Tag Archives: Glaciers

Greenland’s icecap melt picks up speed

Recent melting of Greenland’s icecap has been more intense than ever. And all the signs are that it could get worse.

LONDON, 13 December, 2018 – Greenland’s icecap – the largest single store of frozen freshwater in the northern hemisphere – is melting faster than ever, according to two separate studies using two different approaches.

Surface meltwater started flowing over the surface and percolating through the ice at a greater rate in the mid-19th century and accelerated dramatically during the 20th and the first decades of the 21st century, according to a new study of ice cores taken more than 2,000 metres above sea level.

And a 25-year record of European Space Agency satellite data confirms the alarming picture: the elevation of the Greenland ice sheet was changing in the mid-1990s, and the pace of thinning stepped up after 2003. Greenland’s bedrock carries enough ice to raise global sea levels by around seven metres.

“Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet has gone into overdrive. As a result, Greenland melt is adding to sea level more than at any time in the last three and a half centuries, if not thousands of years,” said Luke Trusel, a glaciologist at Rowan University in the US.

“And increasing melt began around the same time as we started altering the atmosphere in the mid 1800s.”

“The melting and sea level rise we’ve observed will already be dwarfed by what may be expected in the future”

His co-author Sarah Das of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said: “From a historical perspective, today’s melt rates are off the charts, and this study provides the evidence.”

Snow falls on the great icecaps of the two hemispheres, freezes, melts a little in the summer and freezes again, so that – like the rings of a tree – the accumulated precipitation tells a story of successive years of climate change. The two researchers and their colleagues report in Nature that ice cores taken from the icecap between 2003 and 2015 contained enough information for them to assess annual melting rates over several centuries.

They found a clear pattern of more intense melting nearer the present, and over the last 20 years the intensity increased by between 250% and 575%, compared to the 18th century. In the last century the entire planet has warmed by around 1°C as greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere have risen, in response to ever greater use of fossil fuels.

The message for the future is ominous. “Rather than increasing steadily as climate warms, Greenland will melt increasingly more and more for every degree of warming,” said Dr Trusel. “The melting and sea level rise we’ve observed will already be dwarfed by what may be expected in the future as climate continues to warm.”

Greenland has served for decades as a climate laboratory: change almost imperceptible in lower latitudes can be measured almost on a yearly basis in the high fastnesses of the island, and the Nature study is only the latest twist in a story that is already alarming.

Dangers identified

Scientists long ago took the measure of change on the ice cap, in the glaciers and at the boundary with the Atlantic, and identified the dangers of accelerated warming in the Arctic.

They monitored unexpected increases in the flow of the island’s biggest glaciers, monitored the way the island’s bedrock rose in response to an increased loss of ice, and even identified those reaches of ice that had passed the point of no return.

The Nature scientists backed up their on-the-ground observations with measurements made by satellites. And in an entirely separate study, European researchers report in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters that, according to their readings too, the elevation of the icecap had begun to change in ways that enabled them to measure ice loss with the decades, and a recent speed-up.

“A pattern of thinning appears to dominate a large fraction of the ice sheet margins at the beginning of the millennium, with individual outlet glaciers exhibiting large thinning rates,” said Louise Sandberg Sørenson, of the Danish National Space Institute, who led the research.

“Over the full 25-year period, the general picture shows much larger volume losses are experienced in west, northwest and southeast basins of Greenland, compared to the more steady-state situations in the colder north.” – Climate News Network

Recent melting of Greenland’s icecap has been more intense than ever. And all the signs are that it could get worse.

LONDON, 13 December, 2018 – Greenland’s icecap – the largest single store of frozen freshwater in the northern hemisphere – is melting faster than ever, according to two separate studies using two different approaches.

Surface meltwater started flowing over the surface and percolating through the ice at a greater rate in the mid-19th century and accelerated dramatically during the 20th and the first decades of the 21st century, according to a new study of ice cores taken more than 2,000 metres above sea level.

And a 25-year record of European Space Agency satellite data confirms the alarming picture: the elevation of the Greenland ice sheet was changing in the mid-1990s, and the pace of thinning stepped up after 2003. Greenland’s bedrock carries enough ice to raise global sea levels by around seven metres.

“Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet has gone into overdrive. As a result, Greenland melt is adding to sea level more than at any time in the last three and a half centuries, if not thousands of years,” said Luke Trusel, a glaciologist at Rowan University in the US.

“And increasing melt began around the same time as we started altering the atmosphere in the mid 1800s.”

“The melting and sea level rise we’ve observed will already be dwarfed by what may be expected in the future”

His co-author Sarah Das of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said: “From a historical perspective, today’s melt rates are off the charts, and this study provides the evidence.”

Snow falls on the great icecaps of the two hemispheres, freezes, melts a little in the summer and freezes again, so that – like the rings of a tree – the accumulated precipitation tells a story of successive years of climate change. The two researchers and their colleagues report in Nature that ice cores taken from the icecap between 2003 and 2015 contained enough information for them to assess annual melting rates over several centuries.

They found a clear pattern of more intense melting nearer the present, and over the last 20 years the intensity increased by between 250% and 575%, compared to the 18th century. In the last century the entire planet has warmed by around 1°C as greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere have risen, in response to ever greater use of fossil fuels.

The message for the future is ominous. “Rather than increasing steadily as climate warms, Greenland will melt increasingly more and more for every degree of warming,” said Dr Trusel. “The melting and sea level rise we’ve observed will already be dwarfed by what may be expected in the future as climate continues to warm.”

Greenland has served for decades as a climate laboratory: change almost imperceptible in lower latitudes can be measured almost on a yearly basis in the high fastnesses of the island, and the Nature study is only the latest twist in a story that is already alarming.

Dangers identified

Scientists long ago took the measure of change on the ice cap, in the glaciers and at the boundary with the Atlantic, and identified the dangers of accelerated warming in the Arctic.

They monitored unexpected increases in the flow of the island’s biggest glaciers, monitored the way the island’s bedrock rose in response to an increased loss of ice, and even identified those reaches of ice that had passed the point of no return.

The Nature scientists backed up their on-the-ground observations with measurements made by satellites. And in an entirely separate study, European researchers report in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters that, according to their readings too, the elevation of the icecap had begun to change in ways that enabled them to measure ice loss with the decades, and a recent speed-up.

“A pattern of thinning appears to dominate a large fraction of the ice sheet margins at the beginning of the millennium, with individual outlet glaciers exhibiting large thinning rates,” said Louise Sandberg Sørenson, of the Danish National Space Institute, who led the research.

“Over the full 25-year period, the general picture shows much larger volume losses are experienced in west, northwest and southeast basins of Greenland, compared to the more steady-state situations in the colder north.” – Climate News Network

Underwater walls might avert sea level rise

Could a vast underwater wall in front of an unstable glacier prevent dangerous sea level rise? Or should everyone just move further inland?

LONDON, 10 October, 2018 – Two climate scientists believe they have a long-term solution to dangerous sea level rise by targeting the most vulnerable glaciers, especially those that could trigger a massive collapse of the ice sheets behind them.

A submarine wall big enough and wide enough could halt the flow of increasingly warm ocean water below the front of each glacier. The combination of warmer air temperatures and warmer waters that accompany human-triggered climate change is dangerous: it could for instance accelerate the already alarming retreat of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, which alone shores up enough ice to raise global sea levels by up to 3 metres.

The scientists don’t propose an immediate start. But they do want to explore ways of halting sea level rise driven by global warming that could soon be costing the world $50 trillion a year in economic losses, that could submerge small island states and turn 1 million people a year into climate migrants.

“We are not advocating that glacial geoengineering be attempted any time soon”, they warn in the journal The Cryosphere.

Their simplest option – a series of pillars to shore up a targeted glacier and keep it “grounded” – would require engineering comparable in scale to the excavation of the Suez canal, would be undertaken in the world’s harshest environment, and would have just a one in three chance of success.

“In the long run we need plans to deal with the committed climate changes that are already in the pipeline, one of which may be an ice sheet collapse”

The researchers – John Moore, of Beijing Normal University in China, who also holds a post at the University of Lapland in Finland, and Michael Wolovick, of Princeton University in the US – have made this case before: they and others argued in March in Nature for what they call “managed collapse.”

In the latest study, they look at the challenge in greater detail. And they warn that even if targeted geoengineering of individual glaciers worked, it would only do so if humans stopped tipping ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to fuel yet more global warming.

Nor do they argue that a submarine curtain wall to halt warming water across the front of the Thwaites glacier – up to 100 kms wide – is currently feasible. “But in the long run we need plans to deal with the committed climate changes that are already in the pipeline, one of which may be an ice sheet collapse.”

And one of these is the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica: another is the Jakobshaven Isbrae in Greenland. Both could be cases of what the scientists call marine ice sheet instability: as a glacier retreats from its grounding line, the ice lifts off the bedrock and begins to float.

If the bedrock slopes down towards the centre of the ice sheet, and warmer ocean currents wash beneath it, then the ice starts to stretch and thin, and retreat further. At some point, it would become much easier for thawing ice to flow into the sea, and start what could become a runaway collapse. Engineers could devise a way of slowing or halting the process.

