Researchers find major West Antarctic glacier melting from geothermal sources

Thwaites Glacier, the large, rapidly changing outlet of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, is not only being eroded by the ocean, it’s being melted from below by geothermal heat, researchers at the Institute for Geophysics at The University of Texas at Austin (UTIG) report in the current edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings significantly change the understanding of conditions beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet where accurate information has previously been unobtainable.

The Thwaites Glacier has been the focus of considerable attention in recent weeks as other groups of researchers found the glacier is on the way to collapse, but more data and computer modeling are needed to determine when the collapse will begin in earnest and at what rate the sea level will increase as it proceeds. The new observations by UTIG will greatly inform these ice sheet modeling efforts.

Using radar techniques to map how water flows under ice sheets, UTIG researchers were able to estimate ice melting rates and thus identify significant sources of geothermal heat under Thwaites Glacier. They found these sources are distributed over a wider area and are much hotter than previously assumed.

The geothermal heat contributed significantly to melting of the underside of the glacier, and it might be a key factor in allowing the ice sheet to slide, affecting the ice sheet’s stability and its contribution to future sea level rise.

The cause of the variable distribution of heat beneath the glacier is thought to be the movement of magma and associated volcanic activity arising from the rifting of the Earth’s crust beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Knowledge of the heat distribution beneath Thwaites Glacier is crucial information that enables ice sheet modelers to more accurately predict the response of the glacier to the presence of a warming ocean.

Until now, scientists had been unable to measure the strength or location of heat flow under the glacier. Current ice sheet models have assumed that heat flow under the glacier is uniform like a pancake griddle with even heat distribution across the bottom of the ice.

The findings of lead author Dusty Schroeder and his colleagues show that the glacier sits on something more like a multi-burner stovetop with burners putting out heat at different levels at different locations.

“It’s the most complex thermal environment you might imagine,” said co-author Don Blankenship, a senior research scientist at UTIG and Schroeder’s Ph.D. adviser. “And then you plop the most critical dynamically unstable ice sheet on planet Earth in the middle of this thing, and then you try to model it. It’s virtually impossible.”

That’s why, he said, getting a handle on the distribution of geothermal heat flow under the ice sheet has been considered essential for understanding it.

Gathering knowledge about Thwaites Glacier is crucial to understanding what might happen to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. An outlet glacier the size of Florida in the Amundsen Sea Embayment, it is up to 4,000 meters thick and is considered a key question mark in making projections of global sea level rise.

The glacier is retreating in the face of the warming ocean and is thought to be unstable because its interior lies more than two kilometers below sea level while, at the coast, the bottom of the glacier is quite shallow.

Because its interior connects to the vast portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that lies deeply below sea level, the glacier is considered a gateway to the majority of West Antarctica’s potential sea level contribution.

The collapse of the Thwaites Glacier would cause an increase of global sea level of between 1 and 2 meters, with the potential for more than twice that from the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The UTIG researchers had previously used ice-penetrating airborne radar sounding data to image two vast interacting subglacial water systems under Thwaites Glacier. The results from this earlier work on water systems (also published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) formed the foundation for the new work, which used the distribution of water beneath the glacier to determine the levels and locations of heat flow.

In each case, Schroeder, who received his Ph.D. in May, used techniques he had developed to pull information out of data collected by the radar developed at UTIG.

According to his findings, the minimum average geothermal heat flow beneath Thwaites Glacier is about 100 milliwatts per square meter, with hotspots over 200 milliwatts per square meter. For comparison, the average heat flow of the Earth’s continents is less than 65 milliwatts per square meter.

The presence of water and heat present researchers with significant challenges.

“The combination of variable subglacial geothermal heat flow and the interacting subglacial water system could threaten the stability of Thwaites Glacier in ways that we never before imagined,” Schroeder said.

New study finds Antarctic Ice Sheet unstable at end of last ice age

This is one of many icebergs that sheared off the continent and ended up in the Scotia Sea. -  Photo courtesy of Michael Weber, University of Cologne
This is one of many icebergs that sheared off the continent and ended up in the Scotia Sea. – Photo courtesy of Michael Weber, University of Cologne

A new study has found that the Antarctic Ice Sheet began melting about 5,000 years earlier than previously thought coming out of the last ice age – and that shrinkage of the vast ice sheet accelerated during eight distinct episodes, causing rapid sea level rise.

