Study links Greenland ice sheet collapse, sea level rise 400,000 years ago

A research team is hiking to sample the Greenland ice-sheet margin in south Greenland. -  (Photo by Kelsey Winsor, courtesy Oregon State University)
A research team is hiking to sample the Greenland ice-sheet margin in south Greenland. – (Photo by Kelsey Winsor, courtesy Oregon State University)

A new study suggests that a warming period more than 400,000 years ago pushed the Greenland ice sheet past its stability threshold, resulting in a nearly complete deglaciation of southern Greenland and raising global sea levels some 4-6 meters.

The study is one of the first to zero in on how the vast Greenland ice sheet responded to warmer temperatures during that period, which were caused by changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, are being published this week in the journal Nature.

“The climate 400,000 years ago was not that much different than what we see today, or at least what is predicted for the end of the century,” said Anders Carlson, an associate professor at Oregon State University and co-author on the study. “The forcing was different, but what is important is that the region crossed the threshold allowing the southern portion of the ice sheet to all but disappear.

“This may give us a better sense of what may happen in the future as temperatures continue rising,” Carlson added.

Few reliable models and little proxy data exist to document the extent of the Greenland ice sheet loss during a period known as the Marine Isotope Stage 11. This was an exceptionally long warm period between ice ages that resulted in a global sea level rise of about 6-13 meters above present. However, scientists have been unsure of how much sea level rise could be attributed to Greenland, and how much may have resulted from the melting of Antarctic ice sheets or other causes.

To find the answer, the researchers examined sediment cores collected off the coast of Greenland from what is called the Eirik Drift. During several years of research, they sampled the chemistry of the glacial stream sediment on the island and discovered that different parts of Greenland have unique chemical features. During the presence of ice sheets, the sediments are scraped off and carried into the water where they are deposited in the Eirik Drift.

“Each terrain has a distinct fingerprint,” Carlson noted. “They also have different tectonic histories and so changes between the terrains allow us to predict how old the sediments are, as well as where they came from. The sediments are only deposited when there is significant ice to erode the terrain. The absence of terrestrial deposits in the sediment suggests the absence of ice.

“Not only can we estimate how much ice there was,” he added, “but the isotopic signature can tell us where ice was present, or from where it was missing.”

This first “ice sheet tracer” utilizes strontium, lead and neodymium isotopes to track the terrestrial chemistry.

The researchers’ analysis of the scope of the ice loss suggests that deglaciation in southern Greenland 400,000 years ago would have accounted for at least four meters – and possibly up to six meters – of global sea level rise. Other studies have shown, however, that sea levels during that period were at least six meters above present, and may have been as much as 13 meters higher.

Carlson said the ice sheet loss likely went beyond the southern edges of Greenland, though not all the way to the center, which has not been ice-free for at least one million years.

In their Nature article, the researchers contrasted the events of Marine Isotope Stage 11 with another warming period that occurred about 125,000 years ago and resulted in a sea level rise of 5-10 meters. Their analysis of the sediment record suggests that not as much of the Greenland ice sheet was lost – in fact, only enough to contribute to a sea level rise of less than 2.5 meters.

“However, other studies have shown that Antarctica may have been unstable at the time and melting there may have made up the difference,” Carlson pointed out.

The researchers say the discovery of an ice sheet tracer that can be documented through sediment core analysis is a major step to understanding the history of ice sheets in Greenland – and their impact on global climate and sea level changes. They acknowledge the need for more widespread coring data and temperature reconstructions.

“This is the first step toward more complete knowledge of the ice history,” Carlson said, “but it is an important one.”

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.

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

<IMG SRC="/Images/485889256.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="262" BORDER="0" ALT="University of Utah geochemist Gabe Bowen led a new study, published in Nature Communications, showing that the curvy jet stream pattern that brought mild weather to western North America and intense cold to the eastern states this past winter has become more dominant during the past 4,000 years than it was from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. The study suggests global warming may aggravate the pattern, meaning such severe winter weather extremes may be worse in the future. – Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah.”>
University of Utah geochemist Gabe Bowen led a new study, published in Nature Communications, showing that the curvy jet stream pattern that brought mild weather to western North America and intense cold to the eastern states this past winter has become more dominant during the past 4,000 years than it was from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. The study suggests global warming may aggravate the pattern, meaning such severe winter weather extremes may be worse in the future. – Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah.

