Changing climate causes weather chaos in Chile

Changing climate causes weather chaos in Chile

What is being described as an environmental catastrophe is hitting Chile as torrential rains batter the north while the south suffers prolonged drought and wildfires.

LONDON, 30 March, 2015 − The Atacama desert region of northern Chile, one of the driest areas on Earth, has been hit in recent days by torrential rains and floods that have caused deaths, swept away homes and left much of the region without power.

Meanwhile, in the usually lush southern parts of the country, wildfires are raging across lands and forests parched by the longest period of drought in living memory, endangering some of the world’s richest flora and fauna.

“We are witnessing a massive environmental catastrophe,” Luis Mariano Rendon, head of the Accion Ecologica environmental group, told the AFP news agency.

Irreparable loss

“There have been whole species lost, such as the Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle tree). They are trees that take hundreds of years to reach maturity, so this is a practically irreparable loss for current generations.”

The trees, a distant relative of the pine, are considered sacred by indigenous Mapuche people, and have been declared part of Chile’s unique natural heritage.

Scientists say the drought in the southern region – which is the powerhouse of Chile’s multi-billion dollar agricultural sector, and site of many of its famous vineyards – is a long-term trend, linked to climate change.

“There is no choice but to assume that the lack of water resources is a reality that is here to stay”

Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, says millions of dollars will have to be invested in desalination plants and new reservoirs to cope with the continuing drought. Canals and irrigation systems will also have to be upgraded.

“Faced with this critical situation,” he says, “there is no choice but to assume that the lack of water resources is a reality that is here to stay, and that puts at risk the development of important regions of the country.”

The Maipo river basin − which includes Santiago, Chile’s capital − contains nearly 40% of the country’s population and is an important area for agriculture, mining, and for power generation, much of which comes from hydroelectric sources.

Researchers, led by the Centre for Global Change at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, have been mapping the impact that climate change is likely to have on the Maipo basin.

Projections so far indicate that rainfall is likely to drop by 10% in the area over the period up to 2040, and by up to 30% by the end of the century. Meanwhile, temperatures will rise by 1˚C above the historical average over the next 25 years, and by between 2.5˚C and 3.5˚C by 2100.

Power source

The researchers have also been investigating glacier mass and melt in the Andes − the source of the bulk of the country’s water supply for millions of people in the region, and a crucial power source.

Scientists say that accelerated melting of Andean glaciers is being caused by atmospheric warming.

Water shortages are hitting not only the agricultural sector, but also mining – one of Chile’s major industries. The country is the world’s biggest producer of copper, and mining companies say they are having to invest in costly desalination plants in order to get water for processing copper concentrate from milled rock.

A drop in river levels feeding hydroelectric facilities is also leading to an increase in coal-fired power plants – a major source of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Despite the recent rains in the north of the country, scientists are warning of the dangers of desertification in the region, with the northern desert advancing further south each year. – Climate News Network

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Shrinking of ice shelves raises sea level concerns

Shrinking of ice shelves raises sea level concerns

Evidence of rapid reduction of West Antarctica’s shelf ice could have serious implications for global sea levels in a warming world.

LONDON, 29 March, 2015 – Scientists in the US report that the volume of Antarctic shelf ice is diminishing, and that there has been an 18% shrinkage in the mass of some ice floating on coastal waters over the last 18 years.

And because much of the loss has been off West Antarctica, where shelf ice helps to keep the ice sheet stable, it could mean that global sea levels will rise even faster as a result of increased glacial flow into the ocean.

The findings once again raise concern about the link between man-made emissions of greenhouse gases and the dangerous new world of global warming, climate change and sea level rise.

Fernando Paolo, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues report in the journal Science that they used continuous radar altimetry measurements − taken from three European Space Agency satellites between 1994 and 2012 − to compose a high-resolution record of shelf ice thickness.

Declined swiftly

They found that the total volume of shelf ice – the thickness multiplied by the shelf area – around Antarctica stayed more or less the same from 1994 to 2003, but then declined very swiftly.

The ice shelves of West Antarctica lost ice during the entire period, and although East Antarctica had been gaining shelf ice, these gains ceased after 2003. Some shelves had lost 18% of their volume.