Huge impact

The scientists argue that even a rise of 0.6m to 1.2 metres by 2100 could cause up to $50 trillion in economic damage, and the resultant flooding could force up to 200 million to 500 million people out of their homes at least for a few days or weeks: around a million or so every year would never go back.

Climate scientists have been arguing about geoengineering solutions – the so-called technofix – to climate change for more than a decade. Global answers, such as blocking sunlight with stratospheric soot and sulphate aerosols, or whitening the polar ice to make it more reflective, remain contentious.

But the Cryosphere proposals are much more limited, and the immediate dangers of sea level rise are not contested. Ice sheet collapse in Antarctica, for instance, could raise sea levels by more than 3 metres and even by as much as 19 metres over the next two or three centuries.

The researchers’ calculations suggest that in theory an engineering solution that blocked even 50% of the warm water getting under a glacier could offer a 70% chance of delaying or stopping ice sheet collapse.

Left behind

Countries already spend on coastal protection: their solution would require international co-operation at the highest political level, and intensive scientific research.

“Managing sea level rise at the source has the advantage of benefiting the entire world, while a strategy that relies only on local coastal protection is more of an every-nation-for-itself approach that may leave many poor countries behind,” they write.

“Perhaps, after careful consideration, we may conclude that glacial geoengineering is unworkable and the right answer is to invest heavily in coastal protection and retreat inland where that is not practical or economical.

“However, we owe it to the 400 million people who live within 5m of sea level to at least consider the alternatives.” – Climate News Network

Could a vast underwater wall in front of an unstable glacier prevent dangerous sea level rise? Or should everyone just move further inland?

LONDON, 10 October, 2018 – Two climate scientists believe they have a long-term solution to dangerous sea level rise by targeting the most vulnerable glaciers, especially those that could trigger a massive collapse of the ice sheets behind them.

A submarine wall big enough and wide enough could halt the flow of increasingly warm ocean water below the front of each glacier. The combination of warmer air temperatures and warmer waters that accompany human-triggered climate change is dangerous: it could for instance accelerate the already alarming retreat of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, which alone shores up enough ice to raise global sea levels by up to 3 metres.

The scientists don’t propose an immediate start. But they do want to explore ways of halting sea level rise driven by global warming that could soon be costing the world $50 trillion a year in economic losses, that could submerge small island states and turn 1 million people a year into climate migrants.

“We are not advocating that glacial geoengineering be attempted any time soon”, they warn in the journal The Cryosphere.

Their simplest option – a series of pillars to shore up a targeted glacier and keep it “grounded” – would require engineering comparable in scale to the excavation of the Suez canal, would be undertaken in the world’s harshest environment, and would have just a one in three chance of success.

“In the long run we need plans to deal with the committed climate changes that are already in the pipeline, one of which may be an ice sheet collapse”

The researchers – John Moore, of Beijing Normal University in China, who also holds a post at the University of Lapland in Finland, and Michael Wolovick, of Princeton University in the US – have made this case before: they and others argued in March in Nature for what they call “managed collapse.”

In the latest study, they look at the challenge in greater detail. And they warn that even if targeted geoengineering of individual glaciers worked, it would only do so if humans stopped tipping ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to fuel yet more global warming.

Nor do they argue that a submarine curtain wall to halt warming water across the front of the Thwaites glacier – up to 100 kms wide – is currently feasible. “But in the long run we need plans to deal with the committed climate changes that are already in the pipeline, one of which may be an ice sheet collapse.”

And one of these is the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica: another is the Jakobshaven Isbrae in Greenland. Both could be cases of what the scientists call marine ice sheet instability: as a glacier retreats from its grounding line, the ice lifts off the bedrock and begins to float.

If the bedrock slopes down towards the centre of the ice sheet, and warmer ocean currents wash beneath it, then the ice starts to stretch and thin, and retreat further. At some point, it would become much easier for thawing ice to flow into the sea, and start what could become a runaway collapse. Engineers could devise a way of slowing or halting the process.

Huge impact

The scientists argue that even a rise of 0.6m to 1.2 metres by 2100 could cause up to $50 trillion in economic damage, and the resultant flooding could force up to 200 million to 500 million people out of their homes at least for a few days or weeks: around a million or so every year would never go back.

Climate scientists have been arguing about geoengineering solutions – the so-called technofix – to climate change for more than a decade. Global answers, such as blocking sunlight with stratospheric soot and sulphate aerosols, or whitening the polar ice to make it more reflective, remain contentious.

But the Cryosphere proposals are much more limited, and the immediate dangers of sea level rise are not contested. Ice sheet collapse in Antarctica, for instance, could raise sea levels by more than 3 metres and even by as much as 19 metres over the next two or three centuries.

The researchers’ calculations suggest that in theory an engineering solution that blocked even 50% of the warm water getting under a glacier could offer a 70% chance of delaying or stopping ice sheet collapse.

Left behind

Countries already spend on coastal protection: their solution would require international co-operation at the highest political level, and intensive scientific research.

“Managing sea level rise at the source has the advantage of benefiting the entire world, while a strategy that relies only on local coastal protection is more of an every-nation-for-itself approach that may leave many poor countries behind,” they write.

“Perhaps, after careful consideration, we may conclude that glacial geoengineering is unworkable and the right answer is to invest heavily in coastal protection and retreat inland where that is not practical or economical.

“However, we owe it to the 400 million people who live within 5m of sea level to at least consider the alternatives.” – Climate News Network

Frozen Arctic moves seawards in hectic melt

Once trapped in a Russian ice cap north of Siberia, the frozen Arctic is moving fast, racing in decades from metres to kilometres a year.

LONDON, 5 October, 2018 – Satellite images have revealed a dramatic change in Russia’s frozen Arctic. An ice cap that once crept almost imperceptibly across the barren rocks of October Revolution island, in the Kara Sea, is on the move.

All ice, even when permanently frozen to the bedrock, moves. From 1952 to 1985, the western edge of the Vavilov ice cap, 1,820 square kilometres in area and between 300 metres and 600 metres in thickness, shifted at about 12 metres a year. Between 1998 and 2011, it stepped up the pace to 75 metres a year. Between 2014 and 2015, the ice front had broken into tongues that moved at more than 1,000 metres a year.

And between 2015 and 2016 the leading edge had started racing into the Kara Sea at 5,000 metres a year. It is also thinning at the rate of a third of a metre a day, according to a new study in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The high Arctic is the fastest-warming place on Earth, and researchers have for more than 30 years been measuring changes in the rate at which sea ice shrinks and Greenland glaciers flow.

Role as metaphor

“In a warming climate, glacier acceleration is becoming more and more common, but the rate of ice loss at Vavilov is extreme and unexpected,” said Michael Willis, a geologist at the University of California Boulder, who led the study by scientists from the US, UK and Russia.

Glaciers and icecaps such as Vavilov cover about 450,000 square kilometres of the planet’s surface and hold enough frozen water to raise global sea levels by 30 cms. They form on land in polar “deserts” in which the temperatures are below freezing and snow falls at no more than 25 cms a year.

In the Arctic summer the snow cover melts, and water trickles down through the ice; over the years, snowfall patterns shift and the ice cap shifts under gravitational tug. All glaciers flow, but so slowly that their pace has been incorporated into metaphor.

For the study authors, who used decades of satellite studies of the high Arctic to measure the change, the puzzle is one of geophysics: how could a fast-frozen mass of ice get to the stage where it can slide, as if lubricated, across a rocky surface above sea level?

“Glacier acceleration is becoming more and more common, but the rate of ice loss at Vavilov is extreme and unexpected”

“We’ve never seen anything like this before, this study has raised as many questions as it has answered,” said Dr Willis. “And we’re now working on modelling the whole situation to get a better handle on the physics involved.”

But for climate scientists concerned with the bigger picture, the study is another instance of potentially catastrophic climate change in the making. Once an ice cap starts to flow, the process is unlikely to stop.

And a second study in the same week from the other end of the globe shows that it doesn’t take much to start the ice flowing into the sea. It has confirmed that average global warming of no more than 2°C above historic levels, given long enough,  could melt much of the world’s largest ice sheet.

Planetary average temperatures have already risen by 1°C since the first industrial exploitation of coal, gas and oil only 200 years ago, and right now, although 195 nations vowed in Paris in 2015 to keep the rise to “well below” 2°C by 2100, the world seems headed for at least a 3°C rise later this century.

Future loss inevitable

British, Australian, New Zealand, Spanish and Japanese scientists report in Nature that they reconstructed the impact of change on the East Antarctic ice sheet during interglacials, those warm pauses during the last Ice Age.

For about 2,500 years, Antarctic air temperatures rose by about 2°C, the huge fastness of ice began to melt, and sea levels rose. The West Antarctic ice sheet, which has repeatedly shown signs of thawing, holds enough water to raise sea levels by up to 5 metres. The apparently stable East Antarctic sheet holds enough to lift global sea levels by 53 metres. During the interglacials of 400,000 years ago and 125,000 years ago, sea levels rose between 6 metres and 13 metres higher than they are today.

