Tag Archives: Greenland

Underworld threat to melting icecap


Concealed beneath the Petermann glacier are towering blocks of ice Image: Michael Studinger/NASA via Wikimedia Commons
Concealed beneath the Petermann glacier are towering blocks of ice
Image: Michael Studinger/NASA via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Radar images of Greenland’s glaciers have revealed a spectacular underground landscape of “skyscraper” ice blocks created by a melt-and-freeze cycle that is accelerating the reduction of the icecap

LONDON, 16 June − Researchers in the US have identified a new reason for the acceleration in the melting of Greenland’s icecap − the ice underneath, as it melts and then refreezes, appears to speed up glacial flow.

The melt-and-freeze-again cycle is not itself new, as a similar process has been diagnosed under the ice cap of Antarctica. Nor is the process itself necessarily connected with global warming. Such things must always have happened.

But Robin Bell, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, reports with colleagues in Nature Geoscience that they used ice-penetrating radar to identify ragged blocks of ice as tall as skyscrapers and as wide as the island of Manhattan at the very bottom of the ice sheet. These structures cover about a tenth of the island and seem to form as melted water below the ice freezes again. They then warp the ice around and above them.

Easier to flow

“We see more of these features where the ice sheet starts to go fast,” Professor Bell said. “We think the refreezing process uplifts, distorts and warms the ice above, making it softer and easier to flow.”

Bell and her colleagues looked at the Petermann Glacier in Greenland’s north, which in 2010 pushed a huge chunk of ice into the sea. Observations suggest that the glacier is moving twice as fast as the surrounding ice, and the hypothesis is that the melt-and-freeze-again process is contributing to this acceleration.

Researchers have been troubled for a decade or more by the apparent increase in ice loss from Greenland. Were the whole island to melt, sea levels worldwide would rise by more than seven metres, so the concern is practical.

Recently, researchers have found that the bedrock beneath many glaciers is actually below sea level, making the glaciers vulnerable from ocean inflow. They have identified a process called “dynamic thinning”, triggered by warmer air temperatures, and they know anyway that natural geothermal heat flow mis likely to melt the base of the ice and lubricate any acceleration.

They have measured a fourfold increase since 1997 in summer flow speeds in the island’s Jakobshavn glacier. And they have indicated that the Greenland icecap each summer becomes more vulnerable to melting because the snows themselves are becoming darker, as more dust blows in from areas that are increasingly ice free.

Ice slide

So the discovery of a process that will make the ice slide to the sea more efficiently is not of itself more sinister. The meltwater could come from a number of sources. The friction created by a glacier as it moves must contribute. So could natural heat flow from the bedrock. Surface ice could melt in the summer sun and drain through crevasses to the base.

However, what the discovery helps to offer, literally and metaphorically, is a deeper understanding of the processes at work below the ice.

What is not clear is whether the melt-and-freeze cycle will influence the rate at which ice is lost in future. Nor does anyone yet know what triggers the cycle.

“The conditions under which such switches occur should be investigated, as they directly affect the ability of an ice sheet to slide over its bed,” advises Joseph A. McGregor, of the University of Texas at Austin, writing in the same issue of Nature Geoscience. − Climate News Network

Dark shadow falls on melting icecap


Signs of melting as darkness falls on the Greenland icecap Image: Matthew Hoffmann/NASA ICE via Wikimedia Commons
Signs of melting can be seen as darkness descends on the Greenland icecap
Image: Matthew Hoffmann/NASA ICE via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Dust blowing in from warming areas of the Arctic is causing the Greenland icecap to melt faster by reducing the whiteness that reflects light and keeps it cool 

LONDON, 13 June − French scientists have identified a new mechanism that could cause the Greenland icecap to melt even faster – because dust is making its surface darker.

Marie Dumont, of the French national meteorological service, Météo-France, reports with colleagues in Nature Geoscience that, since 2009, the snows of the Arctic region’s biggest single permanent white space have been steadily darkened by “light-absorbing impurities” − known to the rest of the world simply as dust.

The Arctic has always been cold and white, simply because it is not just cold but is also white. The phenomenon is called albedo. Regions with a high albedo reflect light and stay cooler, so ice is a form of self-insulation.

Conversely, things that absorb light become warmer − and satellite data analysed by Dr Dumont and her fellow researchers shows that the Greenland ice is getting darker in the springtime.

They think the dust is blowing in from areas of the Arctic that are losing snow cover much earlier in the season as the climate warms. And, they calculate, this steady darkening alone has led to “significant” melting of the icecap.

This finding is ominous. What the researchers have identified is yet another case of what engineers call positive feedback. In the last 30 years, the Arctic sea ice has been in retreat, and researchers expect that, later in the century, the Arctic ocean will be entirely free of ice most summers.

Insulating layers

That means that there will be more atmospheric dust each spring, landing on the snows of Greenland and lowering its albedo even more, so the insulating layers of ice on the huge island will continue to retreat.