Last winter’s curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, and suggests it may worsen as Earth’s climate warms.

“If this trend continues, it could contribute to more extreme winter weather events in North America, as experienced this year with warm conditions in California and Alaska and intrusion of cold Arctic air across the eastern USA,” says geochemist Gabe Bowen, senior author of the study.

The study was published online April 16 by the journal Nature Communications.

“A sinuous or curvy winter jet stream means unusual warmth in the West, drought conditions in part of the West, and abnormally cold winters in the East and Southeast,” adds Bowen, an associate professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah. “We saw a good example of extreme wintertime climate that largely fit that pattern this past winter,” although in the typical pattern California often is wetter.

It is not new for scientists to forecast that the current warming of Earth’s climate due to carbon dioxide, methane and other “greenhouse” gases already has led to increased weather extremes and will continue to do so.

The new study shows the jet stream pattern that brings North American wintertime weather extremes is millennia old – “a longstanding and persistent pattern of climate variability,” Bowen says. Yet it also suggests global warming may enhance the pattern so there will be more frequent or more severe winter weather extremes or both.

“This is one more reason why we may have more winter extremes in North America, as well as something of a model for what those extremes may look like,” Bowen says. Human-caused climate change is reducing equator-to-pole temperature differences; the atmosphere is warming more at the poles than at the equator. Based on what happened in past millennia, that could make a curvy jet stream even more frequent and-or intense than it is now, he says.

Bowen and his co-authors analyzed previously published data on oxygen isotope ratios in lake sediment cores and cave deposits from sites in the eastern and western United States and Canada. Those isotopes were deposited in ancient rainfall and incorporated into calcium carbonate. They reveal jet stream directions during the past 8,000 years, a geological time known as middle and late stages of the Holocene Epoch.

Next, the researchers did computer modeling or simulations of jet stream patterns – both curvy and more direct west to east – to show how changes in those patterns can explain changes in the isotope ratios left by rainfall in the old lake and cave deposits.

They found that the jet stream pattern – known technically as the Pacific North American teleconnection – shifted to a generally more “positive phase” – meaning a curvy jet stream – over a 500-year period starting about 4,000 years ago. In addition to this millennial-scale change in jet stream patterns, they also noted a cycle in which increases in the sun’s intensity every 200 years make the jet stream flatter.

Bowen conducted the study with Zhongfang Liu of Tianjin Normal University in China, Kei Yoshimura of the University of Tokyo, Nikolaus Buenning of the University of Southern California, Camille Risi of the French National Center for Scientific Research, Jeffrey Welker of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, and Fasong Yuan of Cleveland State University.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Natural Science Foundation of China, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and a joint program by the society and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: the Program for Risk Information on Climate Change.

Sinuous Jet Stream Brings Winter Weather Extremes

The Pacific North American teleconnection, or PNA, “is a pattern of climate variability” with positive and negative phases, Bowen says.

“In periods of positive PNA, the jet stream is very sinuous. As it comes in from Hawaii and the Pacific, it tends to rocket up past British Columbia to the Yukon and Alaska, and then it plunges down over the Canadian plains and into the eastern United States. The main effect in terms of weather is that we tend to have cold winter weather throughout most of the eastern U.S. You have a freight car of arctic air that pushes down there.”

Bowen says that when the jet stream is curvy, “the West tends to have mild, relatively warm winters, and Pacific storms tend to occur farther north. So in Northern California, the Pacific Northwest and parts of western interior, it tends to be relatively dry, but tends to be quite wet and unusually warm in northwest Canada and Alaska.”

This past winter, there were times of a strongly curving jet stream, and times when the Pacific North American teleconnection was in its negative phase, which means “the jet stream is flat, mostly west-to-east oriented,” and sometimes split, Bowen says. In years when the jet stream pattern is more flat than curvy, “we tend to have strong storms in Northern California and Oregon. That moisture makes it into the western interior. The eastern U.S. is not affected by arctic air, so it tends to have milder winter temperatures.”

The jet stream pattern – whether curvy or flat – has its greatest effects in winter and less impact on summer weather, Bowen says. The curvy pattern is enhanced by another climate phenomenon, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, which sends a pool of warm water eastward to the eastern Pacific and affects climate worldwide.