“What we have learned is that even modest warming of just two degrees, if sustained for a couple of thousand years, is enough to cause the East Antarctic ice sheet to retreat in some of its low-lying areas,” said David Wilson, of the UK’s Imperial College, who led the research.

“With current global temperatures already one degree higher than during pre-industrial times, future ice loss seems inevitable if we fail to reduce carbon emissions.” – Climate News Network

Once trapped in a Russian ice cap north of Siberia, the frozen Arctic is moving fast, racing in decades from metres to kilometres a year.

LONDON, 5 October, 2018 – Satellite images have revealed a dramatic change in Russia’s frozen Arctic. An ice cap that once crept almost imperceptibly across the barren rocks of October Revolution island, in the Kara Sea, is on the move.

All ice, even when permanently frozen to the bedrock, moves. From 1952 to 1985, the western edge of the Vavilov ice cap, 1,820 square kilometres in area and between 300 metres and 600 metres in thickness, shifted at about 12 metres a year. Between 1998 and 2011, it stepped up the pace to 75 metres a year. Between 2014 and 2015, the ice front had broken into tongues that moved at more than 1,000 metres a year.

And between 2015 and 2016 the leading edge had started racing into the Kara Sea at 5,000 metres a year. It is also thinning at the rate of a third of a metre a day, according to a new study in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The high Arctic is the fastest-warming place on Earth, and researchers have for more than 30 years been measuring changes in the rate at which sea ice shrinks and Greenland glaciers flow.

Role as metaphor

“In a warming climate, glacier acceleration is becoming more and more common, but the rate of ice loss at Vavilov is extreme and unexpected,” said Michael Willis, a geologist at the University of California Boulder, who led the study by scientists from the US, UK and Russia.

Glaciers and icecaps such as Vavilov cover about 450,000 square kilometres of the planet’s surface and hold enough frozen water to raise global sea levels by 30 cms. They form on land in polar “deserts” in which the temperatures are below freezing and snow falls at no more than 25 cms a year.

In the Arctic summer the snow cover melts, and water trickles down through the ice; over the years, snowfall patterns shift and the ice cap shifts under gravitational tug. All glaciers flow, but so slowly that their pace has been incorporated into metaphor.

For the study authors, who used decades of satellite studies of the high Arctic to measure the change, the puzzle is one of geophysics: how could a fast-frozen mass of ice get to the stage where it can slide, as if lubricated, across a rocky surface above sea level?

“Glacier acceleration is becoming more and more common, but the rate of ice loss at Vavilov is extreme and unexpected”

“We’ve never seen anything like this before, this study has raised as many questions as it has answered,” said Dr Willis. “And we’re now working on modelling the whole situation to get a better handle on the physics involved.”

But for climate scientists concerned with the bigger picture, the study is another instance of potentially catastrophic climate change in the making. Once an ice cap starts to flow, the process is unlikely to stop.

And a second study in the same week from the other end of the globe shows that it doesn’t take much to start the ice flowing into the sea. It has confirmed that average global warming of no more than 2°C above historic levels, given long enough,  could melt much of the world’s largest ice sheet.

Planetary average temperatures have already risen by 1°C since the first industrial exploitation of coal, gas and oil only 200 years ago, and right now, although 195 nations vowed in Paris in 2015 to keep the rise to “well below” 2°C by 2100, the world seems headed for at least a 3°C rise later this century.

Future loss inevitable

British, Australian, New Zealand, Spanish and Japanese scientists report in Nature that they reconstructed the impact of change on the East Antarctic ice sheet during interglacials, those warm pauses during the last Ice Age.

For about 2,500 years, Antarctic air temperatures rose by about 2°C, the huge fastness of ice began to melt, and sea levels rose. The West Antarctic ice sheet, which has repeatedly shown signs of thawing, holds enough water to raise sea levels by up to 5 metres. The apparently stable East Antarctic sheet holds enough to lift global sea levels by 53 metres. During the interglacials of 400,000 years ago and 125,000 years ago, sea levels rose between 6 metres and 13 metres higher than they are today.

“What we have learned is that even modest warming of just two degrees, if sustained for a couple of thousand years, is enough to cause the East Antarctic ice sheet to retreat in some of its low-lying areas,” said David Wilson, of the UK’s Imperial College, who led the research.

“With current global temperatures already one degree higher than during pre-industrial times, future ice loss seems inevitable if we fail to reduce carbon emissions.” – Climate News Network

‘Eternal’ Swiss snow is melting faster

Scientists say stretches of “eternal” Swiss snow are melting faster than 20 years ago, with serious impacts for water supply and tourism.

LONDON, 21 September, 2018 – Parts of Europe’s alpine mountain chain are undergoing accelerating melting, as the “eternal” Swiss snow thaws ever faster, threatening both the skiing industry and the nation’s water supply.

Over a period of only 22 years, thousands of satellite images have provided irrefutable evidence that an extra 5,200 square kilometres of the country are now snow-free, compared with the decade 1995-2005.

Researchers from the University of Geneva and the United Nations Environment Programme have used data from four satellites which have been constantly photographing the Earth from space, compiling a record published by the Swiss Data Cube, which uses Earth observations to give a comprehensive  picture of the country’s snow cover and much else besides, including crops grown and forest cover.

It is the loss of snow cover that most disturbs the scientists. What they call “the eternal snow zone” still covered 27% of Swiss territory in the years from 1995 to 2005. Ten years later it had fallen to 23% – a loss of 2,100 sq km.

The eternal snow line marks the part of Switzerland above which the snow never used to melt in summer or winter. It is also defined as the area where any precipitation year-round has an 80-100% chance of being snow.

“We have stored the equivalent of 6,500 images covering 34 years, a feat that only an open data policy has made possible”

Other parts of the country, including the Swiss Plateau (about 30% of Switzerland’s area), the Rhone Valley, the Alps and the Jura mountains are also losing snow cover, adding up to the 5,200 sq km total. These areas, below the eternal snow line, have until now usually had lying snow in the winter.

The study was launched in 2016 on behalf of Switzerland’s Federal Office for the Environment. Knowing the extent of snow cover and its retreat is essential for developing public policies, the researchers say.

Beyond the economic issues linked to the threat to ski resorts – a familiar area of concern, heightened by this latest research, as many of them now face shortened seasons or outright abandonment – other problems such as flood risk and water supply are coming to the fore. Snow stores water in the winter for release in spring and summer, for both agriculture and drinking water.

Currently the increasing loss of ice from glaciers in the summer is making up for the missing snow, but previous work by scientists has shown that in the future, when glaciers disappear altogether, Switzerland could face a crisis.

The researchers have relied on the information available from the Data Cube to establish what is happening on the peaks. By superimposing repeated pictures of the same place over one another they have been able to observe small changes over time.

Wealth of data

The data was made freely available to researchers. One of them, Grégory Giuliani, said: “We have stored the equivalent of 6,500 images covering 34 years, a feat that only an open data policy has made possible. If we had had to acquire these images at market value, more than 6 million Swiss francs would have been invested.

“Knowing that each pixel of each image corresponds to the observation of a square of 10 by 10 meters, we have 110 billion observations today. It is inestimable wealth for the scientific community.”

Apart from snow cover scientists are worried about many other changes taking place in Switzerland because of climate change. They already know that glaciers are melting at record speeds and plants, birds and insects are heading further up the mountains, but there is much else to be gleaned from the new data base.

The Data Cube offers the possibility of studying vegetation, the evolution and rotation of agricultural areas, urbanisation and even water quality, as satellite images can be used to monitor three essential indicators in lakes and rivers: suspended particles, whether organic or mineral; chlorophyll content; and surface temperature.

The data are freely accessible, not only to scientists worldwide but also to the public, making it easy to compare data for specific areas of the territory at different times. “Our ambition is that everyone should be able to navigate freely in Swiss territory to understand its evolution”, said Grégory Giuliani. – Climate News Network

Scientists say stretches of “eternal” Swiss snow are melting faster than 20 years ago, with serious impacts for water supply and tourism.

LONDON, 21 September, 2018 – Parts of Europe’s alpine mountain chain are undergoing accelerating melting, as the “eternal” Swiss snow thaws ever faster, threatening both the skiing industry and the nation’s water supply.

Over a period of only 22 years, thousands of satellite images have provided irrefutable evidence that an extra 5,200 square kilometres of the country are now snow-free, compared with the decade 1995-2005.

Researchers from the University of Geneva and the United Nations Environment Programme have used data from four satellites which have been constantly photographing the Earth from space, compiling a record published by the Swiss Data Cube, which uses Earth observations to give a comprehensive  picture of the country’s snow cover and much else besides, including crops grown and forest cover.

It is the loss of snow cover that most disturbs the scientists. What they call “the eternal snow zone” still covered 27% of Swiss territory in the years from 1995 to 2005. Ten years later it had fallen to 23% – a loss of 2,100 sq km.

The eternal snow line marks the part of Switzerland above which the snow never used to melt in summer or winter. It is also defined as the area where any precipitation year-round has an 80-100% chance of being snow.