Researchers have twice in the last few months had to revise their predictions for the melting of the Greenland glaciers. The continued melting of the ice sheet is expected to raise global sea levels by 20cm by 2100, and since the whole ice sheet – which would take much longer to melt − holds enough frozen water to raise sea levels by more than seven metres, what happens in Greenland matters very much to maritime cities as far apart as Miami and Mumbai.

The French researchers have backed up their observations with a computer model of potential surface melt in Greenland. If a perfect reflecting surface would have a value of one, then meteorologists allot a value of 0.9 to the albedo of fresh snow. They calculate that a decrease in the albedo of even a very small ratio, such as 0.01, could lead to the melting of 27 billion tons of ice every year.

They are not saying that this is already happening, but they do argue that “future trends in light-absorbing impurities should therefore be considered in projections of Greenland’s mass loss”.

Accelerating warming

This is not the only newly-identified potential mechanism for positive feedback. A report by Laetitia Pichevin, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, Scotland, and fellow researchers, was published in the same issue of Nature Geoscience. It says that rising global temperatures could decrease the amount of carbon dioxide naturally taken up by the world’s oceans, thus also accelerating global warming. This, too, is another process that could go on accelerating.

The researchers analysed sediments laid down 26,000 years ago in the Gulf of California and measured the abundance of silicon and iron in tiny marine fossils. They found that those periods when silicon was least abundant in ocean waters coincide with relatively warmer climates, low levels of atmospheric iron, and reduced carbon dioxide uptake by the plankton in the oceans.

“We were surprised by the many ways in which iron affects the CO2 given off by the oceans,” Dr Pichevin said. “If warming climates lower iron levels at the sea surface, as occurred in the past, this is bad news for the environment.” – Climate News Network

How nature affects the carbon cycle


By Tim Radford

In Australia and the Arctic, scientists say, they have found unexpected ways in which natural processes are helping to compensate for global warming.

LONDON, 1 June – The great drylands of the planet – and they cover almost half of the terrestrial surface – may be bigger players in the carbon cycle than anyone had suspected. The world’s semi-arid regions may absorb huge volumes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere whenever it rains enough.

A greening semi-arid ecosystem in Australia's Northern Territory, a key factor the record 2011 global land carbon sink following prolonged La Niña rainfall and long-term vegetation changes  
Image: Eva van Gorsel (CSIRO)

A greening semi-arid ecosystem in Australia’s Northern Territory, a key factor in the record 2011 global land carbon sink following prolonged La Niña rainfall and long-term vegetation changes

Image: Eva van Gorsel (CSIRO)

Benjamin Poulter of Montana State University and colleagues report in Nature that they used a mix of computer-driven accounting methods to work out where the carbon goes after fossil fuel burning emits extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Decades of meticulous measurement confirm that, overall, carbon dioxide levels are increasing inexorably, and the world is warming accordingly.

But inside this big picture is a lot of seasonal and inter-annual variation. So climate scientists, when they try to work out what all this means for future climates, need to understand the carbon cycle better.

The assumption has always been that the most important terrestrial consumers of carbon dioxide were the tropical rainforests. But the match of terrestrial biogeochemical and atmospheric carbon dioxide and global carbon budget accounting models by 13 scientists from the US, Europe and Australia has revealed a different story.

In 2011 more than half of the terrestrial world’s carbon uptake was in the southern hemisphere – which is unexpected because most of the planet’s land surface is in the northern hemisphere – and 60% of this was in Australia.

Natural brake

That is, after a procession of unusually rainy years, and catastrophic flooding, the vegetation burst forth and the normally empty arid centre of Australia bloomed. Vegetation cover expanded by 6%.

Human activity now puts 10 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere annually, and vegetation in 2011 mopped up 4.1 billion tonnes of that, mostly in Australia.

There remains a great deal of uncertainty about the carbon cycle and how the soils and the trees manage the extra carbon. Nobody knows what will happen to this extra carbon now in the hot dry landscapes of Australia: will it be tucked away in the soil? Will it be returned to the atmosphere by subsequent bushfires? As scientists are fond of saying, more research is necessary.

But this is an example of negative feedback: as carbon dioxide levels and temperatures rise, the green things respond, and slow the acceleration of both. This is quite different from the positive feedback that follows when Arctic ice – which reflects sunlight – melts and gives way to blue water which absorbs solar energy, thus accelerating the melting.

But even the slow disaster of the polar regions could be accompanied by an ameliorating process. British researchers report in Nature Communications that the ice sheet meltwaters may be rich in iron. A boost of iron would stimulate phytoplankton growth, which means more carbon dioxide could accordingly be absorbed from the atmosphere.

Feeding the oceans

The scientists collected meltwater from a Greenland glacier in the summer of 2012, and then tested it to discover significant quantities of what geochemists call “bio-available” iron.

