130.000 years ago accessible. The gases, trace elements and biological substances enclosed in the ice allow the reconstruction of climate conditions at that time.


“So far, we lack detailed information on the climate in Greenland during the last interglacial”, explains Prof. Frank Wilhelms, glaciologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute. “With the help of data gained from the ice core and particularly from the comparison with data from an ice core we drilled in the Antarctic Dronning Maud Land, we are for the first time able to draw conclusions on the interaction of the climate on the northern and southern hemisphere during that time”, Wilhelms continues. Because the drilling in this year could be conducted so successfully, researchers expect to obtain ice with the necessary information on this climate period in the summer of 2010.

The least sea ice in 800 years

There has never been so little sea ice in the area between Svalbard and Greenland in the last 800 years. -  NASA/GSFC.
There has never been so little sea ice in the area between Svalbard and Greenland in the last 800 years. – NASA/GSFC.

New research, which reconstructs the extent of ice in the sea between Greenland and Svalbard from the 13th century to the present indicates that there has never been so little sea ice as there is now. The research results from the Niels Bohr Institute, among others, are published in the scientific journal, Climate Dynamics.

There are of course neither satellite images nor instrumental records of the climate all the way back to the 13th century, but nature has its own ‘archive’ of the climate in both ice cores and the annual growth rings of trees and we humans have made records of a great many things over the years – such as observations in the log books of ships and in harbour records. Piece all of the information together and you get a picture of how much sea ice there has been throughout time.

Modern research and historic records


“We have combined information about the climate found in ice cores from an ice cap on Svalbard and from the annual growth rings of trees in Finland and this gave us a curve of the past climate” explains Aslak Grinsted, geophysicist with the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

In order to determine how much sea ice there has been, the researchers needed to turn to data from the logbooks of ships, which whalers and fisherman kept of their expeditions to the boundary of the sea ice. The ship logbooks are very precise and go all the way back to the 16th century. They relate at which geographical position the ice was found. Another source of information about the ice are records from harbours in Iceland, where the severity of the winters have been recorded since the end of the 18th century.

By combining the curve of the climate with the actual historical records of the distribution of the ice, researchers have been able to reconstruct the extent of the sea ice all the way back to the 13th century. Even though the 13th century was a warm period, the calculations show that there has never been so little sea ice as in the 20th century.

In the middle of the 17th century there was also a sharp decline in sea ice, but it lastet only a very brief period. The greatest cover of sea ice was in a period around 1700-1800, which is also called the ‘Little Ice Age’.

“There was a sharp change in the ice cover at the start of the 20th century,” explains Aslak Grinsted. He explains, that the ice shrank by 300.000 km2 in the space of ten years from 1910-1920. So you can see that there have been sudden changes throughout time, but here during the last few years we have had some record years with very little ice extent.

“We see that the sea ice is shrinking to a level which has not been seen in more than 800 years”, concludes Aslak Grinsted.

Sudden collapse in ancient biodiversity: Was global warming the culprit?

Ancient fossil leaves tell a story of sudden loss of biodiversity that may have future parallels. -  Jennifer C. McElwain, University College Dublin
Ancient fossil leaves tell a story of sudden loss of biodiversity that may have future parallels. – Jennifer C. McElwain, University College Dublin

Scientists have unearthed striking evidence for a sudden ancient collapse in plant biodiversity. A trove of 200 million-year-old fossil leaves collected in East Greenland tells the story, carrying its message across time to us today.

Results of the research appear in this week’s issue of the journal Science.

The researchers were surprised to find that a likely candidate responsible for the loss of plant life was a small rise in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which caused Earth’s temperature to rise.

Global warming has long been considered as the culprit for extinctions–the surprise is that much less carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere may be needed to drive an ecosystem beyond its tipping point than previously thought.

“Earth’s deep time climate history reveals startling discoveries that shake the foundations of our knowledge and understanding of climate change in modern times,” says H. Richard Lane, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Earth Sciences, which partially funded the research.

Jennifer McElwain of University College Dublin, the paper’s lead author, cautions that sulfur dioxide from extensive volcanic emissions may also have played a role in driving the plant extinctions.