“We have stored the equivalent of 6,500 images covering 34 years, a feat that only an open data policy has made possible”

Other parts of the country, including the Swiss Plateau (about 30% of Switzerland’s area), the Rhone Valley, the Alps and the Jura mountains are also losing snow cover, adding up to the 5,200 sq km total. These areas, below the eternal snow line, have until now usually had lying snow in the winter.

The study was launched in 2016 on behalf of Switzerland’s Federal Office for the Environment. Knowing the extent of snow cover and its retreat is essential for developing public policies, the researchers say.

Beyond the economic issues linked to the threat to ski resorts – a familiar area of concern, heightened by this latest research, as many of them now face shortened seasons or outright abandonment – other problems such as flood risk and water supply are coming to the fore. Snow stores water in the winter for release in spring and summer, for both agriculture and drinking water.

Currently the increasing loss of ice from glaciers in the summer is making up for the missing snow, but previous work by scientists has shown that in the future, when glaciers disappear altogether, Switzerland could face a crisis.

The researchers have relied on the information available from the Data Cube to establish what is happening on the peaks. By superimposing repeated pictures of the same place over one another they have been able to observe small changes over time.

Wealth of data

The data was made freely available to researchers. One of them, Grégory Giuliani, said: “We have stored the equivalent of 6,500 images covering 34 years, a feat that only an open data policy has made possible. If we had had to acquire these images at market value, more than 6 million Swiss francs would have been invested.

“Knowing that each pixel of each image corresponds to the observation of a square of 10 by 10 meters, we have 110 billion observations today. It is inestimable wealth for the scientific community.”

Apart from snow cover scientists are worried about many other changes taking place in Switzerland because of climate change. They already know that glaciers are melting at record speeds and plants, birds and insects are heading further up the mountains, but there is much else to be gleaned from the new data base.

The Data Cube offers the possibility of studying vegetation, the evolution and rotation of agricultural areas, urbanisation and even water quality, as satellite images can be used to monitor three essential indicators in lakes and rivers: suspended particles, whether organic or mineral; chlorophyll content; and surface temperature.

The data are freely accessible, not only to scientists worldwide but also to the public, making it easy to compare data for specific areas of the territory at different times. “Our ambition is that everyone should be able to navigate freely in Swiss territory to understand its evolution”, said Grégory Giuliani. – Climate News Network

Nature may explain North Atlantic circulation

Ocean circulation distributes the planet’s heat. If the North Atlantic circulation slows, is it because of global warming, or a natural cycle?

LONDON, 26 July, 2018 – The world can breathe again. Europe can relax: the glaciers will not return. The North Atlantic circulation may resume its former pace and the Gulf Stream slowdown could be coming to an end.

But that may not be entirely good news. Global warming could also be about to accelerate, according to new research into one of oceanography’s most enigmatic phenomena, the North Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.

New studies of all the data so far by an ocean scientist and a mathematician say that what affects North Atlantic circulation may not be driven by man-made climate change. The ocean may be responding to a very long-term natural climate cycle.

At the heart of the puzzle is a simple fact. The flow of warm water from the tropical Atlantic right up to the coast of northern Norway has a dramatic impact on western Europe’s climate. This means that the United Kingdom, France, and other nations are conspicuously warmer than they might be if latitude was the only factor.

“We do not know if it is periodic, but based on the surface phenomena we think it’s very likely it is episodic”

A former UK chief scientist once calculated that the Gulf Stream contributed 27,000 times the warmth generated by all the UK’s power stations. But theorists argued that as the Arctic region warmed, the rate of flow could diminish, and paradoxically throw Europe into a new little Ice Age. A 2004 Hollywood disaster movie called The Day After Tomorrow followed this logic, with Britain frozen and glaciers cascading south into the US.

In fact, no such calamitous and sudden return of the intense and lethal cold could happen, but researchers have since then consistently observed a pattern of slowing in the North Atlantic circulation, linked such slowdowns to global warming
driven by profligate use of fossil fuels that enrich the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and repeatedly warned that the consequences could be costly or even devastating.

But a new study of the data available exposes other possibilities. In the first place, climate scientists have direct measurements of the circulation strength only from 2004, and the decline measured since then has been 10 times more than anyone expected. Perhaps the slowdown could be just part of a regular, rhythmic cycle that happens independently of anything humans have done to trigger global warming, researchers say in the journal Nature.

“Many have focused on the fact that it’s declining very rapidly, and that if the trend continues it will go past a tipping point, bringing a catastrophe such as an ice age,” said Ka-Kit Tung, a mathematician at the University of Washington in the US.

Already over

“It turns out that none of that is going to happen in the near future. The fast response may instead be part of a natural cycle and there are signs that the decline is already ending.”

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation takes warm surface water northward. The dense salty water sinks into the Labrador and Nordic Seas and returns at depth all the way to the Southern Ocean, to rise again. The puzzle is what happens next.

As the current sinks in the far north, it carries heat away from the surface. But the same transport of heat causes the northern glaciers to recede, and melt, diluting the saline water and making it less likely to sink. So the circulation slows.

The reasoning that follows is that, in a slow phase, the North Atlantic becomes cooler, the ice melt slows, the fresh meltwater sources begin to dry up and the heavier, saltier water plunges more urgently, and the whole circulation speeds up again.

Disagreement

And if this happens in a natural cycle – and not all climate scientists and oceanographers will agree – it is one that lasts for many decades: 60 to 70 years. But oceanographers don’t have the more than 60 to 70 years of measurements needed to confirm this pattern.

“We have about one cycle of observations at depth, so we do not know if it is periodic, but based on the surface phenomena we think it’s very likely it is episodic,” said Professor Tung.

“The good news is that the indicators show that this slowdown of the Atlantic overturning circulation is ending, and so we shouldn’t be alarmed that this current will collapse any time soon.

“The bad news is that surface temperatures are likely to start rising more quickly in the coming decades.” – Climate News Network

Ocean circulation distributes the planet’s heat. If the North Atlantic circulation slows, is it because of global warming, or a natural cycle?

LONDON, 26 July, 2018 – The world can breathe again. Europe can relax: the glaciers will not return. The North Atlantic circulation may resume its former pace and the Gulf Stream slowdown could be coming to an end.

But that may not be entirely good news. Global warming could also be about to accelerate, according to new research into one of oceanography’s most enigmatic phenomena, the North Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.

New studies of all the data so far by an ocean scientist and a mathematician say that what affects North Atlantic circulation may not be driven by man-made climate change. The ocean may be responding to a very long-term natural climate cycle.

At the heart of the puzzle is a simple fact. The flow of warm water from the tropical Atlantic right up to the coast of northern Norway has a dramatic impact on western Europe’s climate. This means that the United Kingdom, France, and other nations are conspicuously warmer than they might be if latitude was the only factor.

“We do not know if it is periodic, but based on the surface phenomena we think it’s very likely it is episodic”

A former UK chief scientist once calculated that the Gulf Stream contributed 27,000 times the warmth generated by all the UK’s power stations. But theorists argued that as the Arctic region warmed, the rate of flow could diminish, and paradoxically throw Europe into a new little Ice Age. A 2004 Hollywood disaster movie called The Day After Tomorrow followed this logic, with Britain frozen and glaciers cascading south into the US.

In fact, no such calamitous and sudden return of the intense and lethal cold could happen, but researchers have since then consistently observed a pattern of slowing in the North Atlantic circulation, linked such slowdowns to global warming
driven by profligate use of fossil fuels that enrich the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and repeatedly warned that the consequences could be costly or even devastating.

But a new study of the data available exposes other possibilities. In the first place, climate scientists have direct measurements of the circulation strength only from 2004, and the decline measured since then has been 10 times more than anyone expected. Perhaps the slowdown could be just part of a regular, rhythmic cycle that happens independently of anything humans have done to trigger global warming, researchers say in the journal Nature.

“Many have focused on the fact that it’s declining very rapidly, and that if the trend continues it will go past a tipping point, bringing a catastrophe such as an ice age,” said Ka-Kit Tung, a mathematician at the University of Washington in the US.

Already over

“It turns out that none of that is going to happen in the near future. The fast response may instead be part of a natural cycle and there are signs that the decline is already ending.”

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation takes warm surface water northward. The dense salty water sinks into the Labrador and Nordic Seas and returns at depth all the way to the Southern Ocean, to rise again. The puzzle is what happens next.

As the current sinks in the far north, it carries heat away from the surface. But the same transport of heat causes the northern glaciers to recede, and melt, diluting the saline water and making it less likely to sink. So the circulation slows.

The reasoning that follows is that, in a slow phase, the North Atlantic becomes cooler, the ice melt slows, the fresh meltwater sources begin to dry up and the heavier, saltier water plunges more urgently, and the whole circulation speeds up again.

Disagreement

And if this happens in a natural cycle – and not all climate scientists and oceanographers will agree – it is one that lasts for many decades: 60 to 70 years. But oceanographers don’t have the more than 60 to 70 years of measurements needed to confirm this pattern.

“We have about one cycle of observations at depth, so we do not know if it is periodic, but based on the surface phenomena we think it’s very likely it is episodic,” said Professor Tung.

“The good news is that the indicators show that this slowdown of the Atlantic overturning circulation is ending, and so we shouldn’t be alarmed that this current will collapse any time soon.