Traces of Ancient Rains Reveal Which Way the Wind Blew

Over the millennia, oxygen in ancient rain water was incorporated into calcium carbonate deposited in cave and lake sediments. The ratio of rare, heavy oxygen-18 to the common isotope oxygen-16 in the calcium carbonate tells geochemists whether clouds that carried the rain were moving generally north or south during a given time.

Previous research determined the dates and oxygen isotope ratios for sediments in the new study, allowing Bowen and colleagues to use the ratios to tell if the jet stream was curvy or flat at various times during the past 8,000 years.

Bowen says air flowing over the Pacific picks up water from the ocean. As a curvy jet stream carries clouds north toward Alaska, the air cools and some of the water falls out as rain, with greater proportions of heavier oxygen-18 falling, thus raising the oxygen-18-to-16 ratio in rain and certain sediments in western North America. Then the jet stream curves south over the middle of the continent, and the water vapor, already depleted in oxygen-18, falls in the East as rain with lower oxygen-18-to-16 ratios.

When the jet stream is flat and moving east-to-west, oxygen-18 in rain is still elevated in the West and depleted in the East, but the difference is much less than when the jet stream is curvy.

By examining oxygen isotope ratios in lake and cave sediments in the West and East, Bowen and colleagues showed that a flatter jet stream pattern prevailed from about 8,000 to 4,000 years ago in North America, but then, over only 500 years, the pattern shifted so that curvy jet streams became more frequent or severe or both. The method can’t distinguish frequency from severity.

The new study is based mainly on isotope ratios at Buckeye Creek Cave, W. Va.; Lake Grinell, N.J.; Oregon Caves National Monument; and Lake Jellybean, Yukon.

Additional data supporting increasing curviness of the jet stream over recent millennia came from seven other sites: Crawford Lake, Ontario; Castor Lake, Wash.; Little Salt Spring, Fla.; Estancia Lake, N.M.; Crevice Lake, Mont.; and Dog and Felker lakes, British Columbia. Some sites provided oxygen isotope data; others showed changes in weather patterns based on tree ring growth or spring deposits.

Simulating the Jet Stream

As a test of what the cave and lake sediments revealed, Bowen’s team did computer simulations of climate using software that takes isotopes into account.

Simulations of climate and oxygen isotope changes in the Middle Holocene and today resemble, respectively, today’s flat and curvy jet stream patterns, supporting the switch toward increasing jet stream sinuosity 4,000 years ago.

Why did the trend start then?

“It was a when seasonality becomes weaker,” Bowen says. The Northern Hemisphere was closer to the sun during the summer 8,000 years ago than it was 4,000 years ago or is now due to a 20,000-year cycle in Earth’s orbit. He envisions a tipping point 4,000 years ago when weakening summer sunlight reduced the equator-to-pole temperature difference and, along with an intensifying El Nino climate pattern, pushed the jet stream toward greater curviness.

Ancient Indonesian climate shift linked to glacial cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Study uncovers new evidence for assessing tsunami risk from very large volcanic island landslides

A core is extracted from the seabed. -  Russell Wynn
A core is extracted from the seabed. – Russell Wynn

The risk posed by tsunami waves generated by Canary Island landslides may need to be re-evaluated, according to researchers at the National Oceanography Centre. Their findings suggest that these landslides result in smaller tsunami waves than previously thought by some authors, because of the processes involved.

The researchers used the geological record from deep marine sediment cores to build a history of regional landslide activity over the last 1.5 million years. They found that each large-scale landslide event released material into the ocean in stages, rather than simultaneously as previously thought.

The findings – reported recently in the scientific journal Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems – can be used to inform risk assessment from landslide-generated tsunamis in the area, as well as mitigation strategies to defend human populations and infrastructure against these natural hazards. The study also concluded that volcanic activity could be a pre-condition to major landslide events in the region.

The main factor influencing the amplitude of a landslide-generated tsunami is the volume of material sliding into the ocean. Previous efforts, which have assessed landslide volumes, have assumed that the entire landslide volume breaks away and enters the ocean as a single block. Such studies – and subsequent media coverage – have suggested an event could generate a ‘megatsunami’ so big that it would travel across the Atlantic Ocean and devastate the east coast of the US, as well as parts of southern England.