“Eighteen per cent over the course of 18 years really is a substantial change,” Paolo says. “Overall, we show not only that the total ice shelf volume is decreasing, but we see an acceleration in the last decade.”

Shelf ice is frozen sea, so when it melts, it makes no difference to sea levels. But there could be an indirect effect.

“The ice shelves buttress the flow from grounded ice into the ocean, and that flow impacts sea levels rise, so that’s a key concern from our new study,” says co-author Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at the Scripps Institution.

In climate science, one such study is never enough: such conclusions need support from other studies. But the ice volume measurements are likely to add to growing concern about West Antarctica.

“The ice shelves buttress the flow from
grounded ice into the ocean, and that
flow impacts sea levels rise”

One earlier study looked at the potential loss of ice from West Antarctica by examining the “grounding lines” of the terrestrial glaciers, and found evidence of continuous and accelerating retreat. In effect, the West Antarctic ice sheet could be approaching a point of no return, scientists reported.

And a second group used other satellite measurements to calculate that ice was being lost from the southern continent at an increasing rate – around 150 cubic kilometres a year from West Antarctica.

So the Scripps study indirectly backs up earlier findings. It calculates that most mass has been lost from ice shelves in the Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas, off the coast of West Antarctica. These account for less than 20% of the total West Antarctic ice-shelf area, but contribute more than 85% of the total ice-shelf volume loss from West Antarctica.

Slow process

Were the West Antarctic ice sheet to melt completely – a long, slow process at almost any temperatures – sea levels would rise by more than three metres worldwide.

At current rates, a couple of the ice shelves off the western coast of the continent could disappear completely within 100 years, the Scripps team says.

Although the Arctic is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet, and although this warming has been directly linked to man-made climate change, the pattern of temperature shifts in the southern hemisphere has been more ambiguous.

The Scripps team have now begun to think about possible reasons for the loss of shelf ice in the far south, and one factor might be the cycle of El Niño events – natural and periodic bubbles of Pacific ocean warmth that have waxed and waned at intervals and changed the prevailing weather patterns worldwide through history.

“We’re looking into connections between El Niño events in the tropical Pacific and changes in the Antarctic ice sheet,” Paolo says. “It’s very far apart, but we know these teleconnections exist. That may ultimately allow us to improve our models for predicting future ice loss.” – Climate News Network

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Eyes in the sky see seas rising alarmingly faster

Eyes in the sky see seas rising alarmingly faster

Scientists analysing sophisticated satellite data warn that rises in sea level more rapid than expected are increasing threats to coastal cities and food security.

LONDON, 27 March, 2015 − Satellite observations show that sea level rise may have been underestimated, and that annual rises are increasing.

A collaborative effort between maritime organisations and space agencies in measuring sea level rise has come to the conclusion that it has been increasing by 3.1 millimetres a year since 1993 – higher than previous estimates.

The evidence is growing from a number of recent studies of the ice caps that sea level rise is accelerating, posing a threat to many of the world’s largest and most wealthy cities − most of which are also important ports.

Many of these in the developing world have little or no protection against rising sea levels. Some in Europe – such as London and Rotterdam − already have flood barriers to protect areas below high tide or storm surge level, but  these will need to be replaced and raised in the next 30 years.

Delta areas in Egypt, Vietnam, Bangladesh and China – vital to each of the nation’s food supply – are already losing land to the sea.

Difficult to measure

One of the problems scientists have had in getting accurate worldwide data is that the sea does not rise evenly around the globe. This, added to the fact that in some places the land is sinking and in other places is rising, makes exact information difficult to measure from tide gauges.

Since 1991, it has been possible to measure the surface of the oceans across the entire globe by using satellite altimetry, whereby the satellite emits a signal towards the ocean’s surface and receives the reflected echo. The sea level is calculated from the round-trip time between the satellite and the sea surface and the position of the satellite along its trajectory.

While the data from tide gauges provides information about local changes relative to the land, the use of altimeter satellites enables the recording of data on a global basis.

Luciana Fenoglio-Marc, a scientist specialising in physical and satellite geodesy at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, uses these and other satellite geodetic observation data in her research.

