NASA study finds 1934 had worst drought of last thousand years

A new study using a reconstruction of North American drought history over the last 1,000 years found that the drought of 1934 was the driest and most widespread of the last millennium.

Using a tree-ring-based drought record from the years 1000 to 2005 and modern records, scientists from NASA and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found the 1934 drought was 30 percent more severe than the runner-up drought (in 1580) and extended across 71.6 percent of western North America. For comparison, the average extent of the 2012 drought was 59.7 percent.

“It was the worst by a large margin, falling pretty far outside the normal range of variability that we see in the record,” said climate scientist Ben Cook at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Cook is lead author of the study, which will publish in the Oct. 17 edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

Two sets of conditions led to the severity and extent of the 1934 drought. First, a high-pressure system in winter sat over the west coast of the United States and turned away wet weather – a pattern similar to that which occurred in the winter of 2013-14. Second, the spring of 1934 saw dust storms, caused by poor land management practices, suppress rainfall.

“In combination then, these two different phenomena managed to bring almost the entire nation into a drought at that time,” said co-author Richard Seager, professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York. “The fact that it was the worst of the millennium was probably in part because of the human role.”

According to the recent Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, climate change is likely to make droughts in North America worse, and the southwest in particular is expected to become significantly drier as are summers in the central plains. Looking back one thousand years in time is one way to get a handle on the natural variability of droughts so that scientists can tease out anthropogenic effects – such as the dust storms of 1934.

“We want to understand droughts of the past to understand to what extent climate change might make it more or less likely that those events occur in the future,” Cook said.

The abnormal high-pressure system is one lesson from the past that informs scientists’ understanding of the current severe drought in California and the western United States.

“What you saw during this last winter and during 1934, because of this high pressure in the atmosphere, is that all the wintertime storms that would normally come into places like California instead got steered much, much farther north,” Cook said. “It’s these wintertime storms that provide most of the moisture in California. So without getting that rainfall it led to a pretty severe drought.”

This type of high-pressure system is part of normal variation in the atmosphere, and whether or not it will appear in a given year is difficult to predict in computer models of the climate. Models are more attuned to droughts caused by La Niña’s colder sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which likely triggered the multi-year Dust Bowl drought throughout the 1930s. In a normal La Niña year, the Pacific Northwest receives more rain than usual and the southwestern states typically dry out.

But a comparison of weather data to models looking at La Niña effects showed that the rain-blocking high-pressure system in the winter of 1933-34 overrode the effects of La Niña for the western states. This dried out areas from northern California to the Rockies that otherwise might have been wetter.

As winter ended, the high-pressure system shifted eastward, interfering with spring and summer rains that typically fall on the central plains. The dry conditions were exacerbated and spread even farther east by dust storms.

“We found that a lot of the drying that occurred in the spring time occurred downwind from where the dust storms originated,” Cook said, “suggesting that it’s actually the dust in the atmosphere that’s driving at least some of the drying in the spring and really allowing this drought event to spread upwards into the central plains.”

Dust clouds reflect sunlight and block solar energy from reaching the surface. That prevents evaporation that would otherwise help form rain clouds, meaning that the presence of the dust clouds themselves leads to less rain, Cook said.

“Previous work and this work offers some evidence that you need this dust feedback to explain the real anomalous nature of the Dust Bowl drought in 1934,” Cook said.

Dust storms like the ones in the 1930s aren’t a problem in North America today. The agricultural practices that gave rise to the Dust Bowl were replaced by those that minimize erosion. Still, agricultural producers need to pay attention to the changing climate and adapt accordingly, not forgetting the lessons of the past, said Seager. “The risk of severe mid-continental droughts is expected to go up over time, not down,” he said.

Space-based methane maps find largest US signal in Southwest

An unexpectedly high amount of the climate-changing gas methane, the main component of natural gas, is escaping from the Four Corners region in the U.S. Southwest, according to a new study by the University of Michigan and NASA.