The recent findings shed doubt on this theory. Instead of a single block failure, the landslides in the past have occurred in multiple stages, reducing the volumes entering the sea, and thereby producing smaller tsunami waves. Lead author Dr James Hunt explains: “If you drop a block of soap into a bath full of water, it makes a relatively big splash. But if you break it up into smaller pieces and drop it in bit by bit, the ripples in the bath water are smaller.”

The scientists were able to identify this mechanism from the deposits of underwater sediment flows called turbidity currents, which form as the landslide mixes with surrounding seawater. Their deposits, known as ‘turbidites’, were collected from an area of the seafloor hundreds of miles away from the islands. Turbidites provide a record of landslide history because they form from the material that slides down the island slopes into the ocean, breaks up and eventually settles on this flatter, deeper part of the seafloor.

However, the scientists could not assume that multistage failure necessarily results in less devastating tsunamis – the stages need to occur with enough time in between so that the resulting waves do not compound each other. “If you drop the smaller pieces of soap in one by one but in very quick succession, you can still generate a large wave,” says Dr Hunt.

Between the layers of sand deposited by the landslides, the team found mud, providing evidence that the stages of failure occurred some time apart. This is because mud particles are so fine that they most likely take weeks to settle out in the ocean, and even longer to form a layer that would be resistant enough to withstand a layer of sand moving over the top of it.

While the authors suggest that the tsunamis were not as big as originally thought, they state that tsunamis are a threat that the UK should be taking seriously. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is investing in a major programme looking at the risk of tsunamis from Arctic landslides as part of the Arctic Research Programme, of which NOC is the lead collaborator. The EU have also just funded a £6 million FP7 project called ASTARTE, looking at tsunami risk and resilience on the European North Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, of which NOC is a partner.

The current study was funded by NERC, through a NOC studentship.

Preparing for the next megathrust

Understanding the size and frequency of large earthquakes along the Pacific coast of North America is of great importance, not just to scientists, but also to government planners and the general public. The only way to predict the frequency and intensity of the ground motion expected from large and giant “megathrust ” earthquakes along Canada’s west coast is to analyze the geologic record. A new study published today in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences presents an exceptionally well-dated first record of earthquake history along the south coast of BC. Using a new high-resolution age model, a team of scientists meticulously identified and dated the disturbed sedimentary layers in a 40-metre marine sediment core raised from Effingham Inlet. The disturbances appear to have been caused by large and megathrust earthquakes that have occurred over the past 11,000 years.

One of the co-authors of the study, Dr. Audrey Dallimore, Associate Professor at Royal Roads University explains: “Some BC coastal fjords preserve annually layered organic sediments going back all the way to deglacial times. In Effingham Inlet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, these sediments reveal disturbances we interpret were caused by earthquakes. With our very detailed age model that includes 68 radiocarbon dates and the Mazama Ash deposit (a volcanic eruption that took place 6800 yrs ago); we have identified 22 earthquake shaking events over the last 11,000 years, giving an estimate of a recurrence interval for large and megathrust earthquakes of about 500 years. However, it appears that the time between major shaking events can stretch up to about a 1,000 years.

“The last megathrust earthquake originating from the Cascadia subduction zone occurred in 1700 AD. Therefore, we are now in the risk zone of another earthquake. Even though it could be tomorrow or perhaps even centuries before it occurs, paleoseismic studies such as this one can help us understand the nature and frequency of rupture along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and help Canadian coastal communities to improve their hazard assessments and emergency preparedness plans.”

“This exceptionally well-dated paleoseismic study by Enkin et al., involved a multi-disciplinary team of Canadian university and federal government scientists, and a core from the 2002 international drill program Marges Ouest Nord Américaines (MONA) campaign,” says Dr. Olav Lian, an associate editor of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, professor at the University of the Fraser Valley and Director of the university’s Luminescence Dating Laboratory. “It gives us our first glimpse back in geologic time, of the recurrence interval of large and megathrust earthquakes impacting the vulnerable BC outer coastline. It also supports paleoseismic data found in offshore marine sediment cores along the US portion of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, recently released in an important United States Geological Survey (USGS) paleoseismic study by a team of researchers led by Dr. Chris Goldfinger of Oregon State University. In addition to analyzing the Effingham Inlet record for earthquake events, this study site has also revealed much information about climate and ocean changes throughout the Holocene to the present. These findings also clearly illustrate the importance of analyzing the geologic record to help today’s planners and policy makers, and ultimately to increase the resiliency of Canadian communities. “