“We have no current way of detecting changes in sulfur dioxide in the past, so it’s difficult to evaluate whether sulfur dioxide, in addition to a rise in carbon dioxide, influenced this pattern of extinction,” says McElwain.

The time interval under study, at the boundary of the Triassic and Jurassic periods, has long been known for its plant and animal extinctions.

Until this research, the pace of the extinctions was thought to have been gradual, taking place over millions of years.

It has been notoriously difficult to tease out details about the pace of extinction using fossils, scientists say, because fossils can provide only snap-shots or glimpses of organisms that once lived.

Using a technique developed by scientist Peter Wagner of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the researchers were able to detect, for the first time, very early signs that these ancient ecosystems were already deteriorating–before plants started going extinct.

The method reveals early warning signs that an ecosystem is in trouble in terms of extinction risk.

“The differences in species abundances for the first 20 meters of the cliffs [in East Greenland] from which the fossils were collected,” says Wagner, “are of the sort you expect. “But the final 10 meters show dramatic loses of diversity that far exceed what we can attribute to sampling error: the ecosystems were supporting fewer and fewer species.”

By the year 2100, it’s expected that the level of carbon dioxide in the modern atmosphere may reach as high as two and a half times today’s level.

“This is of course a ‘worst case scenario,'” says McElwain. “But it’s at exactly this level [900 parts per million] at which we detected the ancient biodiversity crash.

“We must take heed of the early warning signs of deterioration in modern ecosystems. We’ve learned from the past that high levels of species extinctions–as high as 80 percent–can occur very suddenly, but they are preceded by long interval of ecological change.”

The majority of modern ecosystems have not yet reached their tipping point in response to climate change, the scientists say, but many have already entered a period of prolonged ecological change.

“The early warning signs of deterioration are blindingly obvious,” says McElwain. “The biggest threats to maintaining current levels of biodiversity are land use change such as deforestation. “But even relatively small changes in carbon dioxide and global temperature can have unexpectedly severe consequences for the health of ecosystems.”

Ice sheets can retreat ‘in a geologic instant,’ study of prehistoric glacier shows

Modern glaciers, such as those making up the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, are capable of undergoing periods of rapid shrinkage or retreat, according to new findings by paleoclimatologists at the University at Buffalo.

The paper, published on June 21 in Nature Geoscience, describes fieldwork demonstrating that a prehistoric glacier in the Canadian Arctic rapidly retreated in just a few hundred years.

The proof of such rapid retreat of ice sheets provides one of the few explicit confirmations that this phenomenon occurs.

Should the same conditions recur today, which the UB scientists say is very possible, they would result in sharply rising global sea levels, which would threaten coastal populations.

“A lot of glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland are characteristic of the one we studied in the Canadian Arctic,” said Jason Briner, Ph.D., assistant professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences and lead author on the paper. “Based on our findings, they, too, could retreat in a geologic instant.”

The new findings will allow scientists to more accurately predict how global warming will affect ice sheets and the potential for rising sea levels in the future, by developing more robust climate and ice sheet models.

Briner said the findings are especially relevant to the Jakobshavn Isbrae, Greenland’s largest and fastest moving tidewater glacier, which is retreating under conditions similar to those he studied in the Canadian Arctic.

Acting like glacial conveyor belts, tidewater glaciers are the primary mechanism for draining ice sheet interiors by delivering icebergs to the ocean.

“These ‘iceberg factories’ exhibit rapid fluctuations in speed and position, but predicting how quickly they will retreat as a result of global warming is very challenging,” said Briner.

That uncertainty prompted the UB team to study the rates of retreat of a prehistoric tidewater glacier, of similar size and geometry to contemporary ones, as way to get a longer-term view of how fast these glaciers can literally disappear.

The researchers used a special dating tool at UB to study rock samples they extracted from a large fjord that drained the ice sheet that covered the North American Arctic during the past Ice Age.

The samples provided the researchers with climate data over a period from 20,000 years ago to about 5,000 years ago, a period when significant warming occurred.

“Even though the ice sheet retreat was ongoing throughout that whole period, the lion’s share of the retreat occurred in a geologic instant — probably within as little as a few hundred years,” said Briner.

