Roundup: Antarctic Coral, Laser Ultrasound, and Totten Glacier

Ecology of Antarctic Coral

From Science Direct: “Antarctic ecosystems present highly marked seasonal patterns in energy input, which in turn determines the biology and ecology of marine invertebrate species. The pennatulid Malacobelemnon daytoni, is one of the most abundant species in Potter Cove, Antarctica. Its biochemical compositions were studied over a year-round period. The profiles suggest an omnivorous diet and opportunistic feeding strategy for the species, which supports the hypothesis that resuspension events may be an important source of energy, reducing the seasonality of food depletion periods in winter. This gives us a better insight into the species’ success in Potter Cove and under the current environmental changes experienced by the Antarctic Peninsula.”

Learn more about the Malacobelemnon daytoni here.

The Antarctic Peninsula (Source: Halley Wombat/Creative Commons).

New Laser Ultrasound Aids Ice Core Studies

From MDPI: “The study of climate records in ice cores requires an accurate determination of annual layering within the cores in order to establish a depth-age relationship. We present a complimentary elastic wave remote sensing method based on laser ultrasonics, which is used to measure variations in ultrasonic wave arrival times and velocity along the core with millimeter resolution. Custom optical windows allow the source and receiver lasers to be located outside the cold room, while the core is scanned by moving it with a computer-controlled stage. These new data may be used to infer stratigraphic layers from elastic parameter variations within an ice core, as well as analyze ice crystal fabrics.”

Read more about the wave remote sensing method here.

Research teams in Antarctica to study lead pollution through ice cores (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Creative Commons).

Totten Glacier Mass Loss

From University of Exeter: “A large volume of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet drains through the Totten Glacier (TG) and is thought to be a potential source of substantial global sea level rise over the coming centuries. We show the surface velocity and height of the floating part of TG, which buttresses the grounded component, have varied substantially over two decades, with variations in surface height strongly anti-correlated with simulated basal melt rates. Coupled glacier/ice-shelf simulations confirm ice flow and thickness respond to both basal melting of the ice shelf and grounding on bed obstacles. We conclude the observed variability of TG is primarily ocean-driven. Ocean warming in this region will lead to enhanced ice-sheet dynamism and loss of upstream grounded ice.”

Learn more about the Totten glacier’s mass loss here.

Shelf ice calving in Antarctica (Source: Ice Sheets/Wikimedia Commons).

Photo Friday: Air Bubbles in Glacial Ice

Glacial ice can range in age from several hundred to several thousands of years old. In order to study long-term climate records, scientists drill and extract ice cores from glaciers and ice sheets. The ice cores contain information about past climate, giving scientists the ability to learn about the evolution of ice and past climates. Trapped air bubbles contain past atmospheric composition, information on temperature variations, and types of vegetation from earlier times.

Studying ice bubbles is one way for scientists to know that there have been several Ice Ages, for example. Unfortunately, glaciers have been retreating at unprecedented rates since the early twentieth century, destroying ice bubbles. This Photo Friday, view images of these information-packed glacier ice bubbles.

Glacial air bubbles in the South Pole (Source: Michael Creasy/Twitter)
Blue ice is formed when snow falls on the glacier, is compressed, and becomes part of the glacier (Source: Jamie Mae/Twitter).
The bubble air has been trapped in the ice for thousands of years. As glaciers are retreating, the imprisoned air is slowly released as the ice melts (Source: Dru!/Creative Commons)
Scientists sample air bubbles trapped in the glacial ice to understand atmospheric conditions (Source: Booizzy/Creative Commons).

Tibetan Plateau Shows Warming Slowdown

From 2001 to 2014, climate scientists observed a “hiatus” or pause in global warming. It is an issue that has led to much discussion in the scientific community and among climate skeptics who see the trend as an indication that global warming does not exist. According to a paper published by Fyfe et al., the word “hiatus” is not fully accurate. Instead, instrument data shows a slowdown or deceleration (as opposed to a full halt) of global warming at the beginning of the 21st century. Glaciers are key in helping us understanding the global warming slowdown.