So, in another example of those cycles of the elements that make the world go round, ice that scrapes over rock also delivers vital nutrients to the sea, for marine plants to take up yet more carbon dioxide and flourish more vigorously in the oceans and keep the planet a little cooler.

The Greenland research gives scientists a chance to estimate more accurately the delivery of this dietary supplement to the oceans: they reckon somewhere between 400,000 and 2.5 million tonnes a year in Greenland and somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 tonnes in Antarctica. Or, to put it more graphically, it would be like dropping 3,000 fully-laden Boeing 747s into the ocean each year.

“The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets cover around 10% of the global land surface,” said Jon Hawkings, of the University of Bristol, UK. “Our finding that there is also significant iron discharged in runoff from large ice sheet catchments is new. This means that relatively high concentrations are released from the ice sheet all summer, providing a continuous source of iron to the coastal ocean.” – Climate News Network

Greenland ice may melt even faster



Danger zone: Aerial view of the margin of Greenland's ice sheet Image: Hannes Grobe/Alfred Wegener Institute via Wikimedia Commons

Melting away: an aerial view of the margin of Greenland’s threatened ice sheet
Image: Hannes Grobe/Alfred Wegener Institute via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Research scientists discover that the vulnerability of Greenland’s glaciers to global warming is much greater than feared, increasing the threat of rising sea levels around the globe 

LONDON, 24 May − Just days after US researchers identified geophysical reasons why West Antarctica’s glaciers are increasingly vulnerable to global warming, a partner team has pinpointed a related cause for alarm in Greenland.

Many of the bedrock crevices and canyons down which the island’s glaciers flow have basements that are below sea level. This means that as warm Atlantic waters hit the glacier fronts, the glaciers themselves become more vulnerable to global warming and increasingly likely to melt at a faster rate.

Researchers have been worried for years about rates of melting in Greenland, which is why scientific attention to the vast, ancient ice cap has been stepped up. But the latest finding suggests that what had seemed bad news could turn out to be much, much worse.

If accelerated melting does happen – and all such predictions will be tested initially by yet more research, and then ultimately by time itself – it will be the consequence of an unholy mix of man-made global warming and entirely accidental geomorphology.

The presumption is that terrestrial landforms are routinely above the sea’s highest tides. But Mathieu Morlighem, of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues – one of whom is Eric Rignot, who authored the research on West Antarctic glaciers, reported in Nature Geoscience − found that this is not always the case.

Radar soundings

They used airborne radar soundings and satellite data to show that beneath the glacial ice were valleys so deeply incised that some of them were hundreds of metres below sea level, at distances tens of kilometres from the sea.

The researchers conclude: “Our findings imply that the outlet glaciers of Greenland, and the ice sheet as a whole, are probably more vulnerable to ocean thermal forcing and peripheral thinning than inferred previously from existing numerical ice sheet models.”

The scientists, of course, could not see these new, deep slashes in the bedrock − they lie under a huge burden of locked or very slowly moving ice. To arrive at their conclusions they had to combine the satellite and radar data, and estimates of snowfall and ice melt, to build up a “mass conservation algorithm” that could reveal the secrets of the buried bedrock.

“This has major implications, because the glacier melt
will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe”

“The glaciers of Greenland are likely to retreat faster and further inland than anticipated – and for much longer – according to this very different topography we’ve discovered beneath the ice,” Morlighem said. “This has major implications, because the glacier melt will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe.”

But even before the warming seas start to lap at the rim of Greenland’s icy mountains and melt the glaciers from beneath, global warming threatens the icecaps from above. Kaitlin Keegan, of Dartmouth College in the US, and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the dramatic surface melting of the island’s ice sheet in 2012 can be explained by a combination of unprecedented temperatures linked to climate change and clouds of ash and soot from forest fires.

And since climate change is on the way and forest fires are on the increase, the process will go on, and Greenland’s icy surface will melt more often in the northern summers. By 2100, practically the whole of the Greenland ice sheet will be subject to widespread annual meltdown.

Freak weather

In July 2012, more than 97% of the Greenland ice sheet melted at the surface. This was seen as an event blamed on freak weather conditions, or perhaps as an indicator of things to come.

Forest fires were a feature of that long, hot North America summer, but their effect was more difficult to measure. Now it seems that clouds of black carbon reduced the albedo – that is, the ability of snow and ice to reflect sunshine back into space and keep itself cold. At the same time,  the warmer air of summer pushed the ground temperatures above freezing point.

The team looked at the evidence of ice cores and found signs of similar dramatic melting in 1889. They also found scatters of forest fire ash in the layers from 1868 and 1908, but the summers of these years were too cold to permit any melting of the ice sheet.