The UB research reveals that the period of rapid retreat was triggered once the glacier entered deep ocean waters, nearly a kilometer deep, Briner said.

“The deeper water makes the glacier more buoyant,” he explained.

“Because the rates of retreat were so much higher in the deep fjord, versus earlier when it terminated in more shallow waters or on land, the findings suggest that contemporary tidewater glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica that are retreating into deep waters may begin to experience even faster rates of retreat than are currently being observed,” said Briner.

Right now, Jakobshavn Isbrae is draining into waters that are nearly a kilometer deep, he said, which means that its current rates of retreat — as fast as 10 kilometers in the past decade — could continue for the next hundred years.

“If modern glaciers do this for several decades, this would rapidly raise global sea level, intercepting coastal populations and requiring vast re-engineering of levees and other mitigation systems,” said Briner.

Greenland ice sheet larger contributor to sea-level rise

Melting water from a glacier in Greenland runs into the ocean. -  Photo by Sebastian Mernild
Melting water from a glacier in Greenland runs into the ocean. – Photo by Sebastian Mernild

The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than expected according to a new study led by a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher and published in the journal Hydrological Processes.

Study results indicate that the ice sheet may be responsible for nearly 25 percent of global sea rise in the past 13 years. The study also shows that seas now are rising by more than 3 millimeters a year-more than 50 percent faster than the average for the 20th century.

UAF researcher Sebastian H. Mernild and colleagues from the United States, United Kingdom and Denmark discovered that from 1995 to 2007, overall precipitation on the ice sheet decreased while surface ablation-the combination of evaporation, melting and calving of the ice sheet-increased. According to Mernild’s new data, since 1995 the ice sheet lost an average of 265 cubic kilometers per year, which has contributed to about 0.7 millimeters per year in global sea level rise. These figures do not include thermal expansion-the expansion of the ice volume in response to heat-so the contribution could be up to twice that.

The Greenland ice sheet has been of considerable interest to researchers over the last few years as one of the major indicators of climate change. In late 2000/early 2001 and in 2007, major glacier calving events sent up to 44 square miles of ice into the sea at a time. Researchers are studying these major events as well as the less dramatic ongoing melting of the ice sheet through runoff and surface processes.

Ice melt from a warming Arctic has two major effects on the ocean. First, increased water contributes to global sea-level rise, which in turn affects coastlines across the globe. Second, fresh water from melting ice changes the salinity of the world’s oceans, which can affect ocean ecosystems and deep water mixing.

“Increasing sea level rise will be a problem in the future for people living in coastal regions around the globe,” said Mernild. “Even a small sea level rise can be a problem for these communities. It is our hope that this research can provide people with accurate information needed to plan for protecting people and communities.”

Melting Greenland ice sheets may threaten Northeast United States, Canada

Melting of the Greenland ice sheet this century may drive more water than previously thought toward the already threatened coastlines of New York, Boston, Halifax, and other cities in the northeastern United States and in Canada, according to new research led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

The study, which will be published Friday in Geophysical Research Letters, finds that if Greenland’s ice melts at moderate to high rates, ocean circulation by 2100 may shift and cause sea levels off the northeast coast of North America to rise by about 12 to 20 inches (about 30 to 50 centimeters) more than in other coastal areas. The research builds on recent reports that have found that sea level rise associated with global warming could adversely affect North America, and its findings suggest that the situation is more threatening than previously believed.

“If the Greenland melt continues to accelerate, we could see significant impacts this century on the northeast U.S. coast from the resulting sea level rise,” says NCAR scientist Aixue Hu, the lead author. “Major northeastern cities are directly in the path of the greatest rise.”

A study in Nature Geoscience in March warned that warmer water temperatures could shift ocean currents in a way that would raise sea levels off the Northeast by about 8 inches (20 cm) more than the average global sea level rise. But it did not include the additional impact of Greenland’s ice, which at moderate to high melt rates would further accelerate changes in ocean circulation and drive an additional 4 to 12 inches (about 10 to 30 cm) of water toward heavily populated areas in northeastern North America on top of average global sea level rise. More remote areas in extreme northeastern Canada and Greenland could see even higher sea level rise.