In a recent article, Wenling An et al. describe how the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau show evidence of the recent warming slowdown. Known as the “Roof of the World,” the Tibetan Plateau spans 1,565,000 square kilometers and is the origin of the Indus, Mekong, and Yangtze Rivers. Due to its large size and location near the tropics, the plateau is one of the most ecologically diverse alpine regions in the world. Therefore, the Tibetan Plateau’s response to climate change has been studied extensively, with researchers relying on both meteorological and paleoclimate data.

Most studies to date have taken place in the more accessible eastern and central parts of the Tibetan Plateau, where there are a greater number of meteorological stations. Meanwhile, the northwestern part of the plateau remains remote and formidable. Thus, data gathered in the northwestern plateau continues to be sparse and collected during shorter timeframes. But the northwestern area has an important connection to the Asian monsoon season and mid-latitudes, recently prompting scientists to focus increased attention on gathering higher resolution data from the area. For one, the Tibetan Plateau plays an important role in the Asian monsoon season by acting as a heat source in the summer and a heat sink in the winter, according to an article by Hongxu Zhao and G.W.K. Moore.

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A view of the Tibetan Plateau during the spring (Source: Andrew and Annemarie/Creative Commons).

Interestingly, the new data collected by An et al. revealed that the eastern and northwestern parts of the plateau have experienced entirely different temperature trends since the beginning of the 21st century. The eastern part shows increased warming during that period, while the northwestern part shows no warming.

In their research, An et al. describe the usefulness of using ice cores (drilled samples of ice from a glacier) to detect this phenomena in climate data. For example, ratios of stable isotopes (forms of the same element with a different number of neutrons) found in ice cores provide information that informs us about past climate conditions.

Studies were done on ice cores taken from the Tibetan Plateau examining the relationship of a particular variation of the amount of an oxygen isotope (δ18O) with precipitation and air temperature. The precipitation on the plateau was captured within the ice core as snow, which then converted to ice. The data demonstrated a positive correlation. This means the higher the concentration of δ18O, the higher the temperature of the air when the water evaporated.

In situations of higher δ18O, the research indicates that the air temperature was higher at the time the snow formed. Aside from temperature, the effect of seasonality and the precipitation amount were also examined to understand the relationship of the δ18O concentrations. Through statistical t-tests, An et al. concluded that seasonality and the precipitation amount did not have an effect on the concentration as temperature does. The results indicate that the temperature is the factor influencing the concentration of δ18O, rather than other factors.

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An aerial view of the Tibetan Plateau (Source: NASA/Creative Commons).

The authors of the study drilled ice cores at Chongce Glacier on the northwestern part of the Tibetan Plateau. They looked at samples approximately 60m long and 6000m above sea level, focusing on the δ18O in the ice cores. The team’s conclusions were consistent with other studies of the area, showing that the levels of the isotope increased significantly in the 1990s, and remained high until 2008, when the δ18O levels started to show a steep decline in concentration from 2009 to 2012. This demonstrates that temperature increased significantly until 2008, when the increases in temperature slowed. This research matches two other ice cores taken from the area, as well as instrument data, demonstrating that the Chongce ice cores provide accurate information about past climate. This data further matches global trends.

Temperature has the largest effect on regulating the state of the Tibetan Plateau. As temperatures increase, melting of the glaciers on the plateau increases. The state of the glaciers on the northwestern part of the plateau has been largely stable since the beginning of the 21st century, likely due to slowed warming in the area. Tibetan Plateau glaciers tell us a lot about the pace of global warming and will continue to be a key tool in understanding how the Earth responds to changes in temperature.

