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Clock Is Ticking in West Antarctic

Melting Glaciers-Tracking Their Path - Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:54
Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica

The leading edge of the floating ice tongue of the Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Photo: M. Wolovick

Reports that a portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun to irretrievably collapse, threatening a 4-foot rise in sea levels over the next couple of centuries, surged through the news media last week. But many are asking if even this dramatic news will alter the policy conversation over what to do about climate change.

Glaciers like the ones that were the focus of two new studies move at, well, a glacial pace. Researchers are used to contemplating changes that happen over many thousands of years.

This time, however, we’re talking hundreds of years, perhaps — something that can be understood in comparison to recent history, a timescale of several human generations. In that time, the papers’ authors suggest, melting ice could raise sea levels enough to inundate or at least threaten the shorelines where tens of millions of people live.

“The high-resolution records that we’re getting and the high-resolution models we’re able to make now are sort of moving the questions a little bit closer into human, understandable time frames,” said Kirsty Tinto, a researcher from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has spent a decade studying the Antarctic.

“We’re still not saying things are going to happen this year or next year. But it’s easier to grasp [a couple of hundred years] than the time scales we’re used to looking at.”

The authors of two papers published last week looked at a set of glaciers that slide down into the Amundsen Sea from a huge ice sheet in West Antarctica, which researchers for years have suspected may be nearing an “unstable” state that would lead to its collapse. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is mostly grounded on land that is below sea level (the much larger ice sheet covering East Antarctica sits mostly on land above sea level).

Advances in radar and other scanning technologies have allowed researchers to build a detailed picture of the topography underlying these glaciers, and to better understand the dynamics of how the ice behaves. Where the forward, bottom edge of the ice meets the land is called the grounding line. Friction between the ice and the land holds back the glacier, slowing its progress to the ocean. Beyond that line, however, the ice floats on the sea surface, where it is exposed to warmer ocean water that melts and thins these shelves of ice. As the ice shelves thin and lose mass, they have less ability to hold back the glacier.

What researchers are finding now is that some of these enormous glaciers have become unhinged from the land – ice has melted back from earlier grounding lines and into deeper basins, losing its anchor on the bottom, exposing more ice to the warmer ocean water and accelerating the melting.

In their paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, Eric Rignot and colleagues from the University of California, Irvine, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., described the “rapid retreat” of several major glaciers over the past two decades, including the Pine Island, Thwaites, Haynes, Smith and Kohler glaciers.

“We find no major bed obstacle upstream of the 2011 grounding lines that would prevent further retreat of the grounding lines farther south,” they write. “We conclude that this sector of West Antarctica is undergoing a marine ice sheet instability that will significantly contribute to sea level rise in decades to come.”

The region studied holds enough ice to raise sea levels by about 4 feet (Pine Island Glacier alone covers about 62,000 square miles, larger than Florida). If the whole West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt, it could raise the oceans about 16 feet.

 Eric Rignot

The glaciers studied by Rignot’s research team. Red indicates areas where flow speeds have increased over the past 40 years. The darker the color, the greater the increase. The increases in flow speeds extend hundreds of miles inland. Image: Eric Rignot

In the second paper, Ian Joughlin and colleagues from the University of Washington used models to investigate whether the Thwaites and Haynes glaciers, which together are a major contributor to sea level change, were indeed on their way to collapsing. “The simulations indicate that early-stage collapse has begun,” they said. How long that would take varies with different simulations – from 200 to 900 years.

“All of our simulations show it will retreat at less than a millimeter of sea level rise per year for a couple of hundred years, and then, boom, it just starts to really go,” Joughin said in a news release from the University of Washington.

Many scientists who’ve been studying the region were already braced for the storm.

“It’s gone over the tipping point, and there’s no coming back,” said Jim Cochran, another Lamont researcher with experience in the Antarctic. “This … confirms what we’ve been thinking for quite a while.”

Cochran is principal lead investigator for Columbia University in Ice Bridge, the NASA-directed program that sends scientists to Antarctica and Greenland to study ice sheets, ice shelves and sea ice using airborne surveys. Much of the data used in the new papers came from the Ice Bridge project.