She is working with the European Space Agency and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, and in close consultation with the German Federal Institute of Hydrology and the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency of Germany.

This lends credibility to the report that European coastal cities are not sufficiently prepared for the threats that climate change poses

The increase of around 3.1mm per year since 1993 indicates a marked rise in the average sea level when compared to previously recorded values, which show a sea level rise of between 1mm and 2mm per year in the 20th century.

In its fifth Assessment Report (AR5, 2013), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted a further increase in the global sea level of 30cm to 70cm by the end of the 21st century, based on a scenario involving a medium rate of global warming.

The report predicted that increases will not be even, but will have a greater impact on some regions than on others. The result could be coastal flooding and rising groundwater levels – an outlook that makes it essential to have a reliable data basis for dealing with the dangers this poses.

Protecting coasts from the rising seas will require considerable adaptations, particularly in such low-lying coastal regions as the North Sea coast of Germany and the many low-lying islands in the tropics.

Another aspect of the work with satellites is measuring ocean density to see how much water expansion − because of warming − is leading to sea level rise. A direct estimation of mass changes in the Mediterranean Sea show expansion to be the cause of an average sea level rise of about 2.1mm per year since 1993.

According to the IPCC, about 35% of the sea level increase between 1993 and 2010 was the result of thermal expansion, and the rest was due to melting ice and increasing run-off from land. But the latest observation shows this may not be true of the Mediterranean.

Too cautious

There is wide debate about whether the IPCC estimates of sea level rise have been too cautious, suggesting that the sea level will rise more than a metre this century – and some have even suggested that the rise could be two metres.

This is mainly because there has been uncertainty about how much of the huge icecap in Greenland, and most of all in Antarctica, would contribute to sea level rise by 2100 – if at all.

Research published since the IPCC estimates were made show that both icecaps will be large net contributors to sea level rise, and possibly much quicker than previously thought.

This lends credibility to the report last week that European coastal cities are not sufficiently prepared for the threats that climate change poses. The report − titled Underfunded, Unprepared, Underwater? Cities at Risk – is by the E3G non-governmental organisation, and it says governments across the European Union are leaving their major cities exposed to danger from climate change, including floods, heat waves and sea level rise.

Since it takes an average of 30 years from planning to complete construction of a major flood barrier to protect a city, the report warns that the problem needs to be given urgent consideration and funding. – Climate News Network

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More Antarctic warmth creates heavier snowfall

More Antarctic warmth creates heavier snowfall

Rising temperatures may result in more snow falling in Antarctica, with the ice that builds up flowing to the ocean and raising sea levels.

LONDON, 16 March, 2015 – It may sound unlikely, but the evidence is mounting that the more the Antarctic warms under the impact of climate change, the more snow will fall on it.

Not only that, says a team of European and US scientists, but as the snow turns to ice it is going to flow downhill, borne by its own weight, and contribute to rising sea levels.

The impact of this paradoxical process is likely to be significant. The team, led by scientists from Germany‘s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), says each degree Celsius of warming in the region could increase Antarctic snowfall by about 5%.

Ice-core data

The research, published in Nature Climate Change, builds on high-quality ice-core data and fundamental laws of physics captured in global and regional climate model simulations.

The suggestion that Antarctic snowfall is increasing is not itself new, though not all scientists accept the data without qualification.

What the Potsdam scientists have done is important, not simply because they provide new evidence to support the contention, but because they explore its potential consequences.

Katja Frieler, climate impacts and vulnerabilities researcher at PIK, and lead author of the report, says: “Warmer air transports more moisture, and hence produces more precipitation. In cold Antarctica, this takes the form of snowfall. We have now pulled a number of various lines of evidence together and find a very consistent result: temperature increase means more snowfall on Antarctica.”

To reach a robust estimate, the PIK scientists collaborated with colleagues in the Netherlands and the US.

“Ice-cores drilled in different parts of Antarctica provide data that can help us understand the future,” says co-author Peter U. Clark, professor of geology and geophysics at Oregon State University.

“The Antarctic ice sheet could become a major contributor to future sea-level rise, potentially affecting millions of people in coastal areas” 

“Information about the snowfall spanning the large temperature change during the last deglaciation [the uncovering of land by the melting of glaciers], 21,000 to 10,000 years ago, tells us what we can expect during the next century.”

