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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Deep concerns as climate impacts on Gulf Stream flow

Deep concerns as climate impacts on Gulf Stream flow

Ocean scientists find evidence of an increasing slowdown in the Atlantic’s “invisible river” that could seriously affect weather and sea levels in the US and Europe.

LONDON, 25 March, 2015 − Climate scientists have once again confirmed an alarming slowdown in the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean − the process that drives the current that warms Europe, and powers the planetary climate.

And this time, they are prepared to say that the changes are recent − and may be linked to global warming.

The Atlantic Conveyor is a great invisible river that flows in two directions at the same time. The equatorial surface waters − warm, and therefore less dense − flow towards the north in the form of the Gulf Stream. Around Greenland, the denser and colder Arctic waters sink to the ocean bottom and begin their progress towards the south.

It is the difference in temperatures that maintains the turnover and keeps the climate engine going.

As a consequence, the two-way traffic of warm and cold water redistributes heat around the planet and keeps Britain and maritime Europe in relatively mild conditions.

But as global average temperatures rise, and the Greenland ice sheet melts, ocean scientists have warned that the speed of the ocean turnover could be put at risk.

Greater weakening

Stefan Rahmstorf, an ocean physicist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, is lead author of a report in Nature Climate Change that says they now have evidence of a slowdown during the 20th century, and greater weakening since the first alarms 40 years ago about the possible effects of greenhouse emissions.

“It is conspicuous that one specific area in the North Atlantic has been cooling in the past hundred years, while the rest of the world heats up,” Professor Rahmstorf says. “Now we have detected strong evidence that the global conveyor has indeed been weakening in the past hundred years, particularly since 1970.”

The paradox of the Atlantic current is that, in a warmer world, it could slow down or halt, which would deliver uncomfortable consequences for maritime Europe.

Fears of such an effect provided the scenario for the 2004 climate disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which predicated a frozen Britain and a glaciated US.

“Now we have detected strong evidence that the global conveyor has indeed been weakening in the past hundred years, particularly since 1970”

No such extreme outcome was ever likely, but the Gulf Stream certainly makes a big difference to Britain. A former UK chief scientist once calculated that it delivered 27,000 times the warmth that Britain’s power stations could supply and, as a consequence, the UK is on average 5°C warmer than it might be, given its latitude.

Strength of current

At a number of points in the last two decades, researchers have wondered about the strength of the Atlantic current, but since systematic oceanographic record-keeping began only relatively recently, they had no way of distinguishing between a natural oceanic cycle and real change.

So the Potsdam team used all available data, and “proxy temperatures” derived from ice-cores, tree-rings, coral, and ocean and lake sediments, to reconstruct the story of the Atlantic current − and, in particular, the phenomenon called the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) − for the last 1,000 years.

The changes happening now have no precedent since 900 AD, they say. And the increasingly rapid melting of the Greenland icecap – bringing an increased flow of water that is less saline and also less dense, and therefore less likely to sink − could disturb the circulation.

The consequences of all this could, they say, “contribute to further weakening of the AMOC” in the coming decades.

Atlantic Conveyor: a graph of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). Image: Stefan Rahmstorf/PIK

Atlantic Conveyor: a graph of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC).
Image: Stefan Rahmstorf/PIK

This is not the first such alarm. The same weakening was identified last year, but at the time researchers could not be sure they were not looking at a natural fluctuation.

Now they are sure, and they suspect that the cooling of the north Atlantic that they now observe is even stronger than most computer simulations have so far predicted.

“Common climate models are underestimating the change we’re facing, either because the Atlantic overturning is too stable in the models or because they don’t properly account for the Greenland ice sheet melt, or both,” says one of the co-authors, Michael Mann, professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University in the US.

Climate predictions

“That is another example where observations suggest that climate model predictions are in some respects still overly-conservative when it comes to the pace at which certain aspects of climate change are proceeding.”

Another of the authors, Jason Box, professor of glaciology at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, adds that “the human-caused mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet appears to be slowing down the Atlantic overturning − and this effect might increase if temperatures are allowed to rise further”.

The stakes are high. If the Atlantic conveyor system continues to weaken, ocean ecosystems will change, fishing communities will be affected, and some coastal cities – such as New York and Boston in the US − could be hit by additional regional sea level rises.

The 2004 Hollywood version – promoted with a huge poster of New York’s Statue of Liberty all but covered by ice – is not likely to happen. But if the ocean circulation weakens too much, there could be a relatively rapid and difficult-to-reverse change in the world’s climate system.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that there is a one-in-10 chance of this “tipping point” happening within the 21st century.

But the evidence from the Potsdam team is now likely to prompt other climate scientists to go back to their calculations and re-evaluate the risk. – 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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Temperature rise leaves dogs racing on thin ice

Temperature rise leaves dogs racing on thin ice

Alaska proudly boasts of hosting the “greatest dog sled race on Earth”, but climate change has forced a switch in the historic event’s course.

LONDON, 18 February, 2015 − The Iditarod sled race in Alaska is a 1,000-mile endurance test in which competing teams of dogs and their drivers race at dizzying speeds across the frozen tundra.

But this year’s race, due to be held in early March, has had to be re-routed due to a lack of snow. And Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with the National Climatic Data Center, says rising temperatures are to blame.

“This is a pretty big deal,” Crouch told the New York Times. “One of the things we’re seeing with climate change is that the high latitudes are experiencing the brunt of it. They’re very vulnerable.”

Seasonal increase

According to the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), temperatures in Alaska have increased by an average of 3.4˚F over the last 50 years, with winter temperatures showing the biggest seasonal increase, rising by an average of 6.3˚F over the same period.