The researchers mapped satellite data to uncover the nation’s largest methane signal seen from space. They measured levels of the gas emitted from all sources, and found more than half a teragram per year coming from the area where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet. That’s about as much methane as the entire coal, oil, and gas industries of the United Kingdom give off each year.

Four Corners sits on North America’s most productive coalbed methane basin. Coalbed methane is a variety of the gas that’s stuck to the surface of coal. It is dangerous to miners (not to mention canaries), but in recent decades, it’s been tapped as a resource.

“There’s so much coalbed methane in the Four Corners area, it doesn’t need to be that crazy of a leak rate to produce the emissions that we see. A lot of the infrastructure is likely contributing,” said Eric Kort, assistant professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences at the U-M College of Engineering.

Kort, first author of a paper on the findings published in Geophysical Research Letters, says the controversial natural gas extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing is not the main culprit.

“We see this large signal and it’s persistent since 2003,” Kort said. “That’s a pre- fracking timeframe in this region. While fracking has become a focal point in conversations about methane emissions, it certainly appears from this and other studies that in the U.S., fossil fuel extraction activities across the board likely emit higher than inventory estimates.”

While the signal represents the highest concentration of methane seen from space, the researchers caution that Four Corners isn’t necessarily the highest emitting region.

“One has to be somewhat careful in equating abundances with emissions,” said study contributor Christian Frankenberg at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The Four Corners methane source is in a relatively isolated area with little other methane emissions, hence causing a well distinguishable hot-spot in methane abundances. Local or more diffuse emissions in other areas, such as the eastern U.S., may be convoluted with other nearby sources

Natural gas is often touted as more sustainable than coal and oil because it releases fewer pollutants when it burns. But when it leaks into the air before it gets to the pilot light, methane has 30 times the short-term heat-trapping effects of carbon dioxide. Policymakers, energy companies and environmentalists alike are aiming to reduce methane emissions as a way to curb climate change. But pinpointing plumes—a first step to stopping them—has been a difficult task with today’s tools.

The research team demonstrated a new approach to finding leaks. They used a satellite instrument—the European Space Agency’s SCIAMACHY—to get regional methane measurements over the entire United States. They ran the data through a mathematical model to account for mountains and valleys, which can trap methane. That’s how they identified the anomaly at Four Corners. Then they zoomed in on that region and ran another mathematical model to control for wind, to make sure that didn’t negate the original signal. It didn’t.

“We didn’t know this was a region we should look at. We found it from space,” Kort said. “We’ve demonstrated that satellite measurements can help identify, locate and quantify anomalous methane emissions in regions that are unexpected.”

Methane gets into the atmosphere from both natural and human-made sources. Wetlands and landfills release it, as do certain bacteria. Agriculture is a big contributor. So are gas and oil drilling and distribution. Inventories such as those the EPA compiles make estimates based on measurements from a sampling of these sources. In previous work, air measurements from planes and a sparse network of monitoring towers have revealed that the inventory-based numbers are coming in low—roughly 50 percent low. But towers and planes can’t see everywhere to figure out exactly where all the methane is coming from. With limited observations there can be blind spots, the researchers say.

This study used satellite data from 2003 to 2009. In later years, they were able to validate the satellite measurements with a year of ground-based data.

SCIAMACHY is no longer operating, so there aren’t equivalent satellites to provide this information for other parts of the world. For the Four Corners region, Kort will be taking readings from an airplane next year, to get even closer to identifying the leaks.


The study is titled “Four Corners: the largest US methane anomaly viewed from space.” The research was funded by NASA and Los Alamos National Lab.

Eric Kort:


Team advances understanding of the Greenland Ice Sheet’s meltwater channels

An international team of researchers deployed to western Greenland to study the melt rates of the Greenland Ice Sheet. -  Matt Hoffman, Los Alamos National Laboratory
An international team of researchers deployed to western Greenland to study the melt rates of the Greenland Ice Sheet. – Matt Hoffman, Los Alamos National Laboratory

An international research team’s field work, drilling and measuring melt rates and ice sheet movement in Greenland is showing that things are, in fact, more complicated than we thought.