The researchers combined the ice-core data with simulations of the Earth’s climate history and comprehensive future projections by different climate models, and were able to pin down temperature and accumulation changes in warming Antarctica.

The increasing snowfall on the continent will add to the mass of the ice sheet and increase its height.

But the researchers say it won’t stay there. On the basis of another previous PIK study, they say the extra snow will also increase the amount of ice flowing to the ocean.

Dr Frieler says: “Under global warming, the Antarctic ice sheet, with its huge volume, could become a major contributor to future sea-level rise, potentially affecting millions of people living in coastal areas.”

Additional snowfall

As snow piles up on the ice, its weight presses down – the higher the ice, the greater the pressure. Additional snowfall elevates the grounded ice-sheet on the Antarctic landmass, but has less of an effect on the floating ice shelves at the coast, allowing the inland ice to flow more rapidly into the ocean and raise sea levels, the researchers say.

The 5% increase in Antarctic snowfall that they expect for every 1°C rise in temperature would mean an estimated drop in sea-level of about three centimetres after a century.

But they say other processes will cause an eventual rise in sea-level. For example, relatively slight warming of the ocean could cause coastal ice to break off more easily, allowing more of the continental ice mass to discharge into the ocean.

Another co-author is Anders Levermann, PIK professor of dynamics of the climate system, and also a lead author of the sea-level rise chapter in the latest report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He says: “If we look at the big picture, these new findings don’t change the fact that Antarctica will lose more ice than it will gain, and that it will contribute to future sea-level change.” – Climate News Network

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Arctic melting opens sea route to more pollution

Arctic melting opens sea route to more pollution

Increasing loss of Arctic sea ice is likely soon to mean more ships being able to use the polar passage affecting climate, health and air quality.

LONDON, 14 February, 2015 − As Arctic sea ice continues to melt at an alarming rate, maritime traffic is set to increase − and with it the pollution emitted by ships’ engines.

A paper published by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) says emissions of pollutants from vessels in the US area of the high Arctic could increase by between 150% and 600% by 2025.

Ships typically burn bunker fuel with a high sulphur content. As well as various greenhouse gases (GHGs), the engines also emit soot, or black carbon. And when this covers snow and ice, it reduces their ability to reflect sunlight away from the Earth, and so raises temperatures.

Human health

The ICCT paper says ship-borne pollutants − which include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide (NOX), oxides of sulphur, particulate matter (PM) and soot − affect local air quality and human health, as well as the global climate.

Without new pollution controls, it is estimated that global soot emissions from shipping may more than quintuple from 2004 to 2050, to a total of more than 744,000 tonnes, because of increased shipping demand.

A growing share of those emissions will occur in the Arctic, because of vessels being diverted to the much shorter Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage to cut the length of voyages.

Earlier studies of increased shipping in the Arctic concentrated on infrastructure needs and estimates of shipping growth, based on potential oil and gas exploration and other development, but did not address air pollution or its effects.

The paper says: “The potential increases in vessel activity associated with oil and gas exploration . . . would increase emissions from vessels beyond those estimated in this paper.”

It also says that a change to higher quality low-sulphur fuel would cut pollution significantly.

“The lack of regional restrictions in the Arctic leaves the area vulnerable to increasing emissions from international traffic . . .”

Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, US, advised as long ago as 2011 that controlling soot could reduce warming in the Arctic by about 2°C within 15 years.

“That would virtually erase all of the warming that has occurred in the Arctic during the last 100 years,” he said. “No other measure could have such an immediate effect.”

He said soot emissions were second only to carbon dioxide in promoting global warming, accounting for about 17% of the extra heat. But its contribution could be cut by 90% in five to 10 years with aggressive national and international policies.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO], a UN body, said in the final report of its GHG Study 2014 that, by 2050, emissions of NOX could increase globally by as much as 300%, and PM by 280%.

The IMO has two sets of emission and fuel quality requirements, one for global shipping and the other a more stringent set of rules for ships in Emission Control Areas.