Tinto, also an Ice Bridge veteran, agreed. “I thought it was pretty exciting, because we’ve all been working on this area for a long time, and that potential for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to behave in this way, we’ve been aware of it for a long time,” she said. “[It] made me want to get in there and look at the rest of the area, what else is going on.”

And there are still many questions about what’s going on: How fast the ocean that swirls around Antarctica is warming, how those ocean currents shift, and to what extent that is influenced by global warming.

“I have a problem with the widespread implication (in the popular press) that the West Antarctic collapse can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change,” said Mike Wolovik, a graduate researcher at Lamont-Doherty who studies ice sheet dynamics. “The marine ice sheet instability is an inherent part of ice sheet dynamics that doesn’t require any human forcing to operate. When the papers say that collapse is underway, and likely to last for several hundred years, that’s a reasonable and plausible conclusion.”

But, he said, the link between CO2 levels and the loss of ice in West Antarctica “is pretty tenuous.” The upwelling of warmer waters that melt the ice has been tied to stronger westerly winds around Antarctica, which have been linked to a stronger air pressure difference between the polar latitudes and the mid-latitudes, which have in turn been linked to global warming.

“I’m not an atmospheric scientist, so I can’t evaluate the strength of all of those linkages,” Wolovik said. “However, it’s a lot of linkages.” And that leaves a lot of room for uncertainty about what’s actually causing the collapse of the glaciers, he said.

Researchers have been discussing the theory of how marine ice sheets become unstable for many years, said Stan Jacobs, an oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty who has studied ocean currents and their impact on ice shelves for several decades.

“Some of us are a bit wary of indications that substantial new ground has been broken” by the two new papers, Jacobs said. While ocean temperatures seem to be the main cause of the West Antarctic ice retreat, there’s a lot of variability in how heat is transported around the ocean in the region, and it’s unclear what’s driving that, he said. And, he’s skeptical that modeling the system at this point can accurately predict the timing of the ice’s retreat.

But, he added, “this is one more message indicating that a substantial sea level rise from continued melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could occur in the foreseeable future. In the absence of serious near-term greenhouse gas mitigation efforts, such as an escalating tax on carbon, they may well be right.”

“It starts bringing it a little closer to home,” said Tinto. “It’s a significant amount of change, but something we can start planning for. Hopefully [this will] make people stop procrastinating and start planning for it.”

Cochran agreed: The papers’ message is “that … over the next couple hundred years, there’s going to be a significant rise in sea level, and at this point we can’t stop it.” But, he added, “it doesn’t say give up on trying to cut emissions. … [Just] don’t buy land in Florida.”

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For further details on what’s going on in West Antarctica, check out these resources:

The two papers in question:

Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica from 1992 to 2011, E. Rignot, J. Mouginot, M. Morlighem, H. Seroussi, B. Scheuchl, Geophysical Research Letters (2014)

Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Underway for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica, Ian Joughin, Benjamin E. Smith, Brooke Medley, Science (2014)

Unexpected Sisters

Geopoetry - Fri, 05/23/2014 - 08:42
 BBC Photo Library.

An artist’s rendering of the extinct Elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus), which lived in Madagascar. Aepyornis stood over 3 meters tall. Image source: BBC Photo Library.

 

An ancient island’s trove of treasure: Madagascan fauna
Tenrec, fossa, lemur, hippo, dugong, bat, iguana.
A giant bird – O, wondrous beast! – a half a ton, and tall,
Laid foot-long eggs, had beefy legs, and did not fly at all.
Another ratite, far away within the South Pacific,
The kiwi! Shy, with furry feathers, appetite terrific.
Among the old-jawed birds, you wouldn’t guess that they’re close kin,
But DNA reveals a link from deep, deep down within.
If the kiwi’s closest kin is not its moa neighbor,
Drawing up the family tree might seem a puzzling labor.
The simplest answer blows the mind – it seems that they all flew
With wings they spread across the globe, and filled in niches new.
Dinos gone (darn asteroid) left lots of open spaces,
Birds came in, diversified, flew on an as-need basis.
From this, it seems that flightlessness evolved six separate times!
The song of life, though improvised, with patterns clear it chimes.

 

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Further reading:

Ancient DNA reveals elephant birds and kiwi are sister taxa and clarifies ratite bird evolution, Mitchell et al., 2014, Science.