“With both the frequency of forest fires and warmer temperatures predicted to increase with climate change, widespread melt events are likely to happen much more frequently in the future,” Keegan says.  – Climate News Network

No way back for West Antarctic glaciers



Birth of an iceberg: a massive crack appears in the Pine Island glacier in West Antarctica Image: Nasa Earth Observatory via Wikimedia Commons

Birth of an iceberg: a massive crack in West Antarctica’s Pine Island glacier
Image: Nasa Earth Observatory via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Satellite data analysis reveals the ominous news that the melting glaciers of West Antarctica have passed the ‘point of no return’ as the southern hemisphere gets warmer

LONDON, 22 May – The glaciers of the West Antarctic may be in irreversible retreat, according to the evidence of satellite data analysed by scientists at the US space agency Nasa.

The study of 19 years of data, due to be reported in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, confirms the ominous news that the southern hemisphere is not just warming − it is that it is warming in a way that speeds up the melting of the West Antarctic glaciers.

Long ago, glaciologists began to wonder whether the West Antarctic ice sheet was inherently unstable. The water locked in the ice sheet in the Amundsen Sea region – the area the Nasa researchers examined − is enough to raise global sea levels by more than a metre. If the whole West Antarctic ice sheet turned to water, sea levels would rise by at least five metres.

Steady change

What the latest research has revealed is a steady change in the glacial grounding line, which is the point in a glacier’s progress towards the sea where its bottom no longer scrapes on rock but starts to float on water. It is in the nature of a glacier to flow towards the sea, and at intervals to calve an iceberg that will then float away and melt. The puzzle for scientists has been to work out whether this process has begun to accelerate.

Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine, thinks it has. He and his research partners believe that European Space Agency satellite data has recorded the points at which the grounding lines can be identified in a series of West Antarctic glaciers monitored between 1992 and 2011, as the glaciers flexed in response to the movement of tides.

All the grounding lines had retreated upstream, away from the sea − some by more than 30 kilometres. The grounding lines are all buried under hundreds of metres of ice, and are difficult to identify.

The shift of ice in response to tidal ebb and flow provides an important clue. It also signals an acceleration of melting, because it is the glacier’s slowness that keeps the sea levels static. As it inches towards the sea, there is time for more snow and ice to pile up behind it.

Speeds up

But if the water gets under the ice sheet, it reduces friction and accelerates the passage of frozen water downstream. So the whole glacier speeds up, and the grounding line moves yet further upstream.

Something similar has been reported from the glaciers of Greenland. And once the process starts, there is no obvious reason why it would stop. The melting will still be slow, but the latest evidence indicates that it seems to be inexorable.

“We’ve passed the point of no return,” Prof Rignot says. “At current melt rates, these glaciers will be history within a few hundred years.

“The collapse of this sector of West Antarctica appears to be unstoppable. The fact that the retreat is happening simultaneously over a large sector suggests it was triggered by a common cause, such as an increase in the amount of ocean heat beneath the floating sections of the glaciers. At this point, the end of this sector appears to be inevitable.” – Climate News Network

Glacier tracing goes digital



The Aletsch glacier, Switzerland, a country where the health of glaciers is vital for tourism  IMAGE: Didier Baertschiger via Wikimedia Commons

The Aletsch glacier in Switzerland, where the health of glaciers is vital for tourism
Image: Didier Baertschiger via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Detailed new maps of all the world’s glaciers have been produced to provide vital data that will help plan for the effects of climate change

LONDON, May 10 – Scientists have for the first time compiled a complete map of all the glaciers on Earth, providing extensive data that will help calculate sea level rise caused by global warming and the threats to communities that rely on melt water for agriculture and water supply.

The data, including length and volume, is contained in a collection of digital outlines of the world’s 200,000 glaciers − excluding the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets.

It has been named the Randolph Glacier Inventory, after the US town of Richmond, New Hampshire, which was one of the meeting places for the group of international scientists who carried out the study as part of the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The study has been published in the Journal of Glaciology.

Many glaciers are in extremely remote regions, such as the Himalayas and Greenland, which has made them hard to reach − let alone measure their length and thickness. A combination of large-scale efforts by volunteers on the ground and satellite technology has overcome these difficulties, enabling 70 scientists from 18 countries to compile the maps.

Overall, the glaciers cover 730,000 square km − an area the size of Germany, Poland and Switzerland combined. The volume of ice is about 170,000 cubic km, which is less than previously thought, but still enough to raise global sea levels between 35cm and 47cm if they all melted.

Sea level rise

Although this is less than 1% of the amount of water stored in the Greenland and Antarctica icecaps, it matters because most of the glaciers are melting now, actively adding to sea level rise. The two big icecaps are so cold inside that it will be thousands of years before the ice temperature rises enough to reach melting point.

Some of the most populous areas on earth, such as China, India and Pakistan, rely on melt water from glaciers for agriculture. At present, glaciers still provide plenty of summer water, but in many cases they are melting faster than winter snows are replenishing them. If this continues, the summer water flow will eventually cease, leading to calamity for the human populations that rely on them.

This is already happening in some parts of the Andes in South America, with some smaller glaciers having disappeared. The impact affects, for example, some wine-growing regions that rely on melt water for their vines.