The global requirements include a limit on marine bunker fuel sulphur content, which is currently 3.5%, compared with an actual global average of 2.7%. This limit is due to be cut to 0.5% in 2020, although parts of the shipping industry are urging the IMO to delay the reduction until at least 2025.

International regulations do not directly restrict the emission of soot from vessels, although it is generally understood that improving fuel quality also controls soot.

Increasing impact

The ICCT paper says that, combined with the potential increases in marine emissions, “the current lack of regional environmental requirements for vessels transiting and operating in the US Arctic may lead to an increasing impact on human health for Arctic communities and for the global climate.

“Additional emissions of climate-forcing pollutants such as black carbon and carbon dioxide, combined with emissions of PM and NOX, which can be linked with respiratory health issues, may place additional stress on the Arctic environment and Arctic communities.

“The lack of regional restrictions in the Arctic leaves the area vulnerable to increasing emissions from international traffic that is less tightly regulated than under US law.”

There have also been calls to find alternatives to the many diesel generators currently in use throughout Arctic communities, and which are known to produce large amounts of greenhouse gases and soot. − Climate News Network

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Ancient shells offer evidence of how Ice Age ended

Ancient shells offer evidence of how Ice Age ended

Ocean sediment reveals that release of carbon stored deep in the sea is linked to the rise in atmospheric CO2 that caused the world to warm.

LONDON, 13 February, 2015 − Scientists believe they may have cracked the mystery of the end of the last ice age. The temperatures suddenly soared, and the glaciers went into retreat, because the deep southern ocean released huge quantities of carbon dioxide.

And the convincing answers have been delivered by analysis of the composition of calcium carbonate shells of ancient marine organisms.

The link between human burning of fossil fuels and the steady rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was proposed more than a century ago and firmly established in the last 30 years.

But the ups and downs of planetary temperatures before the emergence of human civilisation are harder to explain. Fossil evidence suggests a link with carbon dioxide levels, but not necessarily a cause.

Bygone climates

Now paleoceanographer Miguel Martínez-Botí, from the University of Southampton, UK, and ocean and climate change researcher Gianluca Marino, from the Australian National University, report in Nature that they found their evidence in sediment cores – in effect, annual records of bygone climates – rich in the shells of tiny foraminifera called Globigerina bulloides.

This is a species that flourishes in conditions of high nutrients, acting as a kind of biological pump, gulping carbon from the atmosphere.

They found that high concentrations of carbon dioxide dissolved in surface waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean and the eastern equatorial Pacific coincided with rises in atmospheric CO2 at the end of the last ice age.

The implication is that these regions were the source of the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

“Our findings support the theory that a series of processes in the Southern Ocean changed the amount of carbon in the deep sea”

At their coldest, during the ice ages, carbon dioxide levels fell to 185 parts per million. During the interglacials, when the world warmed and lions and hyenas roamed the plains of Europe, the carbon dioxide levels rose to 280 ppm.

Right now, thanks to human activity, CO2 levels are rising ominously towards 400 ppm.

The oceans are home to about 60 times more carbon than the atmosphere and can, it seems, surrender it rapidly.

“The magnitude and rapidity of the swings in atmospheric CO2 across the ice age cycles suggest that changes in ocean carbon storage are important drivers of natural atmospheric CO2 variations,” Dr Martínez-Botí says.

“Our findings support the theory that a series of processes operating in the southernmost sector of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, a region known as the Southern Ocean, changed the amount of carbon in the deep sea.

Into the abyss

“While a reduction in communication between the deep sea and the atmosphere in this region potentially locks carbon away from the atmosphere into the abyss during ice ages, the opposite occurs during warm interglacial periods.”

To arrive at their conclusion, the scientists had to analyse subtle evidence from the isotopic composition of the carbonate shells, and then use mathematical techniques to reconstruct a story of a great, faraway sigh of carbon dioxide from the ocean to the atmosphere.

The finding, based on calculated probabilities, is incomplete as there may have been other forces also at play.

Gavin Foster, associate professor in isotope geochemistry at the University of Southampton, says: “While our results support a primary role for the Southern Ocean processes in these natural cycles, we don’t yet know the full story. Other processes operating in other parts of the ocean, such as the north Pacific, may have an additional role to play.” – Climate News Network

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Growing concern over Iceland’s rising landmass

Growing concern over Iceland’s rising landmass

Satellite data confirms a global warming link between the melting of icecaps and an accelerating increase in the height of Icelandic hills.