Little kiwi, huge extinct elephant bird were birds of a feather, Reuters

The Surprising Closest Relative of the Huge Elephant Birds, National Geographic

This is one in a series of poems based on science news, written by Katherine Allen, a researcher in geochemistry and paleoclimate at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Flood-Resistant Neighborhood Would Be 80 Years in the Making - WNYC

Featured News - Thu, 05/22/2014 - 11:00
A new neighborhood built on landfill in the East River would withstand a 100-year flood; But is that enough? Lamont's Klaus Jacob weighs in.

Yakima Herald Republic - What Lies Beneath Mount St. Helens?

Featured News - Tue, 05/20/2014 - 11:00
Features an upcoming project with Lamont's Geoffrey Abers to understand how Washington’s most active volcano works.

Desert Blocked Spread of Early Dinosaurs - National Geographic

Featured News - Tue, 05/20/2014 - 11:00
An immense desert kept dinosaurs from spreading into what is now North America for millions of years, suggests a study led by Lamont's Dennis Kent in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In Taking Crimea, Putin Gains a Sea of Fuel Reserves - New York Times

Featured News - Sun, 05/18/2014 - 11:00
Lamont-Doherty marine geologist William Ryan, who has studied the Black Sea region extensively, comments on the oil resources within Russia's newly claimed maritime zone around Crimea.

Rockland Scientist Now Geology Heavyweight - (Rockland, N.Y.) Journal News

Featured News - Sun, 05/18/2014 - 11:00
Profile of Lamont-Doherty climate scientist Maureen Raymo, winner of the 2014 Wollaston Medal.

Weak Underbelly

Geopoetry - Fri, 05/16/2014 - 10:44
 New York Times.

A view of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (Landsat). Source: New York Times.

 

Antarctica’s uncertain fuse,
A “weak underbelly,” said Hughes.
Pine Island and Thwaites,
Thrown open, the gates?
As humans, what path should we choose?

The East’s held strong millions of years,
Despite cries of wolf from some peers.
West into the sea,
Up one foot, or three?
Uncertainty some meet with sneers.

Below salty waves, ice is grounded …
In this case, we see fears are founded.
In our defense,
Some centuries hence,
I hope they’ll say reason resounded.

 

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Further reading:

Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans From Polar Melt, Justin Gillis and Kenneth Chang, New York Times.

Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Underway for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica, Joughin et al., 2014, Science.

Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica from 1992 to 2011, Rignot et al., 2014, PNAS.

This is one in a series of poems based on science news, written by Katherine Allen, a researcher in geochemistry and paleoclimate at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Droughts May Slash US Maize Gains - Climate News Network

Featured News - Wed, 05/14/2014 - 08:19
Dramatic climate events can change forest composition, says a recent study led by Lamont's Neil Pederson.

'Missing' Mud in Hudson River Holds Climate Change Clue - (Rockland, N.Y.) Journal News

Featured News - Mon, 05/12/2014 - 11:00
Lamont's Tim Kenna and Frank Nitsche go looking for more than a million tons of sediment washed into the Hudson River during Hurricane Irene.

Agency Urges Quake Study for Indian Point - New York Times

Featured News - Fri, 05/09/2014 - 11:00
Lamont's Lynn Sykes on a Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommendation that the reactors at Indian Point be reassessed for earthquake risk.

The New World

Geopoetry - Fri, 05/09/2014 - 09:24
Archaeological expedition in the Peruvian Andes (Kurt Rademaker, University of Maine at Orono).

Archaeological expedition in the Peruvian Andes (Kurt Rademaker, University of Maine at Orono).

 

On a man in the mountains, dusk falls;

Shadows seep upward and spread.

Scaling the black, chiseled walls,

He silently seeks the dead.

 

The Andes, sharp spine of Peru,

Shelter small secrets of stone.

That night, an ancient milieu:

Obsidian, jasper, bone.

 

Into deep history, peer:

Sharp edges of tools, human craft!

Adventurous people lived here,

Climbed, feasted, laughed.