The international study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is particularly important coming on the heels of recent studies that suggest destabilization of part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun.

Results of this latest study are being published this week in the journal Nature. It was conducted by researchers at University of Cologne, Oregon State University, the Alfred-Wegener-Institute, University of Hawaii at Manoa, University of Lapland, University of New South Wales, and University of Bonn.

The researchers examined two sediment cores from the Scotia Sea between Antarctica and South America that contained “iceberg-rafted debris” that had been scraped off Antarctica by moving ice and deposited via icebergs into the sea. As the icebergs melted, they dropped the minerals into the seafloor sediments, giving scientists a glimpse at the past behavior of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Periods of rapid increases in iceberg-rafted debris suggest that more icebergs were being released by the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The researchers discovered increased amounts of debris during eight separate episodes beginning as early as 20,000 years ago, and continuing until 9,000 years ago.

The melting of the Antarctic Ice Sheet wasn’t thought to have started, however, until 14,000 years ago.

“Conventional thinking based on past research is that the Antarctic Ice Sheet has been relatively stable since the last ice age, that it began to melt relatively late during the deglaciation process, and that its decline was slow and steady until it reached its present size,” said lead author Michael Weber, a scientist from the University of Cologne in Germany.

“The sediment record suggests a different pattern – one that is more episodic and suggests that parts of the ice sheet repeatedly became unstable during the last deglaciation,” Weber added.

The research also provides the first solid evidence that the Antarctic Ice Sheet contributed to what is known as meltwater pulse 1A, a period of very rapid sea level rise that began some 14,500 years ago, according to Peter Clark, an Oregon State University paleoclimatologist and co-author on the study.

The largest of the eight episodic pulses outlined in the new Nature study coincides with meltwater pulse 1A.

“During that time, the sea level on a global basis rose about 50 feet in just 350 years – or about 20 times faster than sea level rise over the last century,” noted Clark, a professor in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “We don’t yet know what triggered these eight episodes or pulses, but it appears that once the melting of the ice sheet began it was amplified by physical processes.”

The researchers suspect that a feedback mechanism may have accelerated the melting, possibly by changing ocean circulation that brought warmer water to the Antarctic subsurface, according to co-author Axel Timmermann, a climate researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“This positive feedback is a perfect recipe for rapid sea level rise,” Timmermann said.

Some 9,000 years ago, the episodic pulses of melting stopped, the researchers say.

“Just as we are unsure of what triggered these eight pulses,” Clark said, “we don’t know why they stopped. Perhaps the sheet ran out of ice that was vulnerable to the physical changes that were taking place. However, our new results suggest that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is more unstable than previously considered.”

Today, the annual calving of icebergs from Antarctic represents more than half of the annual loss of mass of the Antarctic Ice Sheet – an estimated 1,300 to 2,000 gigatons (a gigaton is a billion tons). Some of these giant icebergs are longer than 18 kilometers.

Today’s Antarctic region once as hot as California, Florida

Parts of ancient Antarctica were as warm as today’s California coast, and polar regions of the southern Pacific Ocean registered 21st-century Florida heat, according to scientists using a new way to measure past temperatures.

The findings, published the week of April 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, underscore the potential for increased warmth at Earth’s poles and the associated risk of melting polar ice and rising sea levels, the researchers said.

Led by scientists at Yale, the study focused on Antarctica during the Eocene epoch, 40-50 million years ago, a period with high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and consequently a greenhouse climate. Today, Antarctica is year-round one of the coldest places on Earth, and the continent’s interior is the coldest place, with annual average land temperatures far below zero degrees Fahrenheit.

But it wasn’t always that way, and the new measurements can help improve climate models used for predicting future climate, according to co-author Hagit Affek of Yale, associate professor of geology & geophysics.

“Quantifying past temperatures helps us understand the sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gases, and especially the amplification of global warming in polar regions,” Affek said.