There are still uncertainties about some of the measurements because, in some cases, glaciers are covered in debris as they move down mountains, while others are obscured by snow, making measurements of thickness more difficult.

Each glacier in the new inventory is represented by a computer-readable outline, making precise modelling of glacier-climate interactions much easier.

Glaciers currently add about one-third to existing sea level rise − about the same amount as the two giant ice sheets. The remaining third is the result of thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm.

Speed of retreat

In countries such as Switzerland, where the health of glaciers is vital for tourism, the speed of their retreat has been closely monitored. The melting is also important because it causes landslides, as well as impacting on water supply.

“The rapid shrinking of glaciers during the past 20 years is well recognisable in the Alps and other parts of the world,” said Frank Paul, a senior researcher in the University of Zurich’s Department of Geography and a co-author of the study.

Tobias Bolch, a researcher at the Institute for Cartography at the Technische Universität Dresden, Germany, is another co-author of the study. He said: “Here and in other parts of the world glaciers also impact on the regional to local-scale hydrology, natural hazards, and livelihoods in otherwise dry mountain regions.

“Accurate knowledge of water reserves and their future evolution is thus key for local authorities for early implementation of mitigation measures.” – Climate News Network

Greenland’s icecap loses stability


The calving front of the Jakobshaven Glacier in western Greenland in April 2012 Image: NASA ICE via Wikimedia Commons

The calving front of the Jakobshaven Glacier in western Greenland in April 2012
Image: NASA ICE via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Greenland is losing ice from part of its territory at an accelerating rate, suggesting that the edges of the entire ice cap may be unstable.

LONDON, 13 April – Greenland – the largest terrestrial mass of ice in the northern hemisphere – may be melting a little faster than anyone had guessed.

A region of the Greenland ice sheet that had been thought to be stable is undergoing what glaciologists call “dynamic thinning”. That is because the meltwater from the ice sheet is getting into the sea, according to a study in Nature Climate Change.

In short, Greenland’s contribution to sea level rise has been under-estimated, and oceanographers may need to think again about their projections.

Shfaqat Khan from the Technical University of Denmark and colleagues used more than 30 years of surface elevation measurements of the entire ice sheet to discover that overall loss is accelerating. Previous studies had identified melting of glaciers in the island’s south-east and north-west, but the assumption had been that the ice sheet to the north-east was stable.

Four times as fast

It was stable, at least until about 2003. Then higher air temperatures set up the process of so-called dynamic thinning. Ice sheets melt every Arctic summer, under the impact of extended sunshine, but the slush on the glaciers tends to freeze again with the return of the cold and the dark, and since under historic conditions glaciers move at the proverbial glacial pace, the loss of ice is normally very slow.

But global warming, triggered by rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, has changed all that. Greenland’s southerly glaciers have been in retreat and one of them, Jakobshavn Isbrae, is now flowing four times faster than it did in 1997.
Now the Danish-led team has examined changes linked to the 600 kilometre-long Zachariae ice stream in the north-east.

This has retreated by about 20 kms in the last decade, whereas Jakobshavn has retreated about 35 kms in 150 years. The Zachariae stream drains around one-sixth of the Greenland ice sheet, and because warmer summers have meant significantly less sea ice in recent years, icebergs have more easily broken off and floated away, which means that the ice stream can move faster. The researchers used satellite studies to measure ice loss.

“North-east Greenland is very cold. It used to be considered the last stable part of the Greenland ice sheet,” said one of the team, Michael Bevis of Ohio State University in the US.

Deep impacts

“This study shows that ice loss in the north-east is now accelerating. So now it seems that all of the margins of the Greenland ice sheet are unstable.”

The scientists used a GPS network to calculate the loss of ice. Glacial ice presses down on the bedrock below it: when the ice melts, the bedrock rises in response to the drop in pressure, and sophisticated satellite measurements can deliver enough information to help scientists put a figure on the loss of ice.

They calculate that between April 2003 and April 2012, the region was losing ice at the rate of 10 billion tons a year.

“This implies that changes at the margin can affect the mass balance deep in the centre of the ice sheet,” said Dr Khan. Sea levels are creeping up at the rate of 3.2 mm a year. Until now, Greenland had been thought to contribute about half a mm. The real figure may be significantly higher. – Climate News Network

Greenland’s fastest glacier picks up pace


An iceberg calved from the rapidly accelerating Jakobshavn Isbræ floats in Greenland's Disko Bay Image: Courtesy of Ian Joughin, PSC/APL/UW

An iceberg calved from the rapidly accelerating Jakobshavn Isbræ floats in Greenland’s Disko Bay
Image: Courtesy of Ian Joughin, PSC/APL/UW

By Tim Radford

Research from the Arctic shows Greenland’s fastest-flowing glacier has doubled its summer flow pace in a decade, and ice cover on Alaskan lakes is declining.