Creating the World’s First Ice Core Bank in Antarctica

Glaciers contain valuable information about past environments on Earth within the layers of ice that accumulate over hundreds or thousands of years. However, alpine glaciers have lost 50 percent of their mass since 1850, and projections suggest that glaciers below 3500m will not exist by 2100. Concerns about the loss of this valuable resource motivated Jérôme Chappellaz, a senior scientist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and an international team of glaciologists, to create the world’s first archive of ice cores from different parts of the world.

Concordia Station in Antarctica, where the cores will be stored underground at -54 °C (Source: Stephen Hudson/Creative Commons).
Concordia Station in Antarctica, where cores will be stored underground (Source: Stephen Hudson/Creative Commons).

Ice cores are cylindrical sections of ice sheets or glaciers collected by vertical drilling. Chemical components within different layers of ice in glaciers, such as gases, heavy metals, chemical isotopes (forms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei) and acids, allow scientists to study past atmospheric composition and to draw inferences on environmental variables such as temperature changes and sea levels. Cores will be extracted between now and 2020, after which they will be transported for storage to Concordia Station in Antarctica, a joint French-Italian base located on the Antarctic Plateau. Antarctica serves as a natural freezer, allowing the cores to be stored 10 meters below the surface at temperatures of -54°C. International management of the archive, which will be large enough to contain cores from up to 20 glaciers, will be facilitated by the lack of territorial disputes in Antarctica.

A drilling tent on the side of Col du Dôme (Source: Sarah Del Ben/Wild Touch/Foundation UGA)
A drilling tent at the Col du Dôme (Source: Sarah Del Ben/Wild Touch/Foundation UGA).

The first cores that will go into the archive were collected in summer 2016 between August 16th and 27th. Over this time period, two teams of French, Italian and Russian researchers successfully collected three ice cores, each 130 meters long and 92 millimeters in diameter, from France’s Col du Dôme glacier (4300m above sea level) on Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Drilling was carried out within drilling tents at nighttime because daytime temperatures were too high. The cores were then cut into one meter sections for storage and transportation purposes.

Scientists with sections of the ice cores obtained from Col du Dôme (Source: Sarah Del Ben/Wild Touch/Foundation UGA)
Scientists with sections of the ice cores from Col du Dôme (Source: Sarah Del Ben/Wild Touch/Foundation UGA).

The cores are currently stored in our commercial freezers at Grenoble, France, waiting for the long term storage cave at Concordia Station in Antarctica to be built,” Chappellaz told GlacierHub. “One of the three cores will be used during the coming two years to produce reference records of all tracers (chemical components of ice that reveal information about the natural environment) that can be measured with today’s technologies.”

The next drilling for the archive will take place in May 2017 at Illimani glacier in the Bolivian Andes (6300m above sea level). As with the drilling at Col du Dôme glacier, the project will be overseen by Patrick Ginot, a research engineer at the Laboratory of Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics (LGGE) in Grenoble. The collection of ice cores has relied on intense international collaboration, and Ginot will be working with glaciologists from Bolivia to extract the cores.

Mount Illimani with the city of La Paz in the foreground (Source: Mark Goble/Flickr).
Mount Illimani with the city of La Paz in the foreground (Source: Mark Goble/Creative Commons).

Illimani is one of the few Latin American glaciers that contains information stretching back to the last glacial maximum around 20,000 years ago. Although ice cores collected from the Arctic and Antarctica, such as those from Dome C, provide information stretching back to that period, the value of the cores lies in the information they are able to provide about specific regions. For example, ice cores from France’s Col du Dôme glacier can provide information about European industrial emissions, while ice cores from Bolivia’s Illimani glacier could offer insight into the history of biomass burning in the Amazon basin.

Scientists using a drilling machine to extract an ice core from Col du Dôme (Source: Sarah Del Ben/Wild Touch/Foundation UGA)
Scientists use a drilling machine to extract an ice core from Col du Dôme (Source: Sarah Del Ben/Wild Touch/Foundation UGA).