Arctic current flowed under deep freeze of last ice age, study says

Arctic sea ice formation feeds global ocean circulation. New evidence suggests that this dynamic process persisted through the last ice age. -  National Snow & Ice Data Center
Arctic sea ice formation feeds global ocean circulation. New evidence suggests that this dynamic process persisted through the last ice age. – National Snow & Ice Data Center

During the last ice age, when thick ice covered the Arctic, many scientists assumed that the deep currents below that feed the North Atlantic Ocean and help drive global ocean currents slowed or even stopped. But in a new study in Nature, researchers show that the deep Arctic Ocean has been churning briskly for the last 35,000 years, through the chill of the last ice age and warmth of modern times, suggesting that at least one arm of the system of global ocean currents that move heat around the planet has behaved similarly under vastly different climates.

“The Arctic Ocean must have been flushed at approximately the same rate it is today regardless of how different things were at the surface,” said study co-author Jerry McManus, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Researchers reconstructed Arctic circulation through deep time by measuring radioactive trace elements buried in sediments on the Arctic seafloor. Uranium eroded from the continents and delivered to the ocean by rivers, decays into sister elements thorium and protactinium. Thorium and protactinium eventually attach to particles falling through the water and wind up in mud at the bottom. By comparing expected ratios of thorium and protactinium in those ocean sediments to observed amounts, the authors showed that protactinium was being swept out of the Arctic before it could settle to the ocean bottom.From the amount of missing protactinium, scientists can infer how quickly the overlying water must have been flushed at the time the sediments were accumulating.

“The water couldn’t have been stagnant, because we see the export of protactinium,” said the study’s lead author, Sharon Hoffmann, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty.

The upper part of the modern Arctic Ocean is flushed by North Atlantic currents while the Arctic’s deep basins are flushed by salty currents formed during sea ice formation at the surface. “The study shows that both mechanisms must have been active from the height of glaciation until now,” said Robert Newton, an oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty who was not involved in the research. “There must have been significant melt-back of sea ice each summer even at the height of the last ice age to have sea ice formation on the shelves each year. This will be a surprise to many Arctic researchers who believe deep water formation shuts down during glaciations.”

The researchers analyzed sediment cores collected during the U.S.-Canada Arctic Ocean Section cruise in 1994, a major Arctic research expedition that involved several Lamont-Doherty scientists. In each location, the cores showed that protactinium has been lower than expected for at least the past 35,000 years. By sampling cores from a range of depths, including the bottom of the Arctic deep basins, the researchers show that even the deepest waters were being flushed out at about the same rate as in the modern Arctic.

The only deep exit from the Arctic is through Fram Strait, which divides Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard islands. The deep waters of the modern Arctic flow into the North Atlantic via the Nordic seas, contributing up to 40 percent of the water that becomes North Atlantic Deep Water-known as the “ocean’s lungs” for delivering oxygen and salt to the rest of world’s oceans.

One direction for future research is to find out where the missing Arctic protactinium of the past ended up. “It’s somewhere,” said McManus. “All the protactinium in the ocean is buried in ocean sediments. If it’s not buried in one place, it’s buried in another. Our evidence suggests it’s leaving the Arctic but we think it’s unlikely to get very far before being removed.”

6,000-year climate record suggests longer droughts, drier climate for Pacific Northwest

Measurement of oxygen isotope ratios (red) and grayscale (black) arranged to show drought cycle duration and intensity with 20th century wet period indicated. -  Mark Abbott
Measurement of oxygen isotope ratios (red) and grayscale (black) arranged to show drought cycle duration and intensity with 20th century wet period indicated. – Mark Abbott

University of Pittsburgh-led researchers extracted a 6,000-year climate record from a Washington lake that shows that the famously rain-soaked American Pacific Northwest could not only be in for longer dry seasons, but also is unlikely to see a period as wet as the 20th century any time soon. In a recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team linked the longer dry spells to the intensifying El Niño/La Niña climate pattern and concluded that Western states will likely suffer severe water shortages as El Niño/La Niña wields greater influence on the region.

