A naled, or aufeis, in the flesh. Er, ice.
It sounds like science fiction, but, like so many science fiction-ish ideas in the age of radical adaption to climate change, it’s real: Mongolia is launching a $750,000 geoengineering project to freeze vast quantities of the Tuul River in order to cool its capital city of Ulan Bataar during the sweltering summer, and to provide drinking water as the ice melts, as well. While specifics about exactly how the cooling will work are scarce, details about the freezing process are not, as it will mimic a natural process that already occurs on rivers in the north.
[Originally published 9/16] Greenland glaciers have had a hard time of it lately, what with all the warming and disintegrating, and in their latest edition, the folks at the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World have decided to illustrate the island’s new look: as you can see above, lots and lots less white. The warming has even created a new island off the east coast: look closely just under the “Gr” in “Greenland Sea,” and you can see the words “Uunartoq Qeqertoq (Warming I.)”
If we are looking at a radically reshaped world in the next hundred years or more, maybe atlases will have to be more like dictionaries from here on out, recording the dynamic nature of their subject matter.
[Update 9/19: Scientists at the UK’s Scott Polar Institute have written a letter to the Times saying that the image above is inaccurate; less ice has melted in the last 15 years than the atlas’s image shows. The atlas’s publishers, HarperCollins, respond that they created the image using data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, and that it represents not only changes due to warming but also “much more accurate data and in-depth research” than had previously been available. Regardless of the causes, however, the image doesn’t resemble current satellite images, the Scott Polar group says. Check out a comparison of the images here. What do you think?]
Fiordland National Park in New Zealand, the location of the study
What’s the News: Researchers have mapped out the detailed geological history of a 300-square-mile chunk of New Zealand, from 2.5 million years ago to the present day. The study showed how glaciers carved out the area’s distinctive valleys using a little-known technique called thermochronometry, which involves shooting proton beams onto rocks and making note of what happens—along with some impressive analytical skills.
The glaciers that form atop mountains can act like a saw or sandpaper, wearing away material as they slide and preventing the peaks from ascending too high. Until now, that’s been the consensus notion of how glaciers shape mountains. But whatever your tool shop metaphor of choice might be, neither saws nor sanders work if the glaciers don’t move. That might explain what’s happening in the far reaches of southern South America, where, scientists led by Stuart Thomson report in Nature, glaciers are not wearing down the Andes Mountains but are actually protecting them from erosion.
In the more temperate part of the range, from 38˚ to 49˚ south latitude, the glacial grinder has shaved off as much as 1000 meters from the mountains’ peaks, flattened their slopes, and smoothed their surfaces. But farther south, between 49˚ and 56˚ latitude, the mountains have been spared: The peaks are higher—some nearly 4000 meters—and the ridges are much more rugged. [ScienceNOW]
Why is Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier losing so much ice into the sea? Because, researchers say, it has come unstuck at the bottom.
The Western Ice Sheet in Antarctica contains “enough water to raise global sea levels by several metres,” Christian Schoof writes in an accompanying commentary on the paper in Nature Geoscience, and so the high rate of ice loss in place like Pine Island is a worry. But the force of the atmosphere, even if you accounted for a warming Antarctica, doesn’t explain the melting rate. So the British Antarctic Survey team led by Adrian Jenkins ventured a guess that something else was going on under the ice, and sent a robot to investigate.
What the autonomous underwater bot found was pretty jarring.
In just a few decades — since the 1970s — the relatively warm deep ocean water flowing beneath the cold, buoyant glacier meltwater has encroached inland under the glacier some 30 km, or 18.6 miles, and the pace of the outflow of Pine Island Glacier continues to accelerate [Discovery News].
The volcanic eruption in Iceland that has disrupted air traffic in Europe is also a reminder that other volcanoes in the region could wake up if global warming continues unabated, experts say.
Scientists say that if large icecaps on the island melt, they’ll ease the pressure on the rocks beneath the surface. Lifting the weight off the rocks would allow for more magma production, which could set off other eruptions. Says volcanologist Freysteinn Sigmundsson: “Our work suggests that eventually there will be either somewhat larger eruptions or more frequent eruptions in Iceland in coming decades” [Scientific American].
Scientists clarified that while the current Eyjafjallajokull eruption occurred beneath a small glacier in Iceland, the explosion was not caused by global warming. The Eyjafjallajokull glacier is too small and light to have an impact on local geology, they say.