“The bad news is that surface temperatures are likely to start rising more quickly in the coming decades.” – Climate News Network

Antarctic buffer damage spurs ice break-up

The Antarctic buffer which has for millennia sheltered the continent’s huge inland ice sheet is being battered by seaborne wave action.

LONDON, 21 June, 2018 – The vast southern ice sheet, despite the Antarctic buffer which has protected it for so long, is now being threatened by ocean swells chipping away at the continent’s coastal edge, says a new study by US scientists published in the journal Nature.

For millennia the southern ice sheet has had this protective buffer of sea ice ringing its coastal shelves. But now the swells from the north are flexing them and can weaken their stabilising seaward edge. Regular inundation by summer meltwater as the edge breaks away can also contribute to rapid ice shelf disintegration.

Ice shelves, with their ring of sea ice, are thick plates of ice fed by tributary glaciers, floating seaward extensions of the massive grounded inland ice sheet. They slow the flow of ice from the sheet, so rapidly disintegrating shelves have implications for sea level rise.

“Sea ice here acts like the bumpers on a car – with the bumpers in place, the car can take a shock and not be damaged. Take them off, and every hit adds up,” said Ted Scambos, study co-author and senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Since 1995, three large ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula – Larsen A, Larsen B and Wilkins – have suddenly and dramatically disintegrated.
Occurring over a few weeks, or sometimes even only a few days, these break-ups mark an unprecedented departure from the more typical and natural recurring calving of larger icebergs every decade or so.

Trigger found

Until recently researchers had thought intense surface melting caused by a warming climate and ice fracturing were the sole culprits. But the new findings suggest that loss of sea ice and the calving of the seaward edge into narrow sliver-like icebergs are the trigger that sets off a rapid ice shelf disintegration.

“Our study breaks new ground in how it implicates sea ice change in sea level rise,” said Rob Massom, the study’s lead author and a senior research scientist at the Australian Antarctic Division and Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre.

“It introduces ocean wave-induced breakage of the outer margins of ice shelves following loss of a protective sea ice buffer as the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

He and his colleagues analysed disintegrations on three ice shelves that had been stable for centuries or even millennia: Larsen A in 1995, Larsen B in 2002, and Wilkins in 2008 and 2009.

They confirmed that atmospheric warming led to increased meltwater on the surfaces of the shelves. Pooled meltwater then percolated downward through crevasses, setting off a hydrofracturing process that weakened the ice.

“Ocean wave-induced breakage of the outer margins of ice shelves following loss of a protective sea ice buffer [is] the straw that breaks the camel’s back”

Earlier studies have identified the central role that ice shelves play in making sea level rise more likely and the accelerating pace of Antarctic melting.

But, crucially, what the NSIDC analysis reveals is a previously little-recognised link to sea ice: all three disintegrations happened when there was little or no sea ice cover along the shelf edge. Without that protective buffer, the shelves became exposed to waves which flexed the already fractured ice.

“What we’ve found is that increased flexing of the outer parts of ice shelves by waves sets the ice up for destruction. Even though the movement is tiny, over time the shelf is weakened,” Scambos said.

In each case, ocean swells began affecting the ice shelf edge. As the shelves flexed, existing fractures along the seaward edge chipped off as long, thin, sliver-shaped icebergs, not the larger tabular icebergs more typical of Antarctic ice shelf calvings. The remaining ice shelf was then ripe for runaway collapse.

“Other ice shelves can survive for centuries if they don’t have surface meltwater – or if the water can run off easily,” Scambos said. “But with meltwater ponding and a legacy of weakening from sea ice loss, you can destroy a shelf in just a few weeks.”

Pressure off

Because ice shelves are already floating in the ocean and displacing their volume, like ice cubes in a glass of water, their disintegration does not contribute directly to sea level rise.

But they do provide a backpressure that moderates glacier flow speed. Once they’re gone, so is the backpressure, allowing the glaciers to flow more rapidly into the ocean and ultimately contribute to sea level rise.

“This represents an important pathway towards reducing current large uncertainty in predictions of the response of the Antarctic cryosphere to climate change and its contribution to sea level rise,” Dr Massom said.

The Antarctic ice sheet contains enough ice to raise sea level by approximately 57 metres (187 feet), about half the length of a soccer pitch. Worldwide, more than 100 million people currently live within 1m of mean sea level. – Climate News Network

The Antarctic buffer which has for millennia sheltered the continent’s huge inland ice sheet is being battered by seaborne wave action.

LONDON, 21 June, 2018 – The vast southern ice sheet, despite the Antarctic buffer which has protected it for so long, is now being threatened by ocean swells chipping away at the continent’s coastal edge, says a new study by US scientists published in the journal Nature.

For millennia the southern ice sheet has had this protective buffer of sea ice ringing its coastal shelves. But now the swells from the north are flexing them and can weaken their stabilising seaward edge. Regular inundation by summer meltwater as the edge breaks away can also contribute to rapid ice shelf disintegration.

Ice shelves, with their ring of sea ice, are thick plates of ice fed by tributary glaciers, floating seaward extensions of the massive grounded inland ice sheet. They slow the flow of ice from the sheet, so rapidly disintegrating shelves have implications for sea level rise.

“Sea ice here acts like the bumpers on a car – with the bumpers in place, the car can take a shock and not be damaged. Take them off, and every hit adds up,” said Ted Scambos, study co-author and senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Since 1995, three large ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula – Larsen A, Larsen B and Wilkins – have suddenly and dramatically disintegrated.
Occurring over a few weeks, or sometimes even only a few days, these break-ups mark an unprecedented departure from the more typical and natural recurring calving of larger icebergs every decade or so.

Trigger found

Until recently researchers had thought intense surface melting caused by a warming climate and ice fracturing were the sole culprits. But the new findings suggest that loss of sea ice and the calving of the seaward edge into narrow sliver-like icebergs are the trigger that sets off a rapid ice shelf disintegration.

“Our study breaks new ground in how it implicates sea ice change in sea level rise,” said Rob Massom, the study’s lead author and a senior research scientist at the Australian Antarctic Division and Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre.

“It introduces ocean wave-induced breakage of the outer margins of ice shelves following loss of a protective sea ice buffer as the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

He and his colleagues analysed disintegrations on three ice shelves that had been stable for centuries or even millennia: Larsen A in 1995, Larsen B in 2002, and Wilkins in 2008 and 2009.

They confirmed that atmospheric warming led to increased meltwater on the surfaces of the shelves. Pooled meltwater then percolated downward through crevasses, setting off a hydrofracturing process that weakened the ice.

“Ocean wave-induced breakage of the outer margins of ice shelves following loss of a protective sea ice buffer [is] the straw that breaks the camel’s back”

Earlier studies have identified the central role that ice shelves play in making sea level rise more likely and the accelerating pace of Antarctic melting.

But, crucially, what the NSIDC analysis reveals is a previously little-recognised link to sea ice: all three disintegrations happened when there was little or no sea ice cover along the shelf edge. Without that protective buffer, the shelves became exposed to waves which flexed the already fractured ice.

“What we’ve found is that increased flexing of the outer parts of ice shelves by waves sets the ice up for destruction. Even though the movement is tiny, over time the shelf is weakened,” Scambos said.

In each case, ocean swells began affecting the ice shelf edge. As the shelves flexed, existing fractures along the seaward edge chipped off as long, thin, sliver-shaped icebergs, not the larger tabular icebergs more typical of Antarctic ice shelf calvings. The remaining ice shelf was then ripe for runaway collapse.

“Other ice shelves can survive for centuries if they don’t have surface meltwater – or if the water can run off easily,” Scambos said. “But with meltwater ponding and a legacy of weakening from sea ice loss, you can destroy a shelf in just a few weeks.”

Pressure off

Because ice shelves are already floating in the ocean and displacing their volume, like ice cubes in a glass of water, their disintegration does not contribute directly to sea level rise.

But they do provide a backpressure that moderates glacier flow speed. Once they’re gone, so is the backpressure, allowing the glaciers to flow more rapidly into the ocean and ultimately contribute to sea level rise.

“This represents an important pathway towards reducing current large uncertainty in predictions of the response of the Antarctic cryosphere to climate change and its contribution to sea level rise,” Dr Massom said.

The Antarctic ice sheet contains enough ice to raise sea level by approximately 57 metres (187 feet), about half the length of a soccer pitch. Worldwide, more than 100 million people currently live within 1m of mean sea level. – Climate News Network

UK and US scientists tackle Antarctic glacier

British and American scientists are joining forces to research the melting of an Antarctic glacier in what they are calling a race against time. 

CAMBRIDGE, UK, 30 April, 2018 – An international team of scientists is mounting an ambitious research programme to find how soon a vast Antarctic glacier may collapse, with implications for sea levels worldwide.

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could significantly affect global sea levels. It already drains an area roughly the size of Britain or the US state of Florida, accounting for around 4% of global sea-level rise, an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s. Its collapse would destabilise other parts of the ice sheet.

If – or more likely when – Thwaites and its neighbour, the Pine Island glacier, ultimately lose all their ice, one estimate suggests that could raise global sea levels by about 3.4m, enough to affect every coastal city on Earth.