The paper’s lead author, Peter M.J. Douglas, performed the research as a graduate student in Affek’s Yale laboratory. He is now a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology. The research team included paleontologists, geochemists, and a climate physicist.

By measuring concentrations of rare isotopes in ancient fossil shells, the scientists found that temperatures in parts of Antarctica reached as high as 17 degrees Celsius (63F) during the Eocene, with an average of 14 degrees Celsius (57F) – similar to the average annual temperature off the coast of California today.

Eocene temperatures in parts of the southern Pacific Ocean measured 22 degrees Centigrade (or about 72F), researchers said – similar to seawater temperatures near Florida today.

Today the average annual South Pacific sea temperature near Antarctica is about 0 degrees Celsius.

These ancient ocean temperatures were not uniformly distributed throughout the Antarctic ocean regions – they were higher on the South Pacific side of Antarctica – and researchers say this finding suggests that ocean currents led to a temperature difference.

“By measuring past temperatures in different parts of Antarctica, this study gives us a clearer perspective of just how warm Antarctica was when the Earth’s atmosphere contained much more CO2 than it does today,” said Douglas. “We now know that it was warm across the continent, but also that some parts were considerably warmer than others. This provides strong evidence that global warming is especially pronounced close to the Earth’s poles. Warming in these regions has significant consequences for climate well beyond the high latitudes due to ocean circulation and melting of polar ice that leads to sea level rise.”

To determine the ancient temperatures, the scientists measured the abundance of two rare isotopes bound to each other in fossil bivalve shells collected by co-author Linda Ivany of Syracuse University at Seymour Island, a small island off the northeast side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The concentration of bonds between carbon-13 and oxygen-18 reflect the temperature in which the shells grew, the researchers said. They combined these results with other geo-thermometers and model simulations.

The new measurement technique is called carbonate clumped isotope thermometry.

“We managed to combine data from a variety of geochemical techniques on past environmental conditions with climate model simulations to learn something new about how the Earth’s climate system works under conditions different from its current state,” Affek said. “This combined result provides a fuller picture than either approach could on its own.”

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.

Study provides crucial new information about how the ice ages came about

An international team of scientists has discovered new relationships between deep-sea temperature and ice-volume changes to provide crucial new information about how the ice ages came about.

Researchers from the University of Southampton, the National Oceanography Centre and the Australian National University developed a new method for determining sea-level and deep-sea temperature variability over the past 5.3 million years. It provides new insight into the climatic relationships that caused the development of major ice-age cycles during the past two million years.

The researchers found, for the first time, that the long-term trends in cooling and continental ice-volume cycles over the past 5.3 million years were not the same. In fact, for temperature the major step toward the ice ages that have characterised the past two to three million years was a cooling event at 2.7 million years ago, but for ice-volume the crucial step was the development of the first intense ice age at around 2.15 million years ago. Before these results, these were thought to have occurred together at about 2.5 million years ago.

The results are published in the scientific journal Nature.

Co-author Dr Gavin Foster, from Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton, says: “Our work focused on the discovery of new relationships within the natural Earth system. In that sense, the observed decoupling of temperature and ice-volume changes provides crucial new information for our understanding of how the ice ages developed.

“However, there are wider implications too. For example, a more refined sea-level record over millions of years is commercially interesting because it allows a better understanding of coastal sediment sequences that are relevant to the petroleum industry. Our record is also of interest to climate policy developments, because it opens the door to detailed comparisons between past atmospheric CO2 concentrations, global temperatures, and sea levels, which has enormous value to long-term future climate projections.”

The team used records of oxygen isotope ratios (which provide a record of ancient water temperature) from microscopic plankton fossils recovered from the Mediterranean Sea, spanning the last 5.3 million years. This is a particularly useful region because the oxygen isotopic composition of the seawater is largely determined by the flow of water through the Strait of Gibraltar, which in turn is sensitive to changes in global sea level – in a way like the pinching of a hosepipe.

As continental ice sheets grew during the ice ages, flow through the Strait of Gibraltar was reduced, causing measurable increases in the oxygen isotope O-18 (8 protons and 10 neutrons) relative to O-16 (8 protons and 8 neutrons) in Mediterranean waters, which became preserved in the shells of the ancient plankton. Using long drill cores and uplifted sections of sea-floor sediments, previous work had analysed such microfossil-based oxygen isotope records from carefully dated sequences.