“Although the Greenland Ice Sheet initially speeds up each summer in its slow-motion race to the sea, the network of meltwater channels beneath the sheet is not necessarily forming the slushy racetrack that had been previously considered,” said Matthew Hoffman, a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist on the project.

A high-profile paper appearing in Nature this week notes that observations of moulins (vertical conduits connecting water on top of the glacier down to the bed of the ice sheet) and boreholes in Greenland show that subglacial channels ameliorate the speedup caused by water delivery to the base of the ice sheet in the short term. By mid summer, however, the channels stabilize and are unable to grow any larger. In a previous paper appearing in Science, researchers had posited that the undersheet channels were not even a consideration in Greenland, but as happens in the science world, more data fills in the complex mosaic of facts and clarifies the evolution of the meltwater flow rates over the seasons.

In reality, these two papers are not inconsistent – they are studying different places at different times – and they both are consistent in that channelization is less important than previously assumed, said Hoffman.

The Greenland Ice Sheet’s movement speeds up each summer as melt from the surface penetrates kilometer-thick ice through moulins, lubricating the bed of the ice sheet. Greater melt is predicted for Greenland in the future, but its impact on ice sheet flux and associated sea level rise is uncertain: direct observations of the subglacial drainage system are lacking and its evolution over the melt season is poorly understood.

“Everyone wants to know what’s happening under Greenland as it experiences more and more melt,” said study coauthor Ginny Catania, a research scientist at the institute and an associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. “This subglacial plumbing may or may not be critical for sea level rise in the next 100 years, but we don’t really know until we fully understand it.”

To resolve these unknowns, the research team drilled and instrumented 13 boreholes through 700-meter thick ice in west Greenland. There they performed the first combined analysis of Greenland ice velocity and water pressure in moulins and boreholes, and they determined that moulin water pressure does not lower over the latter half of the melt season, indicating a limited role of high-efficiency channels in subglacial drainage.

Instead they found that boreholes monitor a hydraulically isolated region of the bed, but decreasing water pressure seen in some boreholes can explain the decreasing ice velocity seen over the melt season.

“Like loosening the seal of a bathtub drain, the hydrologic changes that occur each summer may cause isolated pockets of pressurized water to slowly drain out from under the ice sheet, resulting in more friction,” said Hoffman.

Their observations identify a previously unrecognized role of changes in hydraulically isolated regions of the bed in controlling evolution of subglacial drainage over summer. Understanding this process will be crucial for predicting the effect of increasing melt on summer speedup and associated autumn slowdown of the ice sheet into the future.


The research letter is published in this week’s Nature magazine as “Direct observations of evolving subglacial drainage beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet.” The project was an international collaboration between the University of Texas at Austin, Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Michigan Technological University, University of Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College.

This project was supported by United States National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society. The work at Los Alamos was supported by NASA Cryospheric Sciences, and through climate modeling programs within the US Department of Energy, Office of Science.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a team composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, The Babcock & Wilcox Company, and URS for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health, and global security concerns.

New map uncovers thousands of unseen seamounts on ocean floor

This is a gravity model of the North Atlantic; red dots are earthquakes. Quakes are often related to seamounts. -  David Sandwell, SIO
This is a gravity model of the North Atlantic; red dots are earthquakes. Quakes are often related to seamounts. – David Sandwell, SIO

Scientists have created a new map of the world’s seafloor, offering a more vivid picture of the structures that make up the deepest, least-explored parts of the ocean.

The feat was accomplished by accessing two untapped streams of satellite data.

Thousands of previously uncharted mountains rising from the seafloor, called seamounts, have emerged through the map, along with new clues about the formation of the continents.

Combined with existing data and improved remote sensing instruments, the map, described today in the journal Science, gives scientists new tools to investigate ocean spreading centers and little-studied remote ocean basins.