Glaciers will be selected based on a number of criteria, with priority given to glaciers that contain large amounts of information about the regions from which they are collected, that are in significant danger of melting, and for which relevant expertise is available. Col du Dôme glacier was chosen by Chappellaz and his team as the first site because it met this criteria, while the proximity of the site to the CNRS laboratory allowed the starting budget to cover the logistics of the project.

Gaining funding has been one of the main obstacles to the creation of the archive, according to Chappellaz. “As we are not the scientists who are going to perform new science on the heritage ice cores, the usual funding agencies for science are not really interested by the project. Therefore, we had to build it entirely around donations,” he explained. Nevertheless, the project is gaining ground, with future plans to extract ice cores from Colle Gnifetti glacier at the Italian-Swiss border, Mera glacier in Nepal, the Huascaran glacier in Peru, and Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. More information about current and future plans can be found here.

Scientists participating in these plans to extract cores from these regions hope to be able to preserve a valuable resource that will be the property of the international community. They are in discussions with UNESCO and the United Nations Environment Programme to coordinate the creation of a political and scientific governing body to manage the ice core archive.

Further uses for these ice cores will depend on the development of scientific ideas and technology, which may allow new aspects of data within the ice to be analyzed. However, as Chappellaz suggested, “What we can already indicate is that studies of the biological content in the ice, such as bacteria and viruses, will probably become an important area for ice core science in the future, with possible applications in medical research.” As such, efforts to preserve rapidly disappearing resources not only enhance our understanding of Earth, but could also allow for new uses yet to be discovered.

Roundup: Glaciers are Visited by Tourists, Scientists and Microbes

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

Glacier National Park prepares for busier season this year

From KPAS:

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local retailer near Glacier National Park (source: Kpax)

Glacier National Park continue to celebrate their 100th year anniversary and anticipates a very busy upcoming summer season and even launched a new program. “Last year we saw a 3%-4% increase in visitation. It was our highest visitation on record; 2.3 million people we welcomed here at Glacier National Park. This year we anticipate an even higher visitation,” park spokeswoman Margie Steigerwald said. This marks the first year for Every Kid in a Park, a program launched by the National Park Foundation. Steigerwald says its purpose is to introduce more kids and their families to the national park system.”

Read more about this anniversary here.

Scientists fly glacial ice to south pole to unlock secrets of global warming

From  The Guardian:

Project leader Jérôme Chappellaz examines a sample. Photograph: Lucia Simion (Source: The Guardian)

“In a few weeks, researchers will begin work on a remarkable scientific project. They will drill deep into the Col du Dôme glacier on Mont Blanc and remove a 130 metre core of ice. Then they will fly it, in sections, by helicopter to a laboratory in Grenoble before shipping it to Antarctica. There the ice core will be placed in a specially constructed vault at the French-Italian Concordia research base, 1,000 miles from the South Pole. The Col du Dôme ice will become the first of several dozen other cores, extracted from glaciers around the world, that will be added to the repository over the next few years. The idea of importing ice to the south pole may seem odd – the polar equivalent of taking coals to Newcastle – but the project has a very serious aim, researchers insist.”

Read more about this ice core repository here.

Microbes and toxins frozen within glaciers could reveal the future of human life on Earth—or threaten it

From Phys.org:

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The world’s glaciers hold tiny particles and microbes that offer clues to past climate change, atmospheric toxins and even global epidemics.(Source: Phys.org)

“Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary detective Sherlock Holmes once noted that “the little things are infinitely the most important.” It’s a belief that investigators at the University of Alberta obviously share. Whether they’re seeking to understand the tiniest forms of life, taking small steps toward major breakthroughs or influencing students in subtle but profound ways, U of A researchers and educators are proving that little things can make a big impact. If aliens came to Earth on a fact-finding mission after the extinction of the human species, they could do worse than head straight for what’s left of the planet’s glaciers. Frozen in the ice is a wealth of information not only on our past climate over hundreds of thousands of years, but also on the toxins we spew into the atmosphere, even the diseases and plagues to which we succumb.”