Don’t be fooled by the name—Iceland is one of the hottest hotspots in the world, geologically speaking. The island’s volcanic legacy reared its head again yesterday as a massive eruption by a volcano beneath a glacier caused the evacuation of hundreds of residents and created ash clouds that delayed flights all around Northern Europe.
The volcano, called Eyjafjallajokull, rumbled last month, but that was nothing like this. “This is a very much more violent eruption, because it’s interacting with ice and water,” said Andy Russell, an expert in glacial flooding at the University of Newcastle in northern England. “It becomes much more explosive, instead of a nice lava flow oozing out of the ground” [AP]. The flood caused by melted glacial ice caused the evacuation about 800 people. Waters threatened to spill over onto Highway 1, Iceland’s main highway that makes a circuit around the island. But some quick digging by construction crews altered the course of the water.
Just when the whole “ClimateGate” affair had retreated from the headlines, other climate scientists have stepped in to shoot themselves in the foot in the public spotlight. In a new slow-simmering controversy that reached major news outlets this week, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chief Rajendra Pachauri admitted that one of the details in the 2007 report was a mistake. Though the goof is a minor one (in that it doesn’t change the conclusion of the report), the backlash probably won’t be, given what happened the last time around.
Specifically, one part of the report states that the Himalayan glaciers are retreating faster than anywhere else in the world, and that there’s a good chance they could totally disappear by 2035. But while it’s true that the glaciers are retreating, the date given is a gross overstatement. “You just can’t accomplish it,” says Jeffrey Kargel from the University of Arizona. “If you think about the thicknesses of the ice – 200-300m thicknesses, in some cases up to 400m thick – and if you’re losing ice at the rate of a metre a year, or let’s say double it to two metres a year, you’re not going to get rid of 200m of ice in a quarter of a century” [BBC News].
Global warming typically takes the rap for melting glaciers, but in the case of the Himalayan mountain range’s dwindling ice, it could have a co-conspirator: soot. Today, at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting, scientists said that the black carbon spewed out as industrial pollution from the heavily populated areas nearby could be a much larger contributor to glacier melt than previously thought.
First, NASA’s William Lau says, atmospheric circulation leaves a layer of soot at the base of the Himalayas, and that soot then combines with dust and forms an opaque cloud that absorbs energy. As this layer heats up in the Himalayan foothills, it rises and enhances the seasonal northward flow of humid monsoon winds, forcing moisture and hot air up the slopes of the majestic mountain range. As these particles rise on the warm, overturning air masses, they produce more rain over northern India, which further warms the atmosphere and fuels this “heat pump” that draws even more warm air to the region [LiveScience].
Climate change doesn’t affect all places equally, and while Greenland and West Antarctica’s glaciers have started slipping into the sea at an alarming rate, East Antarctica was actually gaining ice. But now that could be changing, as a Nature Geoscience study done with data from NASA’s gravity-measuring satellites called GRACE suggests that the area could now be losing mass.
East Antarctica is far too cold, even in summer, for any appreciable melting to happen. And since a warmer world means more precipitation, any extra snow that falls on East Antarctica stays there indefinitely. But, starting in 2006, GRACE began to detect lower gravity over East Antarctica, suggesting that the ice sheet was getting less massive [TIME].
The scientists note that there is a huge uncertainty in their numbers: GRACE data suggests a 57 billion-ton-per-year loss, plus or minus 52 billion tons. (The reason is that the bedrock beneath Antarctica could be bouncing back slightly with less ice to weigh it down, which would cross up GRACE’s readings.) Some researchers are not convinced that the continent is losing mass, since the margins for error in the team’s analysis range between 5 and 109 billion tonnes of ice loss per year [New Scientist].
While the amount of East Antarctica ice loss remains in doubt, you can’t miss the huge chunks of Antarctic ice that have floated up near New Zealand this week and posed dangers for shipping. This is only the second time in 78 years that large Antarctic icebergs have been sighted so far north. The previous occasion was in late 2006 when icebergs could be seen from the eastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, even from the hills around Christchurch [CNN].
80beats: Fossils of Shrimp-Like Creatures Point to Warmer Antarctica in the Distant Past
80beats: Floods Beneath Antarctica’s Ice Sheet Create a Glacial Slip-and-Slide
80beats: Antarctica is Definitely Feeling the Heat from Global Warming
DISCOVER: Grace in Space looked at the Grace satellites in detail
80beats: From 300 Miles Up, [Grace] Satellites See Water Crisis in India’s Future
Image: flickr / giladr