Scientists have been cautious about estimating average sea level rise this century in part because of complex processes within ice sheets. The 2007 assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that sea levels worldwide could rise by an average of 7 to 23 inches (18 to 59 cm) this century, but many researchers believe the rise will be greater because of dynamic factors in ice sheets that appear to have accelerated the melting rate in recent years.

The new research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and by NCAR’s sponsor, the National Science Foundation. It was conducted by scientists at NCAR, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Florida State University.

How much meltwater?

To assess the impact of Greenland ice melt on ocean circulation, Hu and his coauthors used the Community Climate System Model, an NCAR-based computer model that simulates global climate. They considered three scenarios: the melt rate continuing to increase by 7 percent per year, as has been the case in recent years, or the melt rate slowing down to an increase of either 1 or 3 percent per year.

If Greenland’s melt rate slows down to a 3 percent annual increase, the study team’s computer simulations indicate that the runoff from its ice sheet could alter ocean circulation in a way that would direct about a foot of water toward the northeast coast of North America by 2100. This would be on top of the average global sea level rise expected as a result of global warming. Although the study team did not try to estimate that mean global sea level rise, their simulations indicated that melt from Greenland alone under the 3 percent scenario could raise worldwide sea levels by an average of 21 inches (54 cm).

If the annual increase in the melt rate dropped to 1 percent, the runoff would not raise northeastern sea levels by more than the 8 inches (20 cm) found in the earlier study in Nature Geoscience. But if the melt rate continued at its present 7 percent increase per year through 2050 and then leveled off, the study suggests that the northeast coast could see as much as 20 inches (50 cm) of sea level rise above a global average that could be several feet. However, Hu cautioned that other modeling studies have indicated that the 7 percent scenario is unlikely.

In addition to sea level rise, Hu and his co-authors found that if the Greenland melt rate were to defy expectations and continue its 7 percent increase, this would drain enough fresh water into the North Atlantic to weaken the oceanic circulation that pumps warm water to the Arctic. Ironically, this weakening of the meridional overturning circulation would help the Arctic avoid some of the impacts of global warming and lead to at least the temporary recovery of Arctic sea ice by the end of the century.

Why the Northeast?

The northeast coast of North America is especially vulnerable to the effects of Greenland ice melt because of the way the meridional overturning circulation acts like a conveyer belt transporting water through the Atlantic Ocean. The circulation carries warm Atlantic water from the tropics to the north, where it cools and descends to create a dense layer of cold water. As a result, sea level is currently about 28 inches (71 cm) lower in the North Atlantic than the North Pacific, which lacks such a dense layer.

If the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet were to increase by 3 percent or 7 percent yearly, the additional fresh water could partially disrupt the northward conveyor belt. This would reduce the accumulation of deep, dense water. Instead, the deep water would be slightly warmer, expanding and elevating the surface across portions of the North Atlantic.

Unlike water in a bathtub, water in the oceans does not spread out evenly. Sea level can vary by several feet from one region to another, depending on such factors as ocean circulation and the extent to which water at lower depths is compressed.

“The oceans will not rise uniformly as the world warms,” says NCAR scientist Gerald Meehl, a co-author of the paper. “Ocean dynamics will push water in certain directions, so some locations will experience sea level rise that is larger than the global average.”

Ancient Greenland methane study good news for planet

CU-Boulder postdoctoral researcher Vasilii Petrenko, foreground, cleans a sample ice block from Greenland while Scripps Institution of Oceanography Professor Jeff Severinghaus loads another ice block into a vacuum melting tank. -  Photo courtesy Hinrich Schaefer
CU-Boulder postdoctoral researcher Vasilii Petrenko, foreground, cleans a sample ice block from Greenland while Scripps Institution of Oceanography Professor Jeff Severinghaus loads another ice block into a vacuum melting tank. – Photo courtesy Hinrich Schaefer

An analysis of ancient Greenland ice suggests a spike in the greenhouse gas methane about 11,600 years ago originated from wetlands rather than the ocean floor or from permafrost, a finding that is good news according to the University of Colorado at Boulder scientist who led the study.