Earthquakes were also mapped. In addition, the researchers discovered that seamounts and earthquakes are often linked. Most seamounts were once active volcanoes, and so are usually found near tectonically active plate boundaries, mid-ocean ridges and subducting zones.

The new map is twice as accurate as the previous version produced nearly 20 years ago, say the researchers, who are affiliated with California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and other institutions.

“The team has developed and proved a powerful new tool for high-resolution exploration of regional seafloor structure and geophysical processes,” says Don Rice, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.

“This capability will allow us to revisit unsolved questions and to pinpoint where to focus future exploratory work.”

Developed using a scientific model that captures gravity measurements of the ocean seafloor, the map extracts data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CryoSat-2 satellite.

CryoSat-2 primarily captures polar ice data but also operates continuously over the oceans. Data also came from Jason-1, NASA’s satellite that was redirected to map gravity fields during the last year of its 12-year mission.

“The kinds of things you can see very clearly are the abyssal hills, the most common landform on the planet,” says David Sandwell, lead author of the paper and a geophysicist at SIO.

The paper’s co-authors say that the map provides a window into the tectonics of the deep oceans.

The map also provides a foundation for the upcoming new version of Google’s ocean maps; it will fill large voids between shipboard depth profiles.

Previously unseen features include newly exposed continental connections across South America and Africa and new evidence for seafloor spreading ridges in the Gulf of Mexico. The ridges were active 150 million years ago and are now buried by mile-thick layers of sediment.

“One of the most important uses will be to improve the estimates of seafloor depth in the 80 percent of the oceans that remain uncharted or [where the sea floor] is buried beneath thick sediment,” the authors state.


Co-authors of the paper include R. Dietmar Muller of the University of Sydney, Walter Smith of the NOAA Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry Emmanuel Garcia of SIO and Richard Francis of ESA.

The study also was supported by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and ConocoPhillips.

Snail shells show high-rise plateau is much lower than it used to be

This is the Zhada Basin on the southwest Tibetan Plateau, with the Himalayas to the south. -  Joel Saylor
This is the Zhada Basin on the southwest Tibetan Plateau, with the Himalayas to the south. – Joel Saylor

The Tibetan Plateau in south-central Asia, because of its size, elevation and impact on climate, is one of the world’s greatest geological oddities.

At about 960,000 square miles it covers slightly more land area than Alaska, Texas and California combined, and its elevation is on the same scale as Mount Rainier in the Cascade Range of Washington state. Because it rises so high into the atmosphere, it helps bring monsoons over India and other nations to the south while the plateau itself remains generally arid.

For decades, geologists have debated when and how the plateau reached such lofty heights, some 14,000 feet above sea level, about half the elevation of the highest Himalayan peaks just south of the plateau.

But new research led by a University of Washington scientist appears to confirm an earlier improbable finding – at least one large area in southwest Tibet, the plateau’s Zhada Basin, actually lost 3,000 to 5,000 feet of elevation sometime in the Pliocene epoch.

“This basin is really high right now but we think it was a kilometer or more higher just 3 million to 4 million years ago,” said Katharine Huntington, a UW associate professor of Earth and space sciences and the lead author of a paper describing the research.

Co-authors are Joel Saylor of the University of Houston and Jay Quade and Adam Hudson, both of the University of Arizona. The paper was published online in August and will appear in a future print edition of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

The Zhada Basin has rugged terrain, with exposed deposits of ancient lake and river sediments that make fossil shells of gastropods such as snails easily accessible, and determining their age is relatively straightforward. The researchers studied shells dating from millions of years ago and from a variety of aquatic environments. They also collected modern shell and water samples from a variety of environments for comparison.

The work confirms results of a previous study involving Saylor and Quade that examined the ratio of heavy isotope oxygen-18 to light isotope oxygen-16 in ancient snail shells from the Zhada Basin. They found the ratios were very low, which suggested the basin had a higher elevation in the past.