Fastest-moving

Satellites have shown for more than a decade that the Thwaites region is an area of massive change and rapid ice loss as the global climate warms in response to rising greenhouse gas emissions from humans’ profligate use of fossil fuels. The two glaciers are among the fastest-moving in the Antarctic.

One of the scientists involved in the research is David Vaughan, director of science at the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey (BAS). He says he and his colleagues are involved in “a race against time”.

Professor Vaughan told the Climate News Network: “Understanding sea level rise is the front line of climate change, and sea level rise doesn’t happen overnight. [What’s happening to Thwaites] is not an emergency this year, but I’m very glad we’re doing the research this decade, because we can’t wait too long.”

Understanding collapse

As part of a new £20 million (roughly US$27.5m) research collaboration, the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the US National Science Foundation are about to send a team of scientists to Antarctica to gather the data needed to understand when the collapse of the Thwaites glacier could begin – in centuries, or in the next few decades.

NERC and NSF are jointly funding eight large-scale projects that will bring together leading polar scientists in the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), the largest joint project undertaken by the two nations in Antarctica for more than 70 years. The ITGC involves around 100 scientists from leading research institutes in both countries with researchers from South Korea, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland.

There are signs that the process of Thwaites’ collapse has already begun. Antarctica’s glaciers add to sea-level rise when they lose more ice to the ocean than they gain from snowfall. To fully understand the causes of changes in ice flow requires research on the ice itself, the nearby ocean, and the Antarctic climate.

“Sea level rise doesn’t happen overnight. [It’s] not an emergency this year, but I’m very glad we’re doing the research this decade, because we can’t wait too long”

The Collaboration will use drills that can make access holes 1,500 metres into the ice with jets of hot water, as well as other state-of-the-art techniques and equipment, such as autonomous submarines like the Autosub Long Range, the first of whose fleet is named Boaty McBoatface.

While NERC is funding the UK’s share of the project, it is being co-ordinated by BAS, whose total annual budget is around £50m. The agency co-ordinating the US share is the National Snow & Ice Data Center.

As well as the cost of the research itself, the physical problems of mounting a scientific campaign in one of the most remote places in Antarctica could cost as much again in logistical support. The nearest permanently occupied research station to the Thwaites glacier is more than 1,600km away, so even getting the scientists to where they need to be will be demanding.

Collaboration welcome

Researchers on the ice will rely on aircraft support from UK and US research stations, but oceanographers and geophysicists will approach the glacier from the sea in British and American research icebreakers.

The UK’s science minister, Sam Gyimah, said: “Rising sea levels are a globally important issue which cannot be tackled by one country alone. The Thwaites glacier already contributes to rising sea levels, and understanding its likely collapse in the coming century is vitally important.”

The five-year programme begins in October this year and continues to 2023. Its data will be archived and freely shared when it ends. – Climate News Network

British and American scientists are joining forces to research the melting of an Antarctic glacier in what they are calling a race against time. 

CAMBRIDGE, UK, 30 April, 2018 – An international team of scientists is mounting an ambitious research programme to find how soon a vast Antarctic glacier may collapse, with implications for sea levels worldwide.

The Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could significantly affect global sea levels. It already drains an area roughly the size of Britain or the US state of Florida, accounting for around 4% of global sea-level rise, an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s. Its collapse would destabilise other parts of the ice sheet.

If – or more likely when – Thwaites and its neighbour, the Pine Island glacier, ultimately lose all their ice, one estimate suggests that could raise global sea levels by about 3.4m, enough to affect every coastal city on Earth.

Fastest-moving

Satellites have shown for more than a decade that the Thwaites region is an area of massive change and rapid ice loss as the global climate warms in response to rising greenhouse gas emissions from humans’ profligate use of fossil fuels. The two glaciers are among the fastest-moving in the Antarctic.

One of the scientists involved in the research is David Vaughan, director of science at the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey (BAS). He says he and his colleagues are involved in “a race against time”.

Professor Vaughan told the Climate News Network: “Understanding sea level rise is the front line of climate change, and sea level rise doesn’t happen overnight. [What’s happening to Thwaites] is not an emergency this year, but I’m very glad we’re doing the research this decade, because we can’t wait too long.”

Understanding collapse

As part of a new £20 million (roughly US$27.5m) research collaboration, the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the US National Science Foundation are about to send a team of scientists to Antarctica to gather the data needed to understand when the collapse of the Thwaites glacier could begin – in centuries, or in the next few decades.

NERC and NSF are jointly funding eight large-scale projects that will bring together leading polar scientists in the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), the largest joint project undertaken by the two nations in Antarctica for more than 70 years. The ITGC involves around 100 scientists from leading research institutes in both countries with researchers from South Korea, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland.

There are signs that the process of Thwaites’ collapse has already begun. Antarctica’s glaciers add to sea-level rise when they lose more ice to the ocean than they gain from snowfall. To fully understand the causes of changes in ice flow requires research on the ice itself, the nearby ocean, and the Antarctic climate.

“Sea level rise doesn’t happen overnight. [It’s] not an emergency this year, but I’m very glad we’re doing the research this decade, because we can’t wait too long”

The Collaboration will use drills that can make access holes 1,500 metres into the ice with jets of hot water, as well as other state-of-the-art techniques and equipment, such as autonomous submarines like the Autosub Long Range, the first of whose fleet is named Boaty McBoatface.

While NERC is funding the UK’s share of the project, it is being co-ordinated by BAS, whose total annual budget is around £50m. The agency co-ordinating the US share is the National Snow & Ice Data Center.

As well as the cost of the research itself, the physical problems of mounting a scientific campaign in one of the most remote places in Antarctica could cost as much again in logistical support. The nearest permanently occupied research station to the Thwaites glacier is more than 1,600km away, so even getting the scientists to where they need to be will be demanding.

Collaboration welcome

Researchers on the ice will rely on aircraft support from UK and US research stations, but oceanographers and geophysicists will approach the glacier from the sea in British and American research icebreakers.

The UK’s science minister, Sam Gyimah, said: “Rising sea levels are a globally important issue which cannot be tackled by one country alone. The Thwaites glacier already contributes to rising sea levels, and understanding its likely collapse in the coming century is vitally important.”

The five-year programme begins in October this year and continues to 2023. Its data will be archived and freely shared when it ends. – Climate News Network

Polar ice is melting fast in north and south

In the high latitudes in both hemispheres, the polar ice is in retreat. Two studies support fears for the ice caps, north and south.

LONDON, 10 April, 2018 – New studies have confirmed, once again, the rapid melting of the polar ice in both hemispheres.

A British team has used satellite data to reveal that the retreat of the all-important grounding line of many Antarctic glaciers has accelerated to five times the historic level. And US scientists have confirmed that in Arctic waters the West Greenland ice sheet is now melting faster than at any time in the last 450 years.

Both studies deliver ominous evidence of the long-term consequences of climate change due to profligate human use of fossil fuels. The Greenland icecap holds enough water to raise global sea levels by seven metres. The West Antarctic ice sheet – where the latest study has identified most of the change – holds enough water to raise sea levels by up to five metres.

The UK measure of Antarctic ice retreat is important because it confirms on a wider scale what individual measurements of glacier retreat have already shown: that increasingly warm southern ocean waters are melting the ice at depth.

“This retreat has had a huge impact on inland glaciers, because releasing them from the sea bed removes friction, causing them to speed up and contribute to global sea level rise”

Depth in this study is critical: glaciers move slowly because the frozen rivers are “anchored” or grounded in bedrock as they flow off the continent, and then grounded again up to a kilometre deep off the continental shelf.

This applies a brake to the flow towards the open sea. The further from the coast the grounding line, the slower the glacier’s flow, the more stable the ice shelf, and the slower the consequent sea level rise.

Hannes Konrad of the University of Leeds in the UK and colleagues report in the journal Nature Geoscience that they used the European Space Agency’s satellite Cryosat-2 data to track the changes in the grounding line along 16,000 kilometres of southern polar coastline.

Around West Antarctica, more than a fifth of the ice sheet has retreated faster than the 25 metres or so a year that has been normal since the end of the last ice age. In some cases the retreat of the grounding line has been five times that rate. The retreat has been extreme in eight of the ice sheet’s 65 biggest glaciers.

Clear evidence

“Our study provides clear evidence that retreat is happening across the ice sheet due to ocean melting at its base, and not just at the few spots that have been mapped before now,” Dr Konrad said.

“This retreat has had a huge impact on inland glaciers, because releasing them from the sea bed removes friction, causing them to speed up and contribute to global sea level rise.”

Far to the north, ice is also melting. Erich Osterberg of Dartmouth College in the US and colleagues report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that they collected seven ice cores from a remote zone in the West Greenland ice sheet where meltwater trickles down into the deeper snow and then freezes again: this “new” ice in the compacted snow provides scientists with a record of melting over time.

Longer record

Researchers have been watching the apparent acceleration of the summer melting of Greenland’s ice for decades: they have monitored ever faster rates of glacier flow and tried to identify direct influences on the surface of the ice sheet that might accelerate overall melting.