Learn more about these organisms and toxins here.

Melting Glaciers, Changing Careers

Ice core drilling. Credit: Doug Clark, Western Washington University
Ice core drilling. Credit: Doug Clark, Western Washington University

Climate change is making the work of glaciologists complicated. Scientists that study paleoclimatology of the Earth have come to the realization that melting ice and receding glaciers are getting in the way of their fieldwork.

“Time no longer starts at the surface,” said Lonnie Thompson, a paleoclimatologist at the Byrd Polar Research Center at the Ohio State University in Columbus, in an interview with Nature.

His ice-core research career started since the mid-1970s. When he drilled an ice core from the Quelccaya ice cap in the Peruvian Andes in 1983, melting had not occurred at altitudes above 5,000 meters. However, 20 years later when he returned for another ice core, things changed completely—melting disrupted the pattern of atmospheric isotopes in the top 40 meters of ice.

Peruvian Andes. Source: Flickr.
Peruvian Andes. Source: Flickr.

To address challenges like those faced by Thompson, the community of ice-core researchers is developing a better approach to saving ice for the next generation of scientists. Patrick Ginot, a paleoclimatologist at the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) in Marseilles, France, advocated that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) support a program that would sustainably collect ice cores and store extra samples at the Concordia Research Station in central Antarctica, in order to meet the research demands for both current and future scientists.

concordian station
Concordian Research Station in central Antarctica. Source: European Space Agency.

The layers in an ice core are a reliable indicator of its age. Scientists and researchers count the layers that record seasonal changes and date ice cores. Ideally, an intact ice core shows the most recent year on the top layer, which scientists use to link to their knowledge about recent climate conditions—temperature, precipitation, etc.

For example, the nuclear tests in 1950s and 1960s, as well as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, left datable signatures in glaciers all over the world, which mark specific years for scientists. Stable isotopes of oxygen that remain in partially melted ice could enable scientists to obtain average measurements from 5- to 10-year periods, though not year-to year data. Unfortunately, ice core samples with insufficient radioactive signature make it difficult for researchers to identify specific years.

To acquire a pure sample of ice core, glaciologists have no choice but climb higher where melting has not yet begun, though it can be dangerous.

“In most cases, we can’t go higher. We can’t get to a colder environment,” said Douglas Hardy, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in an article in Nature. He once placed weather instruments on glaciers to measure temperature, humidity, precipitation rates and the amount of sunlight that shed on the surface of glaciers. These meteorological conditions can help scientists examine the impacts of these factors on layers of ice.

Now, Hardy explained, scientists have to do the work before the ice is gone permanently, otherwise glacier history will remain unknown forever. The pathway to higher altitudes is worthwhile, but risky at the same time. Therefore, collecting and storing ice core samples before they all melt away seems a good solution to the problem.

The major challenge of storing ice cores lies in funding, as most science funding agencies tend to pay for research that is expected to generate quickly published results.

To persuade donors, the International Partnerships in Ice Core Sciences prepared a report on the importance of preserving records of climate history. The co-chair of the organization, Ed Brook, expects to present the report on a major geosciences meeting in 2016.

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The Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) organizes events to support young polar scientists researchers. Source: APECS.

Younger scientists also expressed their uncertainty of future ice-core research. Aron Buffen, a paleoclimatology doctoral student at Brown University says that scientists will easily lose comparisons for future measurement techniques if all the ice melts quickly.

On the other hand, Buffen also points out that the melting may bring about more research questions, such as distinguishing between melting caused by warming and sublimation caused by lower humidity. If scientists can shed light on how glacier retreat impacts local ecosystems, the research can be used to help communities better adapt to climate change. Additionally, organizations like the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS), are helping young glacier researchers develop their career paths and networks in an innovative, international and interdisciplinary approach.

While grieving over the disappearing glaciers, scientists can also see the silver lining as intriguing opportunities arise from the perspective of careers and science.