The EPA says the rate of warming in Alaska is double the national average. Estimates are that average temperatures in the state will increase a further 3.5˚F to 7˚F by mid-century.

Deep snow – vital for what is described by Iditarod’s organisers as the greatest dog sled race on Earth – has been in particularly short supply this year, with only 19 inches falling since August on the race start near Alaska’s capital, Anchorage, compared with 50 inches normally.

“This year, you can’t go through a rock,” one of the sled drivers – who are locally known as a “mushers” – told Alaska’s Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

“There’s boulders and rocks that we’ve never seen there in 20 some years that are littering all the gorge, places that you’d never even see a rock because you’re going over feet of snow through there. This year, you’re looking at bare ground.”

For only the second time in its 43 year history, the start of the Iditarod has had to be moved away from close to Anchorage to near the city of Fairbanks, 360 miles further north.

“The Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly. It is time for the rest of the world to take notice, and also to take action . . .”

Although there was more snow for last year’s race, several competitors were forced out through injuries sustained after encountering bare rocks and gravel on the course.

Alaska has been feeling the multiple impacts of climate change for some time. Coastal erosion is increasing as protective sea ice along the shoreline is being lost, and roads built across the state’s permafrost have fractured or collapsed due to ice melt. Other infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines, is under threat.

Cracks in permafrost

Homes have collapsed due to cracks opening in the permafrost beneath them. And people are being forced to abandon traditional hunting practices due to changes in wildlife distribution brought about by changes in temperature.

At the end of last year, more than 35,000 walruses were found crowded together on a beach in northeast Alaska.

“Due to loss of ice in offshore areas, walruses are foraging in more coastal areas and using beaches for resting,” said a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the Artic,” Margaret Williams, the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic programme, told the Associated Press news agency. “And that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly.

“It is time for the rest of the world to take notice, and also to take action to address the root cause of climate 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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Climate change triggers threats to marine ecosystems

Climate change triggers threats to marine ecosystems

A two-way migration of fish species between the northern Pacific and Atlantic as oceans warm could have drastic ecological and commercial impacts.

LONDON, 7 February, 2015 − The Atlantic halibut is about to go where no Atlantic halibut has gone before – into the Pacific. And it could meet the Alaska pollock coming in the other direction.

Just as marine commerce could soon exploit the opening of the fabled north-west or north-east passages between the two great oceans, so could at least 80 species of fish.

Mary Wisz, an ecologist now with the Danish DHI group, but formerly at the Arctic Research Centre of Aarhus University in Denmark, reports with colleagues in Nature Climate Change that as sea temperatures increase, and food sources begin to flourish at the highest latitudes, shoals of fish from the Atlantic could reach the Pacific along once almost impassable seaways north of Arctic Canada and Siberia.

Northerly species

The last such large-scale transfer was nearly three million years ago, with the opening of the Bering Strait. But climate conditions that were once harsh have begun to open migration opportunities for the northerly species in both oceans, the researchers say.

Such changes have happened before. Since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Mediterranean has been invaded by 55 Red Sea species, with a “drastic impact” on commercial fisheries.

Fish are already moving north in response to climate change, and Dr Wisz and her colleagues modelled what would happen to 515 species of fish under predicted conditions of global warming later this century.

By 2050, the scientists believe, trans-Arctic traffic will accelerate, and by 2100, 41 Atlantic species − among them cod and herring − could reach the Pacific, while 44 species could get into the Atlantic.

They warn: “This exchange of fish species may trigger changes in the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, with ecological and economic consequences to ecosystems that at present contribute 39% to global marine fish landings.”

Changes to marine chemistry also threaten the balance of power in the oceans

The Danish-led team was essentially modelling temperature, currents and spawning strategies to see which species were most likely to find new grounds. But changes to marine chemistry also threaten the balance of power in the oceans.

The seas are predicted to become more acidic as more carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere, and this change in water chemistry is likely to affect not just fish and shellfish but also entire communities of creatures.

Scientists have tested the fauna that foul ships’ hulls. These are the tiny barnacles and squirts that attach themselves to hard surfaces wherever they can in the oceans.

Lloyd Peck, a biologist with the British Antarctic Survey, and colleagues report in Global Change Biology that they tested creatures from a lagoon off the Algarve in Portugal, in aquarium tanks.

One set of tanks was filled with normal sea water; in the other set, the sea water was set at levels of acidity predicted to be normal within the next 50 years. Within 100 days, in the more acid tanks, the make-up of the community that colonised the hard surfaces had begun to change.

Worms with hard shells in the more acidic tanks were reduced to a fifth of their normal levels, but sponges and sea squirts multiplied twofold and even fourfold.

“Our experiment shows the response of one biofouling community to a very rapid change in acidity,” said Professor Peck. “What’s interesting is that the increased acidity at the levels we studied destroys not only the building blocks in the outer shell of the worms itself, but the binding that holds it together.

“Many individuals perish, but we also showed their larvae and juveniles are also unable to establish and create their hard exoskeletons.”

Altered behaviour

Climate change could also alter the behaviour of the green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, according to an international team led by Professor Kyle Van Houtan, of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University, US.

The researchers studied six years of turtle observations off Oahu, Hawaii, and 24 years of satellite data for sea surface temperatures in regions that are home to 11 populations of the turtle.

They report in Biology Letters that they know why the turtles crawl up onto the beach to bask. Not all populations bask, but the ones that do tend to sprawl in the sand do so to regulate body temperatures, and were least likely to bask when local winter sea temperatures stayed above 23°C. When the seas stayed warm, the turtles stayed in the water.

Given the predicted ocean temperature rises over the next century, the scientists calculate that green turtles may stop basking altogether by 2100. – 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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