LONDON, 10 February, 2015 − Iceland is certainly going up in the world − but that’s not necessarily good news. As the ice melts and glaciers retreat, the mantle below the crust of the Atlantic island has responded, and the ice-capped hills are rising by an average of 30mm a year.

And scientists says that their analysis of precision data from a network of satellite stations indicates that this uplift is accelerating by one or two millimetres a year.

Isostasy is not a new idea. Geologists have known for more than a century that the rigid plates of the Earth’s crust − the lithosphere − ride on a viscous, springy mantle called the asthenosphere.

As crustal mass is lost – the erosion of mountains, for instance, or the retreat of Ice Age glaciers – the asthenosphere responds, and the landmass rises. Similarly, when a volcanic cone is built by a series of rapid eruptions, the asthenosphere below starts to respond to the new burden by sinking.

Heaving and sinking

The principle is well established, and there is geological evidence of this slow heaving and sinking everywhere. But nobody had expected to be able to measure it as it happens.

Kathleen Compton,  of the University of Arizona’s Department of Geosciences, and colleagues report in Geophysical Research Letters that they used a network of 62 global positioning satellite stations to measure ground movements with exquisite accuracy.

They chose a set of stable icecaps away from the more active volcanic zones, to eliminate the heaving and sighing of the bedrock that is connected with eruption. Enough data was available from early installations of GPS stations to confirm that uplift from the end of the last ice age about 9,000 years ago was more or less at an end.

“What we’re observing is climatically-induced change in the Earth’s surface”

A glacier year that began in October and ended in September was chosen, so that measurements would not be confused by spring melting or early snowfall.

In the last 30 years, the world has warmed and the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere have warmed the fastest. The Arctic melting season has been advancing at the rate of about 17 days a decade.

The researchers’ measurements show that uplift began about 30 years ago, with some sites in Iceland now rising at 35mm a year. And this rate is increasing.

“Our research makes the connection between recent accelerated uplift and the accelerated melting of the Icelandic ice caps,” said Compton, a doctoral student.

“Iceland is the first place we can say accelerated uplift means accelerated ice loss,” said her co-author, associate professor Richard Bennett. “What we’re observing is climatically-induced change in the Earth’s surface.”

Volcanic activity

There is a tantalising possibility that they may also be observing a change in volcanic activity. Geological evidence suggests that, as the glaciers began to retreat 12,000 years ago, Iceland’s eruptions increased thirty-fold.

Other researchers have raised the possibility that warming-induced ice loss could increase the frequency of eruptions now.

But the Arizona team simply wanted to establish a connection between the rate of melting and the rate of uplift, and used mathematical models to confirm the coupling.

Dr Bennett says: “There’s no way to explain that accelerated uplift unless the glacier is disappearing at an accelerating rate.” – Climate News Network

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Greenland’s hidden meltwater lakes store up trouble

Greenland’s hidden meltwater lakes store up trouble

Scientists find evidence of vast “storage tanks” of water deep below the melting Greenland ice sheet that could have a major effect on sea level rise.

LONDON, 5 February, 2015 − One small mystery that surrounds Greenland’s melting ice is a little closer to being solved as scientists in the US confirm that surface meltwater can drain all the way down to fill concealed lakes under the ice.

This means that atmospheric warming can reach thousands of metres below the ice sheet − warming the glacial base and potentially increasing its rate of flow.

One group, led by geologist Michael Willis, of Cornell University, and another team led by glaciologist Ian Howat, of Ohio State University, report in two different journals on separate but related studies of Greenland’s plumbing system: what happens to meltwater.

The ice sheet of Greenland adds up to about four-fifths of the mass of the vast frozen island, and there is evidence that, as a consequence of global warming, the rate of melting has begun to accelerate.

Measurable difference

This has already begun to make a measureable difference to global sea levels, and were the entire island to shed its burden of ice – a process that would take a considerable time − then sea levels would rise by seven metres or more.