Methane bound up in ocean sediments and permafrost, called methane clathrate, has been a concern to scientists because of its huge volume, greenhouse gas potency and potential for release during periods of warming, said Vasilii Petrenko, a CU-Boulder postdoctoral fellow and lead study author. If just 10 percent of methane from clathrates — an ice-like substance composed of methane and water — were suddenly released into Earth’s atmosphere, the resulting increase in the greenhouse effect would be equivalent to a 10-fold increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, he said.

Using carbon 14 as a “tracer” to date and distinguish wetland methane from methane clathrates, an international team determined the methane jump 11,600 years ago likely emanated primarily from Earth’s wetlands. “From a global warming standpoint, this appears to be good news,” said Petrenko of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, lead author on a paper that was published in Science on April 24.

Methane is the third most powerful greenhouse gas behind water vapor and CO2 and accounts for roughly 20 percent of the human-caused increase in the greenhouse effect.

As Earth emerged from the last ice age, temperatures in some places in the Northern Hemisphere shot up about 18 degrees Fahrenheit in just 20 years, said Petrenko. Scientists have been concerned that such abrupt warming events could trigger huge oceanic methane “burps” caused by the dissociation of seafloor clathrates, providing a positive climate feedback mechanism that could drive up Earth’s temperatures still further.

“If we found that clathrates release a lot of methane to the atmosphere during abrupt episodes of warming, that could signal big trouble for the planet, ” said Petrenko. “But even though wetlands appear be the primary source, it’s still something to be concerned about.”

Methane emitted from human activities like rice cultivation, livestock, the burning of grasslands, forests and wood fuels, gas leaks from fossil fuel production and waste management activities have nearly tripled methane concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere in the past 250 years, Petrenko said. The amount of carbon held in methane clathrate deposits on Earth may equal the amount of carbon in all oil, coal and gas reserves on the planet, he said.

Study co-authors were from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Oregon State University, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, Danish Technical University and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia. Petrenko conducted most of the research as part of his doctoral thesis at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography under Professor Jeffrey Severinghaus.

The research team extracted several tons of ancient ice from the western margin of the Greenland ice sheet at a site called Pakitsoq, the largest ice samples ever recovered for a climate change study. The researchers cut the ice into blocks with electric chain saws, dumped 17 cubic feet at a time into a vacuum melting tank heated by powerful propane torches, and transferred ancient air released from bubbles in the ice into cylinders for subsequent laboratory analysis, Petrenko said.

The effort, which lasted five field-seasons, was “an undertaking of epic proportions,” said Petrenko. “This was the first measurement of its kind, and we really pushed the envelope,” he said. “It represents a major advance in analytical methods for studying ancient ice.”

Methane clathrates are only stable in conditions that combine cold temperatures and high pressures. Some scientists suspect that a swift and massive warming in the early Cenozoic era about 56 million years ago may have been triggered by huge methane releases from clathrates into the atmosphere, Petrenko said.

Methane levels in Earth’s atmosphere increased about 2 percent from about A.D. 1 to 1000 and decreased by 2 percent from 1000 to 1700, which may have been due in part to decreased landscape burning by indigenous people in the Americas devastated by introduced diseases, according to a 2005 CU-Boulder study. About 60 percent of atmospheric methane is now generated from human-related activities, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

Oceanic seesaw links Northern and Southern hemisphere during abrupt climate change

Very large and abrupt changes in temperature recorded over Greenland and across the North Atlantic during the last Ice Age were actually global in extent, according to an international team of researchers led by Cardiff University.

New research, published in the journal Nature today, supports the idea that changes in ocean circulation within the Atlantic played a central role in abrupt climate change on a global scale.

Using a sediment core taken from the seafloor in the South Atlantic, the team were able to create a detailed reconstruction of ocean conditions in the South Atlantic during the final phases of the last ice age.

Dr Stephen Barker, Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences and lead author on the paper, said: “During this period very large and abrupt changes in temperature were observed across the North Atlantic region. However, evidence for the direct transmission of these shifts between the northern and southern hemispheres has so far been lacking”.