The researchers analyzed a sediment core from Castor Lake in north central Washington to plot the region’s drought history since around 4,000 BCE and found that wet and dry cycles during the past millennium have grown longer. The team attributed this recent deviation to the irregular pressure and temperature changes brought on by El Niño/La Niña. At the same time, they reported, the wet cycle stretching from the 1940s to approximately 2000 was the dampest in 350 years.

Lead researcher Mark Abbott, a Pitt professor of geology and planetary science, said those unusually wet years coincide with the period when western U.S. states developed water-use policies. “Western states happened to build dams and water systems during a period that was unusually wet compared to the past 6,000 years,” he said. “Now the cycle has changed and is trending drier, which is actually normal. It will shift back to wet eventually, but probably not to the extremes seen during most of the 20th century.”

Abbott worked with his former graduate student, lead author and Pitt alumnus Daniel Nelson, as well as Pitt professor of geology and planetary science Michael Rosenmeier; Nathan Stansell, a Pitt PhD graduate now a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University; and Pitt geology and planetary science graduate student Byron Steinman. The team also included Pratigya Polissar, an assistant research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Joseph Ortiz, associate professor of geology at Kent State University; Bruce Finney, a professor of geology at Idaho State University; and Jon Riedel, a geologist at North Cascades National Park in Washington.

The team produced a climate record from the lake mud by measuring the oxygen isotope ratios of the mineral calcite that precipitates from the lake water every summer and builds up in fine layers on the lake floor. More calcite accumulates in wet years than in dry years. They reproduced their findings by measuring grayscale, or the color of mud based on calcite concentration, with darker mud signifying a drier year.

The record in the sediment core was then compared to the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which uses meteorological and tree-ring data to determine drought cycles dating back 1,500 years, Abbott explained. The Castor Lake core matched the Palmer Index reconstructed with tree-ring data and expanded on it by 4,500 years, suggesting that lakebeds are better records of long-term climate change, the authors contend.

Analysis of the sediment core revealed that the climate of the Pacific Northwest fluctuated more or less evenly between wet and dry periods for thousands of years, the researchers wrote. Droughts tended to be lengthier with 25 percent of dry periods during the past 6,000 years persisting for 30 years or more and the longest lingering for around 75 years. Wet periods tended to be shorter with only 19 percent lasting more than 30 years and the longest spanning 64 years.

But since around 1000 AD, these periods have become longer, shifted less frequently, and, most importantly, ushered in more extreme conditions, Abbott said. The two driest cycles the researchers detected out of the past 6,000 years occurred within only 400 years of each other-the first in the 1500s and the second during the Great Depression. Wet periods showed a similar pattern shift with five very wet eras crammed into the past 900 years. The wettest cycle of the past 6,000 years began around the 1650s, and the second most sodden began a mere 300 years later, in the 1940s.

The change in cycle regularity Abbott and his colleagues found correlates with documented activity of El Niño/La Niña. When the patterns became more intense, wet and dry cycles in the Pacific Northwest became more erratic and lasted longer, Abbott said.

Noninvasive probing of geological core samples

The directionality of the coil-generated magnetic fields is shown, along with the induced currents (influenced by the directional conductivity) when the transmitter coils for measuring the axial Z-directional conductivity (middle) and for measuring the X- and Y-directional conductivity (right) are energized. -  No Credit is given
The directionality of the coil-generated magnetic fields is shown, along with the induced currents (influenced by the directional conductivity) when the transmitter coils for measuring the axial Z-directional conductivity (middle) and for measuring the X- and Y-directional conductivity (right) are energized. – No Credit is given

Oil and natural gas companies rely upon geological core analysis to help them understand and evaluate oil and gas reserves. A rock sample can reveal myriad details about a geological structure’s formation, content, and history.

Conductivity, a material’s ability to carry an electrical current, is one of the most useful measurements of core samples. The conductivity of a geological formation depends on the direction of measurement, so it’s considered “anisotropic.”

“Anisotropy is usually the result of many thin layers of oil-bearing sandstone rocks sandwiched between thin shale layers, which form a laminate structure that may be tens to thousands of feet thick and contain a large amount of oil,” explains John Kickhofel, a research scientist. In anisotropic layers of the Earth, the conductivity in one direction is different from that of others.