LONDON, 6 February – A fast-moving Arctic glacier which has earned a place in history is now accelerating even more quickly. The Jakobshavn Isbrae (the Danish word for glacier) is a massive river of ice from the Greenland ice sheet to an Atlantic ocean fjord and is thought – there is no way of proving this – to be the source of the giant iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912.

According to research published in the European Geosciences Union journal The Cryosphere, summer flow speeds have doubled yet again since a Nasa measurement in 2003. And that in turn represented a doubling of flow speeds since 1997.

The Jakobshavn glacier is Greenland’s fastest-flowing glacier. It now moves at 17 kilometres a year. That works out at 46 metres a day. With accelerations like this, phrases like “glacial pace” may no longer serve as clichés of lethargic movement. These speeds are recorded in the summer, when all glaciers are more likely to be a bit friskier. But even when averaged over the whole year, the glacier’s flow has accelerated threefold since the 1990s.

Icebergs “calve” from glaciers – they break off and drift out to sea. The Arctic ice sheet is thinning, and most of the planet’s glaciers are retreating as climates warm, so the Jakobshavn glacier is carrying less ice, at a faster rate, over shorter distances than ever before, and by the end of the century could have shifted 50 kilometres upstream. But right now it is also contributing to sea level rise at a faster rate.

“We know that from 2000 to 2010 this glacier alone increased sea level by about 1mm”, said Ian Joughin, of the Polar Science Centre at the University of Washington, who led the research. “With the additional speed it will likely contribute a bit more than this over the next decade.”

The scientists used satellite data to measure the rate of summer change in Greenland. But other satellite radar imagery has begun to reveal an ominous picture of change elsewhere in the Arctic, on the north slope of Alaska. Even during the winter months, ice on the lakes of Alaska has begun to decline. Warmer climate conditions means thinner cover on shallow lakes and a smaller fraction that freeze entirely during the winter months.

“We were stunned to observe such a dramatic ice decline during a period of only 20 years”

Cristina Surdu of the University of Waterloo in Canada and colleagues report in The Cryosphere that there has been a 22% fall in grounded ice – frozen from surface to lakebed – between 1991 and 2011.

They expected to find a decline in ice thickness when they embarked on a study of radar observations of 402 lakes near Barrow in Alaska from the European earth resources satellites ERS-1 and ERS-2. That was because they already had temperature and precipitation records from Barrow dating back five decades.

Freeze dates in the region are now occurring on average six days later than in the past, and the ice is breaking up on average around 18 days earlier.

“At the end of the analysis, when looking at trend analysis results, we were stunned to observe such a dramatic ice decline during a period of only 20 years”, Surdu said. – Climate News Network

Ocean warming narrows climate options


Sunrise at Southwold in eastern England: What is happening in the deep oceans? Image: Brenda and Ken Bent via Wikimedia Commons

Sunrise at Southwold in eastern England: What is happening in the deep oceans?
Image: Brenda and Ken Bent via Wikimedia Commons

Professor Chris Rapley is a former director of both the British Antarctic Survey and  the Science Museum in London. What the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, AR5, says about the oceans alarms him.

LONDON, 28 September – The messages are ever clearer: climate change is real, we humans are the driver, and we need to act resolutely and soon to reduce the risk of serious disruption.

The IPCC’s latest report took over 250 experts from 39 countries to sift 9,000 pieces of scientific research and address over 54,000 comments under the close scrutiny of 190 governments. The result: a fresher and sharper image of the physical state of our planet and the changes it is undergoing.

It confirms that each of the most recent three decades has been warmer than its predecessor and that the change – almost 1°C since the beginning of the last century – is significant on a timescale of ten thousand years.

In the context of an unabated planetary energy imbalance, and evidence that the 93% of the energy build-up taken up by the oceans continues to accumulate, the recent slow-down in the rise of surface temperatures, much heralded by the climate dismissers, appears a minor and temporary fluctuation.

In the meantime, the melting and retreat of polar ice shocks experts such as myself – with the loss of ice from Greenland and Antarctica both having increased by a factor of 5-6 over the decades 1990-1999 and 2000-2009.

“…we are fast losing the possibility of restricting warming to 2°C.”

The consequence? In combination with ocean thermal expansion, an accelerating rise in global mean sea level, currently running at 35 cm per century. This is already approaching one third of the rate sustained for 10,000 years during the transition from the last Ice Age to the current warm period, when sea level rose by 120 metres.

The predictions? That we are fast losing the possibility of restricting warming to 2°C. We have at most half a trillion tons of carbon left that can be burned, after which we will be committed to temperature rises outside those experienced by the planet for hundreds of thousands of years.

The scientists have done their job; now is the time for politicians to take a lead, and everyone to act.