Oxygen-18 levels decrease in precipitation at higher elevations in comparison with oxygen-16, so shells formed in lakes and rivers that collect precipitation at higher elevations should have a lower heavy-to-light oxygen ratio. However, those lower ratios depend on a number of other factors, including temperature, evaporation and precipitation source, which made it difficult to say with certainty whether the low ratios found in the ancient snail shells meant a loss of elevation in the Zhada Basin.

So the scientists also employed a technique called clumped isotope thermometry, which Huntington has used and worked to refine for several years, to determine the temperature of shell growth and get an independent estimate of elevation change in the basin.

Bonding, or “clumping” together, of heavy carbon-13 and oxygen-18 isotopes in the carbonate of snail shells happens more readily at colder temperatures, and is measured using a tool called a mass spectrometer that provides data on the temperature of the lake or river water in which the snails lived.

The scientists found markedly greater “clumping,” as well as lower ratios of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 in the ancient shells, indicating the shells formed at temperatures as much as 11 degrees Celsius (20 F) colder than average temperatures today, the equivalent of as much as 5,000 feet of elevation loss.

Just why the elevation decline happened is open to speculation. One possibility is that as faults in the region spread, the Zhada Basin lowered, Huntington said. It is unknown yet whether other parts of the southern plateau also lowered at the same time, but if elevation loss was widespread it could be because of broader fault spreading. It also is possible the crust thickened and forced large rock formations even deeper into the Earth, where they heated until they reached a consistency at which they could ooze out from beneath the crust, like toothpaste squeezed from the tube.

She noted that climate records from deep-sea fossils indicate Earth was significantly warmer when the cold Zhada Basin snail shells were formed.

“Our findings are a conservative estimate,” Huntington said. “No one can say this result is due to a colder climate, because if anything it should have been warmer.”

Asteroid attacks significantly altered ancient Earth

This is an artistic conception of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impacts, resulting in extrusion of deep seated magma onto the surface. At the same time, distal portion of the surface could have retained liquid water. -  Simone Marchi
This is an artistic conception of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impacts, resulting in extrusion of deep seated magma onto the surface. At the same time, distal portion of the surface could have retained liquid water. – Simone Marchi

New research shows that more than four billion years ago, the surface of Earth was heavily reprocessed – or mixed, buried and melted – as a result of giant asteroid impacts. A new terrestrial bombardment model based on existing lunar and terrestrial data sheds light on the role asteroid bombardments played in the geological evolution of the uppermost layers of the Hadean Earth (approximately 4 to 4.5 billion years ago).

An international team of researchers published their findings in the July 31, 2014 issue of Nature.

“When we look at the present day, we have a very high fidelity timeline over the last about 500 million years of what’s happened on Earth, and we have a pretty good understanding that plate tectonics and volcanism and all these kinds of processes have happened more or less the same way over the last couple of billion years,” says Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

But, in the very beginning of Earth’s formation, the first 500 million years, there’s a less well-known period which has typically been called the Hadean (meaning hell-like) because it was assumed that it was wildly hot and volcanic and everything was covered with magma – completely unlike the present day.

Terrestrial planet formation models indicate Earth went through a sequence of major growth phases: accretion of planetesimals and planetary embryos over many tens of millions of years; a giant impact that led to the formation of our Moon; and then the late bombardment, when giant asteroids, dwarfing the one that presumably killed the dinosaurs, periodically hit ancient Earth.

While researchers estimate accretion during late bombardment contributed less than one percent of Earth’s present-day mass, giant asteroid impacts still had a profound effect on the geological evolution of early Earth. Prior to four billion years ago Earth was resurfaced over and over by voluminous impact-generated melt. Furthermore, large collisions as late as about four billion years ago, may have repeatedly boiled away existing oceans into steamy atmospheres. Despite heavy bombardment, the findings are compatible with the claim of liquid water on Earth’s surface as early as about 4.3 billion years ago based on geochemical data.