Tools to measure a core sample’s electrical anisotropy have been sadly lacking, says Kickhofel. To solve this problem, he and colleagues at the company Schlumberger found inspiration in a type of logging technology currently used by the modern oil industry. They created a device capable of noninvasively measuring electrical conductivity — a device they describe in the journal Review of Scientific Instruments, which is published by the American Institute of Physics.

“We designed a probe that uses a core from the formations and measures its electrical anisotropy without destroying the core,” Kickhofel says. “This device can make continuous measurements on cores that are hundreds or thousands of feet long.”

Cores are valuable because they provide firsthand information about the structure and nature of rock layers and need to be preserved for future reference. “It’s very important to preserve the cores, and the new device provides a way to do this. We can’t overstate the value of such a measurement to the oil industry in an era when most fields are in decline — yet the world’s demand for oil and gas continues to skyrocket,” adds Kickhofel.

Ancient global warming episode holds clues to future climate

The sediment archives obtained during ocean drilling programs give scientists a glimpse into Earth's climatic history.  Inset: Deep sea sediment cores across the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. The sections of light brown color consist mainly of calcium carbonate, whereas the dark red/brown section is a clay layer, representing the onset of the interval of intense global warming and ocean acidification 55 million years ago. -  Integrated Ocean Drilling Program and J.C. Zachos
The sediment archives obtained during ocean drilling programs give scientists a glimpse into Earth’s climatic history. Inset: Deep sea sediment cores across the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. The sections of light brown color consist mainly of calcium carbonate, whereas the dark red/brown section is a clay layer, representing the onset of the interval of intense global warming and ocean acidification 55 million years ago. – Integrated Ocean Drilling Program and J.C. Zachos

When scientists take Earth’s temperature, they usually use thermometers. But when scientists want to figure out Earth’s temperature in the past, they have to rely on other tools. One of these is deep-sea sediment cores (see Figure). Deep-sea sediments contain fossil remains of tiny marine creatures and other materials that sink to the ocean floor. Over millions of years, these materials pile up and build climate archives that tell stories about Earth’s history. Today, scientists recover those archives during ocean drilling expeditions aboard research vessels such as the JOIDES Resolution (see Figure).

Now a team of scientists, led by Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, has examined data from sediment cores from around the world to study an ancient global warming episode, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. This warming event occurred about 55 million years ago and provides important clues about what the future may hold. By studying the past, the researchers contribute to better forecasting the future – a principle once expressed by the English historian Edward Gibbon: “I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.”

There is little doubt among scientists that the Earth is warming because of carbon dioxide emissions from human activities. But exactly how much the Earth will warm – say until the end of the 21st century – is still uncertain. In their study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, Zeebe and his team help to resolve the question by studying a possible analog in the past. Using sediment archives and theoretical tools, they provide estimates of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during the warming episode 55 million years ago.

The team had to go back that far in time because this event may be the only one during the past 55 million years of similar scale and pace as the current human disruption. At that time, global surface temperatures rose by 5𔃇°C within a few thousand years. At nearly the same time, a large amount of carbon was released, probably from the dissociation of oceanic methane hydrates. By comparing the change in ancient temperature and carbon dioxide levels, Zeebe and his team provide clues about the magnitude of global warming during large and rapid increases of greenhouse gases.

What the team found was quite unexpected. Based on current knowledge about Earth’s climate system, they expected a three- to eightfold increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to explain the 5𔃇°C warming. Yet, they found only a less-than-twofold increase.

Zeebe, an oceanographer at UH Manoa, says: “We were pretty surprised that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide turned out to be so small. To explain the entire warming, you would need a whole lot more carbon.”

The consequence is that other mechanisms must have considerably contributed to the warming 55 million years ago. Unfortunately, these mechanisms are unknown at present.

“There are a few ideas what may have contributed to the additional warming. But I don’t think we fully understand these events of intense and rapid global warming,” says Zeebe.

If the additional warming in the past was a response to rising carbon dioxide, then also future warming could be much stronger than anticipated. Undoubtedly, the Earth was a different place 55 million years ago and comparison with today’s situation is imperfect. Nevertheless, the work of Zeebe and his co-workers suggests that the future climate could hold some surprises.

“By continuing to put these huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we’re gambling with climate and the outcome is still uncertain,” Zeebe says.