 

Archaeological expedition in the Peruvian Andes (Kurt Rademaker, UMaine)

Archaeological expedition in the Peruvian Andes (Kurt Rademaker, UMaine)

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Further reading:

Science-2014-Gibbons-567-8 (pdf)

“New Sites Bring the Earliest Americans Out of the Shadows,” Ann Gibbons, Science, 2014

This is one in a series of poems based on science news, written by Katherine Allen, a researcher in geochemistry and paleoclimate at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The Woman Who Made the First True Map of the Earth - Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Featured News - Sun, 05/04/2014 - 11:00
Features the work of the late Lamont scientist Marie Tharp to map earth's ocean floor.

National Academy Elects Three Columbia Faculty Members - Columbia Record

Featured News - Fri, 05/02/2014 - 12:03
Lamont geologist Peter Kelemen is one of three Columbia University faculty members elected this year to the National Academy of Sciences.

Watch Seismic Waves of 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake Roll Through State - LiveScience

Featured News - Fri, 05/02/2014 - 11:00
New research by Lamont's Meredith Nettles confirms that Alaska's 1964 earthquake was the second-largest recorded, at magnitude 9.4.

The Breathing Ocean

Geopoetry - Fri, 05/02/2014 - 10:10
 Jaccard et al. (2013) Science

Image: Jaccard et al. (2013) Science

Far south and farther south, where winds are cold and screaming,
Waters churn, and deep below, old sediments lie dreaming.
A million years’ residuum of life and death and dust,
A library of ice ages reposed upon Earth’s crust.
Very finely teased apart, this elemental tale,
On barium and opal deep into the past we sail.
With all the evidence aligned, a pattern brightly blazes:
Descent into an ice age world proceeds in two key phases.
An orchestra with many players ‘tween warm-cold inflecting;
Tiny cells, abyssal flow, great winds … now, who’s directing?

_________________________________________________

Further reading:

Two Modes of Change in Southern Ocean Productivity Over the Past Million Years, Jaccard, Hayes et al., Science, 2013

This is one in a series of poems based on science news, written by Katherine Allen, a researcher in geochemistry and paleoclimate at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “The Breathing Ocean” first appeared on Allen’s website on March 22, 2013.

Study Links Wastewater Injection, 2011 Oklahoma Ouake - Associated Press

Featured News - Thu, 05/01/2014 - 11:00
A new study in the Journal of Geophysical Research coauthored by Lamont's Geoff Abers explores why relatively small wastewater injections may have led to a relatively big, magnitude 5.7 earthquake near Prague, Oklahoma in 2011.

Hell’s Chicken

Geopoetry - Fri, 04/25/2014 - 09:00
 Mark Klingler/Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The dinosaur Anzu wyliei. Illustration: Mark Klingler/Carnegie Museum of Natural History

From our great, wild west, those rusty, dusty hills,
Bones of a beast who would give a cowboy chills.
A fierce-looking crest – a mohawk made of bone!
Claws, beak, bony tail, locked within hard stone.
Heavy as a tiger, scary yet absurd;
Anzu, feathered giant: a dino, not-quite-bird.
Mysterious, its habits – egg-eaters? A chance.
But this terrifying creature may have also eaten plants.
We piece together dreams of the verdant late Cretaceous,
Shards, broken clues from the patient and tenacious.
How I wish I could’ve seen this dinosaur humungous;
I guess I’ll have to settle for their relatives among us!

______________________________________________

NVO

© Wikipedia:NVO

A New Large-Bodied Oviraptorosaurian Theropod Dinosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of Western North America, PLoS One, 3/19/14

Dinosaur dubbed ‘chicken from hell’ was armed and dangerous, The Guardian, 3/19/14

National Geographic, 3/19/14

Huffington Post, 3/19/14

This is one in a series of poems based on science news, written by Katherine Allen, a researcher in geochemistry and paleoclimate at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. You can read more on Allen’s website.

Earthquakes and the Texas Miracle - Dallas Magazine

Featured News - Thu, 04/24/2014 - 11:00
Work by Lamont's John Armbruster and colleagues that have linked earthquakes to underground fluid injection cited.

Water Utility Denies Presence of Arsenic - Vietnam News

Featured News - Thu, 04/24/2014 - 09:06
A 2013 study led by Lamont's Lex van Geen found that arsenic had leached its way into a major drinking-water aquifer servicing Hanoi.
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