The new study suggests that abrupt changes in the north were accompanied by equally abrupt but opposite changes in the south. It provides the first concrete evidence of an immediate seesaw connection between the North and South Atlantic. The data shows, for example, that an abrupt cooling in the north would be accompanied by a rapid southerly shift of ocean fronts in the Southern Ocean, followed by more gradual warming across the south.

Dr Barker explains: “The most intuitive way to explain these changes is by varying the strength of ocean circulation in the Atlantic. By weakening the circulation, the heat transported northwards would be retained in the south.”

Climate physicist, Dr Gregor Knorr, co-author of the study and now based at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, said: “Our new results agree with climate models that predict a rapid transmission of climate signals between the two hemispheres as a consequence of abrupt changes in ocean circulation.”

The study has wide implications for our understanding of abrupt climate change. Dr Ian Hall, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said: “While it is unlikely that an abrupt change in climate, related to changes in ocean circulation, will occur in the near future, our results suggest that if such an extreme scenario did occur, its effects could be felt globally within years to decades.”

Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet melting, rate unknown

The Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets are melting, but the amounts that will melt and the time it will take are still unknown, according to Richard Alley, Evan Pugh professor of geosciences, Penn State.

In the past, the Greenland ice sheet has grown when its surroundings cooled, shrunk when its surroundings warmed and even disappeared completely when the temperatures became warm enough. If the ice sheet on Greenland melts, sea level will rise about 23 feet, which will inundate portions of nearly all continental shores. However, Antarctica, containing much more water, could add up to another 190 feet to sea level.

“We do not think that we will lose all, or even most, of Antarctica’s ice sheet,” said Alley. “But important losses may have already started and could raise sea level as much or more than melting of Greenland’s ice over hundreds or thousands of years,” Alley told attendees today (Feb 16) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Warming is expected to cause more precipitation on Greenland and Antarctica, adding snow. Previously, many scientists suggested that this would offset increasing melting. However, recent studies show that the ice sheets on both Greenland and in Antarctica are melting faster than the snow is replacing the mass.

A number of things can contribute to the increased rate of melting in Greenland and Antarctica. Large lakes of water on the ice in Greenland pose a problem. This water, by wedging open a crack or crevasse in the ice, quickly flows through to the bottom, melting the bottom of the ice sheet and causing it to move more rapidly toward the ocean. Observers have seen lakes on the Greenland ice sheet drain at the speed of Niagara Falls.

All ice sheets spread due to their large mass, but friction from the rocks beneath slows the ice’s motion. Water beneath the ice allows the ice to move more rapidly.

“Right now, the center of the Greenland ice sheet is frozen to the rocks,” says Alley. “If the melt water moves inland as the world warms and gets to the bottom, it will thaw the bottom and unstick the ice from the rocks.”

Another contributor to the melting ice sheets is the warming of the ocean. When ice shelves — ice still connected to the ice sheet but floating over water — melt, they also cause the ice sheet to flow faster. In Greenland, the Jakobshavn ice shelf has retreated more than 5 miles since 1992. Rocks and cliffs on the sides of fiords or inlets slow the seaward movement of the ice shelves. If these shelves break up and melt, the ice streams behind them move more rapidly

Ice shelf failures have also occurred on Antarctica where, for example, most of the Larsen B ice shelf disintegrated in March of 2002 and increased the rate of ice stream flow eight times.

“Water temperature is more important than air temperature in melting the ice shelves,” says Alley. “However, both contribute.”

Warmer oceans, caused by general global warming or local events can trigger more breakups of ice shelves and faster flow of ice streams in Antarctica. In Greenland, sustained increase in temperatures of only a few degrees will remove the ice.

Alley believes he knows the direction to go to gain a better understanding of the ice sheets, how they work and the effect they have on climate change. Although those who study ice sheets have long modeled ice sheet behavior, simulations of the whole earth system typically have not included ice sheets along with the atmosphere, oceans and clouds, in their models. Past atmospheric modelers usually treated the ice sheets simply as white mountains.

“They are not white mountains and they need to be modeled,” said Alley. “We need to have them in the models to figure out how the system works.”

Alley notes that a collaboration of government and academic scientists created the atmospheric and ocean models, but collaborations to model the ice are only just being developed.