A key part of Earth’s mysterious infancy period that has not been well quantified in the past is the kind of impacts Earth was experiencing at the end of accretion. How big and how frequent were those incoming bombardments and what were their effects on the surface of the Earth? How much did they affect the ability of the now cooling crust to actually form plates and start to subduct and make plate tectonics? What kind of volcanism did it produce that was different from volcanoes today?”

“We are increasingly understanding both the similarities and the differences to present day Earth conditions and plate tectonics,” says Elkins-Tanton. “And this study is a major step in that direction, trying to bridge that time from the last giant accretionary impact that largely completed the Earth and produced the Moon to the point where we have something like today’s plate tectonics and habitable surface.”

The new research reveals that asteroidal collisions not only severely altered the geology of the Hadean Earth, but likely played a major role in the subsequent evolution of life on Earth as well.

“Prior to approximately four billion years ago, no large region of Earth’s surface could have survived untouched by impacts and their effects,” says Simone Marchi, of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute at the Southwest Research Institute. “The new picture of the Hadean Earth emerging from this work has important implications for its habitability.”

Large impacts had particularly severe effects on existing ecosystems. Researchers found that on average, Hadean Earth could have been hit by one to four impactors that were more than 600 miles wide and capable of global sterilization, and by three to seven impactors more than 300 miles wide and capable of global ocean vaporization.

“During that time, the lag between major collisions was long enough to allow intervals of more clement conditions, at least on a local scale,” said Marchi. “Any life emerging during the Hadean eon likely needed to be resistant to high temperatures, and could have survived such a violent period in Earth’s history by thriving in niches deep underground or in the ocean’s crust.

Antarctic ice sheet is result of CO2 decrease, not continental breakup

Climate modelers from the University of New Hampshire have shown that the most likely explanation for the initiation of Antarctic glaciation during a major climate shift 34 million years ago was decreased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. The finding counters a 40-year-old theory suggesting massive rearrangements of Earth’s continents caused global cooling and the abrupt formation of the Antarctic ice sheet. It will provide scientists insight into the climate change implications of current rising global CO2 levels.

In a paper published today in Nature, Matthew Huber of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space and department of Earth sciences provides evidence that the long-held, prevailing theory known as “Southern Ocean gateway opening” is not the best explanation for the climate shift that occurred during the Eocene-Oligocene transition when Earth’s polar regions were ice-free.

“The Eocene-Oligocene transition was a major event in the history of the planet and our results really flip the whole story on its head,” says Huber. “The textbook version has been that gateway opening, in which Australia pulled away from Antarctica, isolated the polar continent from warm tropical currents, and changed temperature gradients and circulation patterns in the ocean around Antarctica, which in turn began to generate the ice sheet. We’ve shown that, instead, CO2-driven cooling initiated the ice sheet and that this altered ocean circulation.”

Huber adds that the gateway theory has been supported by a specific, unique piece of evidence-a “fingerprint” gleaned from oxygen isotope records derived from deep-sea sediments. These sedimentary records have been used to map out gradient changes associated with ocean circulation shifts that were thought to bear the imprint of changes in ocean gateways.

Although declining atmospheric levels of CO2 has been the other main hypothesis used to explain the Eocene-Oligocene transition, previous modeling efforts were unsuccessful at bearing this out because the CO2 drawdown does not by itself match the isotopic fingerprint. It occurred to Huber’s team that the fingerprint might not be so unique and that it might also have been caused indirectly from CO2 drawdown through feedbacks between the growing Antarctic ice sheet and the ocean.

Says Huber, “One of the things we were always missing with our CO2 studies, and it had been missing in everybody’s work, is if conditions are such to make an ice sheet form, perhaps the ice sheet itself is affecting ocean currents and the climate system-that once you start getting an ice sheet to form, maybe it becomes a really active part of the climate system and not just a passive player.”