But direct observation of the northern hemisphere’s largest concentration of ice began only about five decades ago. The Dartmouth cores provide a total of almost five centuries of summer melt patterns.

“The ice core record ends about 450 years ago, so the modern melt rates in these cores are the highest of the whole record that we can see. The advantage of the ice cores is that they show us just how unusual it is for Greenland to be melting this fast,” Dr Osterberg said.

“We see that West Greenland melt really started accelerating about 20 years ago. Our study shows that the rapid rise in the West Greenland melt is a combination of specific weather patterns and an additional long-term warming trend over the last century.” – Climate News Network

In the high latitudes in both hemispheres, the polar ice is in retreat. Two studies support fears for the ice caps, north and south.

LONDON, 10 April, 2018 – New studies have confirmed, once again, the rapid melting of the polar ice in both hemispheres.

A British team has used satellite data to reveal that the retreat of the all-important grounding line of many Antarctic glaciers has accelerated to five times the historic level. And US scientists have confirmed that in Arctic waters the West Greenland ice sheet is now melting faster than at any time in the last 450 years.

Both studies deliver ominous evidence of the long-term consequences of climate change due to profligate human use of fossil fuels. The Greenland icecap holds enough water to raise global sea levels by seven metres. The West Antarctic ice sheet – where the latest study has identified most of the change – holds enough water to raise sea levels by up to five metres.

The UK measure of Antarctic ice retreat is important because it confirms on a wider scale what individual measurements of glacier retreat have already shown: that increasingly warm southern ocean waters are melting the ice at depth.

“This retreat has had a huge impact on inland glaciers, because releasing them from the sea bed removes friction, causing them to speed up and contribute to global sea level rise”

Depth in this study is critical: glaciers move slowly because the frozen rivers are “anchored” or grounded in bedrock as they flow off the continent, and then grounded again up to a kilometre deep off the continental shelf.

This applies a brake to the flow towards the open sea. The further from the coast the grounding line, the slower the glacier’s flow, the more stable the ice shelf, and the slower the consequent sea level rise.

Hannes Konrad of the University of Leeds in the UK and colleagues report in the journal Nature Geoscience that they used the European Space Agency’s satellite Cryosat-2 data to track the changes in the grounding line along 16,000 kilometres of southern polar coastline.

Around West Antarctica, more than a fifth of the ice sheet has retreated faster than the 25 metres or so a year that has been normal since the end of the last ice age. In some cases the retreat of the grounding line has been five times that rate. The retreat has been extreme in eight of the ice sheet’s 65 biggest glaciers.

Clear evidence

“Our study provides clear evidence that retreat is happening across the ice sheet due to ocean melting at its base, and not just at the few spots that have been mapped before now,” Dr Konrad said.

“This retreat has had a huge impact on inland glaciers, because releasing them from the sea bed removes friction, causing them to speed up and contribute to global sea level rise.”

Far to the north, ice is also melting. Erich Osterberg of Dartmouth College in the US and colleagues report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that they collected seven ice cores from a remote zone in the West Greenland ice sheet where meltwater trickles down into the deeper snow and then freezes again: this “new” ice in the compacted snow provides scientists with a record of melting over time.

Longer record

Researchers have been watching the apparent acceleration of the summer melting of Greenland’s ice for decades: they have monitored ever faster rates of glacier flow and tried to identify direct influences on the surface of the ice sheet that might accelerate overall melting.

But direct observation of the northern hemisphere’s largest concentration of ice began only about five decades ago. The Dartmouth cores provide a total of almost five centuries of summer melt patterns.

“The ice core record ends about 450 years ago, so the modern melt rates in these cores are the highest of the whole record that we can see. The advantage of the ice cores is that they show us just how unusual it is for Greenland to be melting this fast,” Dr Osterberg said.

“We see that West Greenland melt really started accelerating about 20 years ago. Our study shows that the rapid rise in the West Greenland melt is a combination of specific weather patterns and an additional long-term warming trend over the last century.” – Climate News Network

Glacial melt will wreck ecosystems

Glacial Yukon Canada
Glacial Yukon Canada

The alarming rate of glacial shrinkage worldwide threatens our current way of life, from biodiversity to tourism, hydropower to clean water supply.

LONDON, 15 September, 2017 – Glaciers cover one-tenth of the planet’s land surface – but not for much longer.

Glaciers worldwide are in retreat, and losing mass. They are shrinking and melting, and that will create problems almost everywhere, according to new research.

Between 2003 and 2009, glaciers melted on a gargantuan scale, with an estimated 1,350 cubic kilometres of meltwater streamed from what had once been vast streams of slowly flowing ice.

Ice has been in retreat in the Gulf of Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Antarctica. In the European Alps summers have become measurably warmer during the last 30 years, snowfall has diminished and 54% of the ice cover in the mountains has disappeared since 1850. By 2100, Alpine summits may have lost around nine-tenths of the ice that still covered them in 2003. In South America, the glaciers of Bolivia lost almost 50% of their mass in the last 50 years. In western Canada, somewhere between 60% and 80% of the ice measured in 2005 will have disappeared, and flowed into the sea to raise sea levels everywhere.

And, says an international team of scientists, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the loss of mountain ice creates problems for the people who live downstream.

We don’t believe that the sheer enormity
of the impact of glacial shrinkage on our downstream
ecosystems has been fully integrated to date”

Glaciers in the basins of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus rivers are right now losing 24 billion metric tons of ice a year: between 2003 and 2009, that added up to about a tenth of all the glacial ice lost everywhere in the world. Ice loss upstream means changes in the timing, magnitude and frequency of the flows downstream, and that in turn affects the levels of sediment, and the nutrients, both for the human populations who depend on the farmland in the valleys and plains below, but also for the natural ecosystems in the rivers, lakes and coastal zones.

It is time, the scientists argue, for some serious thinking: glacier loss cannot be separated from complexities such as changes in natural hazards such as flooding and drought, in agriculture, tourism, hydropower, cultural life and political economy.

We don’t believe that the sheer enormity of the impact of glacial shrinkage on our downstream ecosystems has been fully integrated to date. From biodiversity to tourism, from hydropower to clean water supply, the breadth of risk to our current way of life is vast. The first step must be a realignment in how we view glacial shrinkage, and a research agenda that acknowledges the risk to regions likely to be most affected,” says Alexander Milner, professor of river ecosystems at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, who led the study.

Four tasks

He and colleagues, from Alaska, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, France, Iceland, Denmark, Italy and other UK universities, want the global science community to think about four big things.

They want new technologies to map the details of ice loss with greater precision. They want better global monitoring of the nutrients and contaminants that are now trickling at ever greater rates from glaciers into downstream waterways.They want to see better understanding of the impact of what scientists like to call “ecosystem services” delivered by glaciers – and that includes what happens to salmon habitats and sports fisheries. And they would like to see management plans for change in the most sensitive glacier regions, and that could include international legislation to protect what they call “strategic glacier-derived water resources”.

Researchers have been warning about glacial loss for many years: they have highlighted regional alarms in Greenland, central Asia, the Antarctic, and the Bolivian Andes.

They have firmly linked glacial loss to global warming driven by profligate human fossil fuel combustion and they have warned that such loss risks social change and potential catastrophe for millions.

Glacial water

So the latest study is a kind of summary of the research so far, and an attempt to identify what glaciologists, geographers, hydrologists and social scientists should do to understand the problems ahead, and identify steps to ameliorate some of the worst impacts. They see potential for conflict over access to dwindling water supplies downstream from what had once been great glacier systems.

And, they warn, there is even a religious dimension.

For example, thousands of pilgrims annually traverse the Gangotri Glacier in India, considering it a sacred spot, and in Peru and the Yukon Territory of Canada, indigenous people consider glaciers as gods. In Peru, the loss of ice and snow from mountain peaks is thus associated with the god’s departure and the end of the world. On the Tibetan Plateau, residents consider the glacierised Yulong Snow Mountain their spiritual home, but already 65% have recognised the necessity to potentially migrate to adapt to climate change and achieve a sustainable livelihood,” they write.

These social upheavals would clearly lead to implications across the wider array of services that human populations use from glacier-fed rivers.”
Climate News Network

The alarming rate of glacial shrinkage worldwide threatens our current way of life, from biodiversity to tourism, hydropower to clean water supply.

LONDON, 15 September, 2017 – Glaciers cover one-tenth of the planet’s land surface – but not for much longer.

Glaciers worldwide are in retreat, and losing mass. They are shrinking and melting, and that will create problems almost everywhere, according to new research.

Between 2003 and 2009, glaciers melted on a gargantuan scale, with an estimated 1,350 cubic kilometres of meltwater streamed from what had once been vast streams of slowly flowing ice.

Ice has been in retreat in the Gulf of Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Antarctica. In the European Alps summers have become measurably warmer during the last 30 years, snowfall has diminished and 54% of the ice cover in the mountains has disappeared since 1850. By 2100, Alpine summits may have lost around nine-tenths of the ice that still covered them in 2003. In South America, the glaciers of Bolivia lost almost 50% of their mass in the last 50 years. In western Canada, somewhere between 60% and 80% of the ice measured in 2005 will have disappeared, and flowed into the sea to raise sea levels everywhere.