The current study added a numerical model for calculating water exchange through the Strait of Gibraltar as a function of sea-level change, which allowed the microfossil records to be used as a sensitive recorder of global sea-level changes. The new sea-level record was then used in combination with existing deep-sea oxygen isotope records from the open ocean, to work out deep-sea temperature changes.

Lead author, Professor Eelco Rohling of Australian National University, says: “This is the first step for reconstructions from the Mediterranean records. Our previous work has developed and refined this technique for Red Sea records, but in that location it is restricted to the last half a million years because there are no longer drill cores. In the Mediterranean, we could take it down all the way to 5.3 million years ago. There are uncertainties involved, so we included wide-ranging assessments of these, as well as pointers to the most promising avenues for improvement. This work lays the foundation for a concentrated effort toward refining and improving the new sea-level record.”

Noting the importance of the Strait of Gibraltar to the analysis, co-author Dr Mark Tamisiea from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton adds: “Flow through the Strait will depend not only on the ocean’s volume, but also on how the land in the region moves up and down in response to the changing water levels. We use a global model of changes in the ocean and the ice sheets to estimate the deformation and gravity changes in the region, and how that will affect our estimate of global sea-level change.”

The causes and consequences of global climate warming that took place 56 million years ago studied

This image shows continental sediments in the Esplugafreda ravine, a small tributary of the Noguera Ribagorzana river, in the extreme west of the province of Lleida and close to the village of Aren (Huesca). -  UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country
This image shows continental sediments in the Esplugafreda ravine, a small tributary of the Noguera Ribagorzana river, in the extreme west of the province of Lleida and close to the village of Aren (Huesca). – UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country

The growing and justified concern about the current global warming process has kindled the interest of the scientific community in geological records as an archive of crucial information to understand the physical and ecological effects of ancient climate changes. A study by the UPV/EHU’s Palaeogene Study Group deals with the behaviour of the sea level during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 56 million years ago and has ruled out any connection. The study has been published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

“The fall in sea level did not unleash the emission of greenhouse gases during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM),” pointed out Victoriano Pujalte, lecturer in the UPV/EHU’s Department of Stratigraphy and Palaeontology, and lead researcher of the study.

The Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was a brief interval (in geological terms, it “only” lasted about 200,000 years) of extremely high temperatures that took place 56 million years ago as a result of a massive emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The global temperature increase is reckoned to have been between 5º C and 9º C. It was recorded in geological successions worldwide and was responsible for a great ecological impact: the most striking from an anthropological point of view was its impact on mammals, but it also affected other organisms, including foraminifera and nannofossils (marine microorganisms that are at the base of the trophic chain) and plants.

However, what actually caused this warming remains a controversial issue. The most widely accepted hypothesis suggests that it was due to the destabilising of methane hydrates that remained frozen on ocean floors. “Some authors, like Higgins and Schrag (2006), for example, proposed that a fall in sea level could have caused or co-contributed towards the unleashing of the emission of methane or CO2,” pointed out Victoriano Pujalte, lecturer in the UPV/EHU’s Department of Stratigraphy and Palaeontology, and lead researcher in the study. According to this hypothesis, “the marine sediments that were submerged in the sea were exposed when the sea level fell, and were responsible for the CO2 emissions,” he added. That is what, to a certain extent, prompted this study. Others not only reject that possibility but also the fall in sea level itself. “We set out to try and establish the behaviour of the sea level during that time interval, the PETM,” said Pujalte.

There is no cause-effect relationship

The studies were carried out mainly in the Pyrenees between Huesca and Lérida, specifically in the Tremp-Graus Basin, and also in Zumaia (Gipuzkoa, Basque Country). The Palaeocene-Eocene rocks have outcropped extensively in both areas, in other words, exposed on the surface, and they represent a whole range of ancient atmospheres, both continental and marine. “They provide a unique opportunity to explore the effects of changes in sea level and to analyse their effects,” added Pujalte.