Professor Chris Rapley CBE
Department of Earth Sciences
University College London


Note: The Global Ocean Commission says the IPCC report “shows that the ocean is shielding humanity from climate change impacts at significant cost to its own health”. Specifically, AR5 says:

- the upper part of the ocean is warming by about 0.1°C per decade
– the deep ocean is warming too, and will continue to do so for centuries even if emissions are curbed immediately
– sea levels are rising, currents are changing, the rapid shrinking of Arctic sea ice is freshening water around the region, and concentrations of dissolved oxygen are declining
– acidification will make up to half of the Arctic ocean uninhabitable for shelled animals by 2050.Climate News Network

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report


Vatnajökull in Iceland: The IPCC says humans are the main cause of recent warming Image: Andreas Tille via Wikimedia Commons

Vatnajökull in Iceland: The IPCC says humans are the main cause of recent warming
Image: Andreas Tille via Wikimedia Commons

By the editors

Summary for Policymakers of the Working Group I contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report

A note from the Climate News Network editors: we have prepared this very abbreviated version of the first instalment of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) to serve as an objective guide to some of the headline issues it covers. It is in no sense an evaluation of what the Summary says: the wording is that of the IPCC authors themselves, except for a few cases where we have added headings. The AR5 uses a different basis as input to models from that used in its 2007 predecessor, AR4: instead of emissions scenarios, it speaks of RCPs, representative concentration pathways. So it is not possible everywhere to make a direct comparison between AR4 and AR5, though the text does so in some cases, and at the end we provide a very short list of the two reports’ conclusions on several key issues. The language of science can be complex. What follows is the IPCC scientists’ language. In the following days and weeks we will be reporting in more detail on some of their findings.

In this Summary for Policymakers, the following summary terms are used to describe the available evidence: limited, medium, or robust; and for the degree of agreement: low, medium, or high. A level of confidence is expressed using five qualifiers: very low, low, medium, high, and very high, and typeset in italics, e.g., medium confidence. For a given evidence and agreement statement, different confidence levels can be assigned, but increasing levels of evidence and degrees of agreement are correlated with increasing confidence. In this Summary the following terms have been used to indicate the assessed likelihood of an outcome or a result: virtually certain 99–100% probability, very likely 90–100%, likely 66–100%, about as likely as not 33–66%, unlikely 0–33%, very unlikely 0–10%, exceptionally unlikely 0–1%. Additional terms (extremely likely: 95–100%, more likely than not >50–100%, and extremely unlikely 0–5%) may also be used when appropriate.

Observed Changes in the Climate System



Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased

Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.

For the longest period when calculation of regional trends is sufficiently complete (1901–2012), almost the entire globe has experienced surface warming.

In addition to robust multi-decadal warming, global mean surface temperature exhibits substantial decadal and interannual variability. Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends.

As one example, the rate of warming over the past 15 years, which begins with a strong El Niño, is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951.

Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950. It is very likely that the number of cold days and nights has decreased and the number of warm days and nights has increased on the global scale


Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence ). It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0−700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971.

On a global scale, the ocean warming is largest near the surface, and the upper 75 m warmed by 0.11 [0.09 to 0.13] °C per decade over the period 1971–2010. Since AR4, instrumental biases in upper-ocean temperature records have been identified and reduced, enhancing confidence in the assessment of change.

It is likely that the ocean warmed between 700 and 2000 m from 1957 to 2009. Sufficient observations are available for the period 1992 to 2005 for a global assessment of temperature change below 2000 m. There were likely no significant observed temperature trends between 2000 and 3000 m for this period. It is likely that the ocean warmed from 3000 m to the bottom for this period, with the largest warming observed in the Southern Ocean.

More than 60% of the net energy increase in the climate system is stored in the upper ocean (0–700 m) during the relatively well-sampled 40-year period from 1971 to 2010, and about 30% is stored in the ocean below 700 m. The increase in upper ocean heat content during this time period estimated from a linear trend is likely.


Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence).

The average rate of ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet has very likely substantially increased … over the period 1992–2001. The average rate of ice loss from the Antarctic ice sheet has likely increased … over the period 1992–2001. There is very high confidence that these losses are mainly from the northern Antarctic Peninsula and the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica.

There is high confidence that permafrost temperatures have increased in most regions since the early 1980s. Observed warming was up to 3°C in parts of Northern Alaska (early 1980s to mid-2000s) and up to 2°C in parts of the Russian European North (1971–2010). In the latter region, a considerable reduction in permafrost thickness and areal extent has been observed over the period 1975–2005 (medium confidence).

Multiple lines of evidence support very substantial Arctic warming since the mid-20th century.

Sea Level

The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence). Over the period 1901–2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m.

Since the early 1970s, glacier mass loss and ocean thermal expansion from warming together explain about 75% of the observed global mean sea level rise (high confidence). Over the period 1993–2010, global mean sea level rise is, with high confidence, consistent with the sum of the observed contributions from ocean thermal expansion due to warming, from changes in glaciers, Greenland ice sheet, Antarctic ice sheet, and land water storage.

Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles

The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification

From 1750 to 2011, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production have released 365 [335 to 395] GtC [gigatonnes - one gigatonne equals 1,000,000,000 metric tonnes] to the atmosphere, while deforestation and other land use change are estimated to have released 180 [100 to 260] GtC.