For their study, Huber and colleagues used brute force to generate results: they simply modeled the Eocene-Oligocene world as if it contained an Antarctic ice sheet of near-modern size and shape and explored the results within the same kind of coupled ocean-atmosphere model used to project future climate change and across a range of CO2 values that are likely to occur in the next 100 years (560 to 1200 parts per million).

“It should be clear that resolving these two very different conceptual models for what caused this huge transformation of the Earth’s surface is really important because today as a global society we are, as I refer to it, dialing up the big red knob of carbon dioxide but we’re not moving continents around.”

Just what caused the sharp drawdown of CO2 is unknown, but Huber points out that having now resolved whether gateway opening or CO2 decline initiated glaciation, more pointed scientific inquiry can be focused on answering that question.

Huber notes that despite his team’s finding, the gateway opening theory won’t now be shelved, for that massive continental reorganization may have contributed to the CO2 drawdown by changing ocean circulation patterns that created huge upwellings of nutrient-rich waters containing plankton that, upon dying and sinking, took vast loads of carbon with them to the bottom of the sea.

New hi-tech approach to studying sedimentary basins

A radical new approach to analysing sedimentary basins also harnesses technology in a completely novel way. An international research group, led by the University of Sydney, will use big data sets and exponentially increased computing power to model the interaction between processes on the earth’s surface and deep below it in ‘five dimensions’.

As announced by the Federal Minister for Education today, the University’s School of Geosciences will lead the Basin GENESIS Hub that has received $5.4 million over five years from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and industry partners.

The multitude of resources found in sedimentary basins includes groundwater and energy resources. The space between grains of sand in these basins can also be used to store carbon dioxide.

“This research will be of fundamental importance to both the geo-software industry, used by exploration and mining companies, and to other areas of the energy industry,” said Professor Dietmar Müller, Director of the Hub, from the School of Geosciences.

“The outcomes will be especially important for identifying exploration targets in deep basins in remote regions of Australia. It will create a new ‘exploration geodynamics’ toolbox for industry to improve estimates of what resources might be found in individual basins.”

Sedimentary basins form when sediments eroded from highly elevated regions are transported through river systems and deposited into lowland regions and continental margins. The Sydney Basin is a massive basin filled mostly with river sediments that form Hawkesbury sandstone. It is invisible to the Sydney population living above it but has provided building material for many decades.

“Previously the approach to analysing these basins has been based on interpreting geological data and two-dimensional models. We apply infinitely more computing power to enhance our understanding of sedimentary basins as the product of the complex interplay between surface and deep Earth processes,” said Professor Müller.

Associate Professor Rey, a researcher at the School of Geosciences and member of the Hub said, “Our new approach is to understand the formation of sedimentary basins and the changes they undergo, both recently and over millions to hundreds of millions of years, using computer simulations to incorporate information such as the evolution of erosion, sedimentary processes and the deformation of the earth’s crust.”

The researchers will incorporate data from multiple sources to create ‘five-dimensional’ models, combining three-dimensional space with the extra dimensions of time and estimates of uncertainty.

The modelling will span scales from entire basins hundreds of kilometres wide to individual sediment grains.

Key geographical areas the research will focus on are the North-West shelf of Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean continental margins.

The Hub’s technology builds upon the exponential increase in computational power and the increasing amount of available big data (massive data sets of information). The Hub will harness the capacity of Australia’s most powerful computer, launched in 2013.

International team maps nearly 200,000 global glaciers in quest for sea rise answers

CU-Boulder Professor Tad Pfeffer, shown here on Alaska's Columbia Glacier, is part of a team that has mapped nearly 200,000 individual glaciers around the world as part of an effort to track ongoing contributions to global sea rise as the planet heats up. -  University of Colorado
CU-Boulder Professor Tad Pfeffer, shown here on Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, is part of a team that has mapped nearly 200,000 individual glaciers around the world as part of an effort to track ongoing contributions to global sea rise as the planet heats up. – University of Colorado

An international team led by glaciologists from the University of Colorado Boulder and Trent University in Ontario, Canada has completed the first mapping of virtually all of the world’s glaciers — including their locations and sizes — allowing for calculations of their volumes and ongoing contributions to global sea rise as the world warms.