So what exactly happens to the water that forms on the surface and collects in lakes each summer, and how much of it gets into the sea, has become an important but perplexing problem. Surface lakes are now appearing much further inland, and at higher altitudes, than recorded in the past.

Dr Howat and his colleagues report in The Cryosphere that they measured a two kilometre-wide depression 70 metres deep in the icecap of southwest Greenland, which they then identified as “the first direct evidence for concentrated long-term storage and sudden release of meltwater at the bed”.

The slumped crater suggested a holding capacity of more than 30 million cubic metres of water, which had suddenly drained away.

“If we are going to do something to mitigate sea level rise, we need to do it earlier rather than later”

“The fact that our lake appears to have been stable for at least several decades, and then drained in a matter of weeks – or less – after a few very hot summers, may signal a fundamental change happening to the ice sheet,” Dr Howat said.

The Cornell team worked in northeast Greenland, and in 2011 found a collapsed basin 70 metres deep. Dr Willis and colleagues report in Nature journal that between 2011 and 2014 they watched as summer meltwater made its way down fissures in the depression and refilled a lake basin at the base of the icecap. When this in turn emptied, the researchers calculated that the flow from the subglacial lake was at a rate of 215 cubic metres per second.

“We’re seeing surface meltwater make its way to the base of the ice where it can get trapped and stored at the boundary between the bedrock beneath the ice sheet and the ice itself,” they say.

“As the lake beneath the ice fills with surface meltwater, the heat released by this trapped meltwater can soften surrounding ice, which may eventually cause an increase in ice flow.”

Glacial flow

The researchers do not yet know whether the draining water is increasing glacial flow, and nor can they be sure how many such depressions in the Greenland ice mask buried meltwater storage tanks.

But melting of glacial ice is likely to accelerate anyway, according to new research in the journal Climate Dynamics.

Earth scientist Patrick Applegate, of Penn State University, reports that computer models confirm that the more temperatures increase, the faster the ice will melt.

Were all Greenland’s ice to melt, sea levels would rise catastrophically. At least one billion people live on coasts and estuaries vulnerable to a mere one metre rise.

The Arctic is already the fastest warming place in the northern hemisphere, and the Penn State scientists wanted to see how present warming could play back into future warming. Engineers call this positive feedback.

“If we are going to do something to mitigate sea level rise, we need to do it earlier rather than later,” Dr Applegate said. “The longer we wait, the more rapidly the changes will take place and the more difficult it will be to change.” − Climate News Network

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Arctic glacier’s galloping melt baffles scientists

Arctic glacier’s galloping melt baffles scientists

New satellite data analysis has produced evidence that rapid melting in the last three years has caused dramatic shrinkage of an Arctic ice cap.

LONDON, 31 January, 2015 – An ice cap in the high Arctic has lost what British scientists say is a significant amount of ice in an unusually short time.

It has thinned by more than 50 metres since 2012 – about one sixth of its original thickness – and the ice flow is now 25 times faster, accelerating to speeds of several kilometres per year.

Over the last two decades, thinning of the Austfonna ice cap in the Svalbard archipelago − , roughly half way between Norway and the North Pole − has spread more than 50km inland, to within 10km of the summit. .

A team led by the scientists from the UK Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at the University of Leeds combined observations from eight satellite missions, including Sentinel-1A and CryoSat, with results from regional climate models, to understand what was happening.

Sea level rise

The study’s lead author, geophysicist Dr Mal McMillan, a member of the CPOM team, said: “These results provide a clear example of just how quickly ice caps can evolve, and highlight the challenges associated with making projections of their future contribution to sea level rise.”

The study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, is the first to make use of measurements from the European Space Agency’s latest Earth observation satellite, Sentinel-1A.

Dr McMillan said: “New satellites, such as the Sentinel-1A and CryoSat missions, are essential for enabling us to systematically monitor ice caps and ice sheets, and to better understand these remote polar environments.”

“Whether or not the warmer ocean water
and ice cap behaviour are directly linked
remains an unanswered question”

Melting ice caps and glaciers account for about a third of recent global sea level rise. Although scientists predict that they will continue to lose ice in the future, determining the exact amount is difficult, because of a lack of observations and the complex nature of how they interact with the climate around them.