Of these cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions, 240 [230 to 250] GtC have accumulated in the atmosphere, 155 [125 to 185] GtC have been taken up by the ocean and 150 [60 to 240] GtC have accumulated in natural terrestrial ecosystems.

Drivers of Climate Change

The total natural RF [radiative forcing - the difference between the energy received by the Earth and that which it radiates back into space] from solar irradiance changes and stratospheric volcanic aerosols made only a small contribution to the net radiative forcing throughout the last century, except for brief periods after large volcanic eruptions.

Understanding the Climate System and its Recent Changes

Compared to AR4, more detailed and longer observations and improved climate models now enable the attribution of a human contribution to detected changes in more climate system components.

Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.

Evaluation of Climate Models

Climate models have improved since the AR4. Models reproduce observed continental-scale surface temperature patterns and trends over many decades, including the more rapid warming since the mid-20th century and the cooling immediately following large volcanic eruptions (very high confidence).

The long-term climate model simulations show a trend in global-mean surface temperature
from 1951 to 2012 that agrees with the observed trend (very high confidence). There are, however, differences between simulated and observed trends over periods as short as 10 to 15 years (e.g., 1998 to 2012).

The observed reduction in surface warming trend over the period 1998–2012 as compared to the period 1951–2012, is due in roughly equal measure to a reduced trend in radiative forcing and a cooling contribution from internal variability, which includes a possible redistribution of heat within the ocean (medium confidence). The reduced trend in radiative forcing is primarily due to volcanic eruptions and the timing of the downward phase of the 11-year solar cycle.

Climate models now include more cloud and aerosol processes, and their interactions, than at the time of the AR4, but there remains low confidence in the representation and quantification of these processes in models.

The equilibrium climate sensitivity quantifies the response of the climate system to constant radiative forcing on multi-century time scales. It is defined as the change in global mean surface temperature at equilibrium that is caused by a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration.

Equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely in the range 1.5°C to 4.5°C (high confidence), extremely unlikely less than 1°C (high confidence), and very unlikely greater than 6°C (medium confidence). The lower temperature limit of the assessed likely range is thus less than the 2°C in the AR4, but the upper limit is the same. This assessment reflects improved understanding, the extended temperature record in the atmosphere and ocean, and
new estimates of radiative forcing.

Detection and Attribution of Climate Change

Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since AR4. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together. The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.

Future Global and Regional Climate Change

Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

The global ocean will continue to warm during the 21st century. Heat will penetrate from the surface to the deep ocean and affect ocean circulation.

It is very likely that the Arctic sea ice cover will continue to shrink and thin and that Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover will decrease during the 21st century as global mean surface temperature rises. Global glacier volume will further decrease.

Global mean sea level will continue to rise during the 21st century. Under all RCP scenarios the rate of sea level rise will very likely exceed that observed during 1971–2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets.

Sea level rise will not be uniform. By the end of the 21st century, it is very likely that sea level will rise in more than about 95% of the ocean area. About 70% of the coastlines worldwide are projected to experience sea level change within 20% of the global mean sea level change.

Climate change will affect carbon cycle processes in a way that will exacerbate the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere (high confidence). Further uptake of carbon by the ocean will increase ocean acidification.

Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.

A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale, except in the case of a large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period.

Surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Due to the long time scales of heat transfer from the ocean surface to depth, ocean warming will continue for centuries. Depending on the scenario, about 15 to 40% of emitted CO2 will remain in the atmosphere longer than 1,000 years.

Sustained mass loss by ice sheets would cause larger sea level rise, and some part of the mass loss might be irreversible. There is high confidence that sustained warming greater than some threshold would lead to the near-complete loss of the Greenland ice sheet over a millennium or more, causing a global mean sea level rise of up to 7 m.

Current estimates indicate that the threshold is greater than about 1°C (low confidence) but less than about 4°C (medium confidence) global mean warming with respect to pre-industrial. Abrupt and irreversible ice loss from a potential instability of marine-based sectors of the Antarctic Ice Sheet in response to climate forcing is possible, but current evidence and understanding is insufficient to make a quantitative assessment.

Methods that aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed. Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system.

CDR methods have biogeochemical and technological limitations to their potential on a global scale. There is insufficient knowledge to quantify how much CO2 emissions could be partially offset by CDR on a century timescale.

Modelling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification.

If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing. CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale.

Then and Now

For comparison, here are the IPCC’s projections in four key areas: from the 2013 AR5, in bold – from the 2007 AR4, in regular type

Probable temperature rise by 2100: 1.5-4°C under most scenarios – from 1.8-4°C
Sea level rise: very likely faster than between 1971 and 2010 – by 28-43 cm
Arctic summer sea ice disappears: very likely it will continue to shrink and thin – in second half of century
Increase in heat waves: very likely to occur more frequently and last longer – increase very likely