The team mapped and catalogued some 198,000 glaciers around the world as part of the massive Randolph Glacier Inventory, or RGI, to better understand rising seas over the coming decades as anthropogenic greenhouse gases heat the planet. Led by CU-Boulder Professor Tad Pfeffer and Trent University Professor Graham Cogley, the team included 74 scientists from 18 countries, most working on an unpaid, volunteer basis.

The project was undertaken in large part to provide the best information possible for the recently released Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. While the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are both losing mass, it is the smaller glaciers that are contributing the most to rising seas now and that will continue to do so into the next century, said Pfeffer, a lead author on the new IPCC sea rise chapter and fellow at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

“I don’t think anyone could make meaningful progress on projecting glacier changes if the Randolph inventory was not available,” said Pfeffer, the first author on the RGI paper published online today in the Journal of Glaciology. Pfeffer said while funding for mountain glacier research has almost completely dried up in the United States in recent years with the exception of grants from NASA, there has been continuing funding by a number of European groups.

Since the world’s glaciers are expected to shrink drastically in the next century as the temperatures rise, the new RGI — named after one of the group’s meeting places in New Hampshire — is critical, said Pfeffer. In the RGI each individual glacier is represented by an accurate, computerized outline, making forecasts of glacier-climate interactions more precise.

“This means that people can now do research that they simply could not do before,” said Cogley, the corresponding author on the new Journal of Glaciology paper. “It’s now possible to conduct much more robust modeling for what might happen to these glaciers in the future.”

As part of the RGI effort, the team mapped intricate glacier complexes in places like Alaska, Patagonia, central Asia and the Himalayas, as well as the peripheral glaciers surrounding the two great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, said Pfeffer. “In order to model these glaciers, we have to know their individual characteristics, not simply an average or aggregate picture. That was one of the most difficult parts of the project.”

The team used satellite images and maps to outline the area and location of each glacier. The researchers can combine that information with a digital elevation model, then use a technique known as “power law scaling” to determine volumes of various collections of glaciers.

In addition to impacting global sea rise, the melting of the world’s glaciers over the next 100 years will severely affect regional water resources for uses like irrigation and hydropower, said Pfeffer. The melting also has implications for natural hazards like “glacier outburst” floods that may occur as the glaciers shrink, he said.

The total extent of glaciers in the RGI is roughly 280,000 square miles or 727,000 square kilometers — an area slightly larger than Texas or about the size of Germany, Denmark and Poland combined. The team estimated that the corresponding total volume of sea rise collectively held by the glaciers is 14 to 18 inches, or 350 to 470 millimeters.

The new estimates are less than some previous estimates, and in total they are less than 1 percent of the amount of water stored in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which collectively contain slightly more than 200 feet, or 63 meters, of sea rise.

“A lot of people think that the contribution of glaciers to sea rise is insignificant when compared with the big ice sheets,” said Pfeffer, also a professor in CU-Boulder’s civil, environmental and architectural engineering department. “But in the first several decades of the present century it is going to be this glacier reservoir that will be the primary contributor to sea rise. The real concern for city planners and coastal engineers will be in the coming decades, because 2100 is pretty far off to have to make meaningful decisions.”

Part of the RGI was based on the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space Initiative, or GLIMS, which involved more than 60 institutions from around the world and which contributed the baseline dataset for the RGI. Another important research data tool for the RGI was the European-funded program “Ice2Sea,” which brings together scientific and operational expertise from 24 leading institutions across Europe and beyond.

The GLIMS glacier database and website are maintained by CU-Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, or NSIDC. The GLIMS research team at NSIDC includes principal investigator Richard Armstrong, technical lead Bruce Raup and remote-sensing specialist Siri Jodha Singh Khalsa.

NSIDC is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES, a joint venture between CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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