The most useful indicators are the stable oxygen and carbon isotopes. The oxygen ones provide information on palaeotemperatures, but any sign of them can only be retrieved in deep-sea sample cores. The carbon isotopes provide data on variations in CO2 content in the atmosphere and in the oceans, and they can also be retrieved in ancient rocks that have outcropped in above-ground plots of land. In general, the variations of both isotopes run parallel, given that an increase in the proportion of CO2 is coupled with an increase in temperature.

The results obtained indicate that the PETM was in fact preceded by a fall in sea level, the size of which is estimated to have been about 20 metres and the maximum descent of which probably occurred about 75 million years before the start of the PETM. “However, it is doubtful that the descent was the cause of the PETM, although it could have contributed towards it,” pointed out Victoriano Pujalte. “They occurred at the same time, but there is no cause-effect relationship.”

Furthermore, the researchers observed that the rise in the sea level continued after the PETM, when the global temperature returned to normal levels. “Its origin was not only caused, therefore, by the thermal expansion of the oceans linked to the warming,” said Pujalte. “It is suggested that the most likely cause of it was the volcanic activity documented in the North Sea during the end of the Palaeocene and start of the Eocene; this activity was related to the expansion of the oceanic ridge in the North Atlantic,” he concluded.

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.”

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.”

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.”

New study determines more accurate method to date tropical glacier moraines

The Quelccaya Ice Cap, the world's largest tropical ice sheet, is rapidly melting. -  Meredith Kelly
The Quelccaya Ice Cap, the world’s largest tropical ice sheet, is rapidly melting. – Meredith Kelly

A Dartmouth-led team has found a more accurate method to determine the ages of boulders deposited by tropical glaciers, findings that will likely influence previous research of how climate change has impacted ice masses around the equator.

The study appears in the journal Quaternary Geochronology. A PDF of the study is available on request.

Scientists use a variety of dating methods to determine the ages of glacial moraines around the world, from the poles where glaciers are at sea level to the tropics where glaciers are high in the mountains. Moraines are sedimentary deposits that mark the past extents of glaciers. Since glaciers respond sensitively to climate, especially at high latitudes and high altitudes, the timing of glacial fluctuations marked by moraines can help scientists to better understand past climatic variations and how glaciers may respond to future changes.

In the tropics, glacial scientists commonly use beryllium-10 surface exposure dating. Beryllium-10 is an isotope of beryllium produced when cosmic rays strike bedrock that is exposed to air. Predictable rates of decay tell scientists how long ago the isotope was generated and suggest that the rock was covered in ice before then. Elevation, latitude and other factors affect the rate at which beryllium-10 is produced, but researchers typically use rates taken from calibration sites scattered around the globe rather than rates locally calibrated at the sites being studied.

The Dartmouth-led team looked at beryllium-10 concentrations in moraine boulders deposited by the Quelccaya Ice Cap, the largest ice mass in the tropics. Quelccaya, which sits 18,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, has retreated significantly in recent decades. The researchers determined a new locally calibrated production rate that is at least 11 percent to 15 percent lower than the traditional global production rate.

“The use of our locally calibrated beryllium-10 production rate will change the surface exposure ages reported in previously published studies at low latitude, high altitude sites and may alter prior paleoclimate interpretations,” said Assistant Professor Meredith Kelly, the study’s lead author and a glacial geomorphologist at Dartmouth.

The new production rate yields beryllium-10 ages that are older than previously reported, which means the boulders were exposed for longer than previously estimated. Prior studies suggested glaciers in the Peruvian Andes advanced during early Holocene time 8,000 -10,000 years ago, a period thought to have been warm but perhaps wet in the Andes. But the new production rate pushes back the beryllium-10 ages to 11,000 -12,000 years ago when the tropics were cooler and drier. Also during this time, glaciers expanded in the northern hemisphere, which indicates a relationship between the climate mechanisms that caused cooling in the northern hemisphere and southern tropics.

The findings suggest the new production rate should be used to deliver more precise ages of moraines in low-latitude, high-altitude locations, particularly in the tropical Andes. Such precision can help scientists to more accurately reconstruct past glacial and climatic variations, Kelly said.