And, says an international team of scientists, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the loss of mountain ice creates problems for the people who live downstream.

We don’t believe that the sheer enormity
of the impact of glacial shrinkage on our downstream
ecosystems has been fully integrated to date”

Glaciers in the basins of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus rivers are right now losing 24 billion metric tons of ice a year: between 2003 and 2009, that added up to about a tenth of all the glacial ice lost everywhere in the world. Ice loss upstream means changes in the timing, magnitude and frequency of the flows downstream, and that in turn affects the levels of sediment, and the nutrients, both for the human populations who depend on the farmland in the valleys and plains below, but also for the natural ecosystems in the rivers, lakes and coastal zones.

It is time, the scientists argue, for some serious thinking: glacier loss cannot be separated from complexities such as changes in natural hazards such as flooding and drought, in agriculture, tourism, hydropower, cultural life and political economy.

We don’t believe that the sheer enormity of the impact of glacial shrinkage on our downstream ecosystems has been fully integrated to date. From biodiversity to tourism, from hydropower to clean water supply, the breadth of risk to our current way of life is vast. The first step must be a realignment in how we view glacial shrinkage, and a research agenda that acknowledges the risk to regions likely to be most affected,” says Alexander Milner, professor of river ecosystems at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, who led the study.

Four tasks

He and colleagues, from Alaska, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, France, Iceland, Denmark, Italy and other UK universities, want the global science community to think about four big things.

They want new technologies to map the details of ice loss with greater precision. They want better global monitoring of the nutrients and contaminants that are now trickling at ever greater rates from glaciers into downstream waterways.They want to see better understanding of the impact of what scientists like to call “ecosystem services” delivered by glaciers – and that includes what happens to salmon habitats and sports fisheries. And they would like to see management plans for change in the most sensitive glacier regions, and that could include international legislation to protect what they call “strategic glacier-derived water resources”.

Researchers have been warning about glacial loss for many years: they have highlighted regional alarms in Greenland, central Asia, the Antarctic, and the Bolivian Andes.

They have firmly linked glacial loss to global warming driven by profligate human fossil fuel combustion and they have warned that such loss risks social change and potential catastrophe for millions.

Glacial water

So the latest study is a kind of summary of the research so far, and an attempt to identify what glaciologists, geographers, hydrologists and social scientists should do to understand the problems ahead, and identify steps to ameliorate some of the worst impacts. They see potential for conflict over access to dwindling water supplies downstream from what had once been great glacier systems.

And, they warn, there is even a religious dimension.

For example, thousands of pilgrims annually traverse the Gangotri Glacier in India, considering it a sacred spot, and in Peru and the Yukon Territory of Canada, indigenous people consider glaciers as gods. In Peru, the loss of ice and snow from mountain peaks is thus associated with the god’s departure and the end of the world. On the Tibetan Plateau, residents consider the glacierised Yulong Snow Mountain their spiritual home, but already 65% have recognised the necessity to potentially migrate to adapt to climate change and achieve a sustainable livelihood,” they write.

These social upheavals would clearly lead to implications across the wider array of services that human populations use from glacier-fed rivers.”
Climate News Network

Swiss trees swelter as climate warms

Foresters are being urged to plant tree species resilient to climate change to save the timber industry as Swiss trees swelter.

LONDON, 16 August, 2017 – The most important tree for Switzerland’s forestry industry, the Norway spruce, is in danger of dying out in much of the country because it cannot adapt fast enough as Swiss trees swelter in the rising temperatures.

Caroline Heiri, the lead scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), described the findings as “astonishing” and said urgent action was needed to save Switzerland’s forests by planting saplings that can survive the conditions which will occur later this century as the trees grow to maturity.

Switzerland is already acutely aware of the dangers of climate change to its economy as its glaciers shrink and the Alpine snow line rises. This has already forced some lower ski resorts out of business and shortened the season for others.

In order to see what effect climate change would have on another key industry, forestry, scientists planted 16,000 seedlings of the three most important timber species in a nursery to see how they would respond. The seedlings had been brought from nearly 250 different forest locations at different heights, temperatures and water availability.

Long interval

Although all trees can evolve and adapt to climate change over time, there is a gap of up to a hundred years between generations, so the rapid temperature change expected this century will often be too fast for adaptation to happen.

The three species tested were Norway spruce, silver fir and European beech, and the seedlings came from all regions of the country. The researchers studied their growth and monitored the timing of buds breaking in the spring and growth ending in late summer.

Although the seedlings were all planted together in one vast nursery, they maintained the growth patterns that corresponded to the climates at their place of origin.

The scientists, who work in conjunction with the Federal Office for the Environment, concluded that of the three species the Norway spruce had over the centuries adapted very closely to the local climates where it grows. This means that the growing trees and their descendants in these locations will not thrive in rising temperatures, especially in regions which are already warming.

Adaptable fir

The European beech also showed local adaptation, but it was less pronounced than with the spruce. The silver fir, on the other hand, had apparently made few adjustments and thrived in many different conditions, making it a far better bet for Switzerland’s future forests.

The results, published by WSL, show that the Norway spruce, the tree most favoured by the Swiss forestry sector, will be at risk throughout the country from advancing climate change by the end of the 21st century.

Urgent action is required to adapt the forests, and the scientists advise planting Norway spruce only on sites with a good water supply and using seeds originating from warmer habitats.

“If we use seeds from trees in warmer and drier regions, we will at least have a chance for these species to thrive for yet another forest generation”

This will mean they are likely to be already adapted to regions that are currently cool but have started warming. The scientists also suggest planting spruce from the valley floors higher up the mountains, or obtaining specimens from other countries where the tree is already accustomed to warmer and drier climes.

A similar procedure could be applied for European beech, taking seeds from growth locations that are already dry today. “If we use seeds from trees in warmer and drier regions, we will at least have a chance for these species to thrive for yet another forest generation. This way, our forests will remain stable and protect us against natural hazards”, says Caroline Heiri.

The best option, however, is to opt for trees tolerant of much wider environmental conditions, like the silver fir. It may prove Swiss foresters’ major hope for the future, the research concludes. Climate News Network

Foresters are being urged to plant tree species resilient to climate change to save the timber industry as Swiss trees swelter.

LONDON, 16 August, 2017 – The most important tree for Switzerland’s forestry industry, the Norway spruce, is in danger of dying out in much of the country because it cannot adapt fast enough as Swiss trees swelter in the rising temperatures.

Caroline Heiri, the lead scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), described the findings as “astonishing” and said urgent action was needed to save Switzerland’s forests by planting saplings that can survive the conditions which will occur later this century as the trees grow to maturity.

Switzerland is already acutely aware of the dangers of climate change to its economy as its glaciers shrink and the Alpine snow line rises. This has already forced some lower ski resorts out of business and shortened the season for others.

In order to see what effect climate change would have on another key industry, forestry, scientists planted 16,000 seedlings of the three most important timber species in a nursery to see how they would respond. The seedlings had been brought from nearly 250 different forest locations at different heights, temperatures and water availability.

Long interval

Although all trees can evolve and adapt to climate change over time, there is a gap of up to a hundred years between generations, so the rapid temperature change expected this century will often be too fast for adaptation to happen.

The three species tested were Norway spruce, silver fir and European beech, and the seedlings came from all regions of the country. The researchers studied their growth and monitored the timing of buds breaking in the spring and growth ending in late summer.

Although the seedlings were all planted together in one vast nursery, they maintained the growth patterns that corresponded to the climates at their place of origin.

The scientists, who work in conjunction with the Federal Office for the Environment, concluded that of the three species the Norway spruce had over the centuries adapted very closely to the local climates where it grows. This means that the growing trees and their descendants in these locations will not thrive in rising temperatures, especially in regions which are already warming.

Adaptable fir

The European beech also showed local adaptation, but it was less pronounced than with the spruce. The silver fir, on the other hand, had apparently made few adjustments and thrived in many different conditions, making it a far better bet for Switzerland’s future forests.

The results, published by WSL, show that the Norway spruce, the tree most favoured by the Swiss forestry sector, will be at risk throughout the country from advancing climate change by the end of the 21st century.

Urgent action is required to adapt the forests, and the scientists advise planting Norway spruce only on sites with a good water supply and using seeds originating from warmer habitats.

“If we use seeds from trees in warmer and drier regions, we will at least have a chance for these species to thrive for yet another forest generation”

This will mean they are likely to be already adapted to regions that are currently cool but have started warming. The scientists also suggest planting spruce from the valley floors higher up the mountains, or obtaining specimens from other countries where the tree is already accustomed to warmer and drier climes.

A similar procedure could be applied for European beech, taking seeds from growth locations that are already dry today. “If we use seeds from trees in warmer and drier regions, we will at least have a chance for these species to thrive for yet another forest generation. This way, our forests will remain stable and protect us against natural hazards”, says Caroline Heiri.

The best option, however, is to opt for trees tolerant of much wider environmental conditions, like the silver fir. It may prove Swiss foresters’ major hope for the future, the research concludes. Climate News Network