The 20 years of satellite data that the scientists have amassed show some fairly small changes at the start of the study period, but these have since increased.

“Glacier surges, similar to what we have observed, are a well-known phenomenon”, said Professor Andrew Shepherd, the director of CPOM. “What we see here is unusual because it has developed over such a long period of time, and appears to have started when ice began to thin and accelerate at the coast.”

There is evidence that the surrounding ocean temperature has increased in recent years, which may have been the original trigger for the ice cap thinning.

Flow models

Prof Shepherd said: “Whether or not the warmer ocean water and ice cap behaviour are directly linked remains an unanswered question. Feeding the results into existing ice flow models may help us to shed light on the cause, and also improve predictions of global ice loss and sea level rise in the future.”

The team says long-term observations by satellites are the key to monitoring such climate-related phenomena.

Dr McMillan told Climate News Network he did not think what was happening in Austfonna suggested any sort of tipping point in the Arctic, which scientists say is warming more than twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth.

He said: “What I take from this work is that we don’t understand well enough what’s caused this sort of behaviour − natural variability, ocean temperatures or atmospheric temperatures. It reinforces the complexities and the challenges of the future.” – Climate News Network

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Increased carbon spill from glaciers sets new puzzle

Increased carbon spill from glaciers sets new puzzle

Samples taken from five continents indicate that a big rise in organic carbon released by melting glaciers could have serious implications for ecosystems.

LONDON, 28 January, 2015 − Researchers in the US have calculated that, thanks to climate change, melting glaciers will have spilled an extra 15 million tonnes of organic carbon into the seas by 2050.

The consequences for the ecosystems that depend on glacial meltwater are uncertain, but this burden of biological soot and sediment has potential implications for the global carbon cycle as well.

The researchers estimate that the dissolved organic carbon released by melting glaciers will be an increase of half as much again on the current flow − the equivalent of about half the annual flow of dissolved carbon down the mighty Amazon River. And their calculations have identified another puzzle for climate scientists trying to understand the carbon cycle.

The planet’s glaciers and ice sheets cover about 11% of the planet’s surface and hold about 70% of the world’s fresh water. Spread thinly through this frozen water is a significant amount of biological carbon, with the Antarctic ice sheet alone hosting 6 billion tonnes of it.

Increased meltwater

It is safe for the time being, but mountain glaciers almost everywhere in the world are in retreat, and meltwater flow from the glaciers that drain the Greenland icecap is on the increase.

Eran Hood, professor of environmental science at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, and colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that they developed a database of dissolved organic carbon found in 300 samples collected from glaciers on five continents.

Some of it was clearly preserved from living things on the ice itself, some of was scraped up as the glaciers moved over old soils, and some of it was soot from fossil fuel combustion or distant forest fires.

There was a wide spread of carbon concentrations in the samples, but it was enough to estimate a global average.

“We know we are losing glaciers, but what does that mean for marine life, fisheries, things downstream
that we care about?”

They also knew that Greenland and Antarctic icebergs delivered 4,250 billion tonnes of water to the oceans each year, and that the run-off from retreating mountain glaciers was somewhere between 369-905 billion tonnes.

So they could begin to make an estimate of the rate at which dissolved organic carbon is re-entering the planetary system, and perhaps augmenting the carbon cycle.

The carbon cycle underwrites all life: plants and microbes withdraw carbon from the atmosphere and some of it gets stored in the soilspreserved as peat, or locked away as rock, or frozen as ice to be returned to the planetary system in all sorts of ways,

New questions

Research like this is basic: it adds another detail or two to an understanding of how the planet works. It starts to answer existing questions − but it also raises new ones.

“This research makes it clear that glaciers represent a substantial reservoir of organic carbon,” said Dr Hood. “As a result, the loss of glacier mass worldwide, along with the corresponding release of carbon, will affect high latitude marine ecosystems, particularly those surrounding the major ice sheets that now receive fairly limited land-to-ocean fluxes of carbon.”

His co-author Robert Spencer, assistant professor of oceanography at Florida State University, said: “The thing people have to think about is what this means for the Earth. We know we are losing glaciers, but what does that mean for marine life, fisheries, things downstream that we care about?” – Climate News Network

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