East Antarctica’s Totten Glacier has got some amazing social media presence. The Twitter account ‘Totten Glacier’ provides updates on relevant glacier news, while also offering some punny first-person commentary, adding a playful and refreshing spin to climate change research.
The account refers to the glacier as “old timer” and “sleeping giant”, as Totten is one of the biggest glaciers in the region. The glacier is so massive that it holds enough ice to raise global sea levels by about 3 meters.
According to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, East Antarctica is relatively stable compared to the rapid melting in the western portion. However ice loss in the region has been substantial in the recent years.
In a recent story by Phys.org, a study obtaining data through new satellites reported significant ice loss from the Totten Glacier region. Approximately 1.4 billion tons of water have been lost in the last decade. Scientists from the study believe this to be just the beginning of serious change to the ice sheet.
Click below to check out a time lapse video by Google Earth demonstrating the recession at the foot of the glacier since 1984.
From Geomorphology: “The identification of different ice flow configurations, evidence of subglacial water and past ice margin collapse indicates a dynamic ice sheet margin with varying glacial conditions and retreat modes. We observe that some of the described morphological associations are similar to those found in the Amundsen sea sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) where they are associated with ice sheet and ice stream collapse. Although further studies are needed to assess the precise timing and rates of the glacial processes involved, we conclude that there is enough evidence to support the hypothesis that the EAIS margin can behave as dynamically as the WAIS margin, especially during glacial retreat and ice sheet margin collapse.”
Read more about the past behaviors of the East Antarctic ice sheet’s glaciers here.
Environmental Impacts of Mining in Glacier Regions
From the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies: “The ugly side of Kumtor is that an open-cast mine in pristine mountain conditions is bound to have negative environmental consequences. Combined with global climate change, the threat to glaciers and to sustainable water supplies downstream is severe. Kumtor’s owners and managers are aware of the issue; the questions are to what extent is the company responsible for countering environmental damage and what is the role of the government in protecting the environment?”
Read more about the Kyrgyz Republic’s gold mine here.
Preparing for Glacier Lake Outburst Floods in India
From Environmental Science and Policy: “Over recent years, at the level of international climate science and policy, there has been a shift in the conceptualization of vulnerability toward emergence of ‘climate risk’ as a central concept. Despite this shift, few studies have operationalized these latest concepts to deliver assessment results at local, national, or regional scales, and clarity is lacking. Drawing from a pilot study conducted in the Indian Himalayas we demonstrate how core components of hazard, vulnerability, and exposure have been integrated to assess flood risk at two different scales, and critically discuss how these results have fed into adaptation planning.”
Read more about translating climate risk in planning for floods in the Indian Himalayas here.
Researchers have generally thought that the East Antarctic Ice sheet has remained relatively stable despite global warming. But this is not the case, according to a recent study published in Science Advances. Chad Greene and a team of researchers discovered that the Totten, the largest glacier in East Antarctica, is melting. Shockingly, if the Totten Glacier were to melt entirely, it could raise sea levels by 11 feet.
“For the past decade, my research group at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics has flown airborne campaigns over Totten to characterize its sensitivities, because Totten drains a massive portion of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, about 550,000 km2, or ~3.5 m sea level rise in a complete collapse scenario,” Greene told Glacierhub. “That’s about as much ice as all the rapidly-changing glaciers of West Antarctica combined.”
The team’s project to study the Totten was a collaboration between the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Tasmania, and the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. Fernando Paolo, another member of the team, has shown that for long-term observations, Totten clearly thickens and thins on an interannual basis. So, the outstanding question was, what causes these interannual changes? What force is powerful enough to affect this massive system?
Using satellite data from 2001 to 2006, the researchers noted the increased movement of the Totten Ice Shelf toward the ocean. The ice shelf represents the floating portion of the glacier. In a pervious interview, Greene describes this phenomenon as “pancake batter that’s piled up and spreads toward the edges under its own weight.” Melting, whether from the surface or the bottom in contact with the ocean, tends to thin the ice sheet and increase the rate of flow outward.
This increased melt is also confirmed by the International Collaboration for Exploration of the Cryosphere through Aerogeophysical Profiling (ICECAP) Project, a collaboration between U.S., British and Australian Antarctic researchers that has been mapping the East Antarctic ice sheet. They have identified an area near Totten Glacier that is thinning with lowering surface heights at a rate of approximately 2m per year.
“Many forces act on Totten. We used satellite images to track Totten’s movements and found that on the interannual timescale, variability in glacier speed is influenced primarily by winds over the ocean nearby,” Greene told Glacierhub. When winds over the Southern Ocean intensify, warm water is pulled up from the deep ocean onto the continental shelf, creating the hot spot. “It’s like when you blow across a hot bowl of soup and little bits of noodles from the bottom begin to swirl around and rise to the top,” he added. This comparison suggests the dynamic nature of the thermocline, which refers to the region under water where temperature changes more rapidly with depth. The wind-driven upwelling raises the thermocline on the continental shelf and dunks the underside of Totten Ice Shelf in a warm water bath.
The wind drives the thermocline, bringing warm water toward the coast of the Totten Glacier, and circulates below through submarine canyons, causing it to melt from below. “The temperature difference experienced by a parcel of ice that’s suddenly exposed to this warm water is only a couple of degrees Celsius, but remember that bit of ice may be more accustomed to water that’s just 0.2 degrees above freezing–so a 2 degrees shock is about a 10 fold increase in melting power,” Greene said. This kickstarts a positive feedback mechanism that is self-reinforcing. More inland ice is exposed to the warm waters when the coastal layers of ice melt, and when these landlocked ice drain into the ocean, sea-level rise is certain.
Greene thinks of the Totten Glacier as “the sleeping giant because it’s huge and has been seen as insensitive to changes in its environment.” However, his team’s findings have shed light on what has caused the Totten’s rates of melting to vary over the years. With climate change expected to intensify the winds over the Southern Ocean in the next 100 years, the Totten Glacier will likely be impacted. This is groundbreaking news, since people often relate melting glaciers to increases in air or ocean temperatures, when, in fact, winds are actually sufficient.
“Some basal melt is a healthy part of a steady-state mass balance for Totten, so observations of melt are not shocking or cause for alarm,” Greene told GlacierHub. However, he added that his team showed an interesting sensitivity that changes in wind over the ocean get transmitted to the ice sheet. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have amplifying effects on Antarctic winds, deciding the fate of glaciers just by deciding the movement of warm water. “Of course, that has a gloom-and-doom component, but it’s also an interesting scientific curiosity–now we see how CO2 can lead to sea level rise without warming up the air and melting ice from above, and without even warming up the ocean, but just by moving heat around within the ocean,” he said.
What is the melting of just another glacier? If it is the Totten Glacier, it could mean another 11 feet of sea level increase.
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.”
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.
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.
Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.
Totten Glacier Hurtles Towards Retreat and Possible Collapse
“Satellite-based observations indicate that the margin of Totten Glacier may be experiencing greater ice loss than anywhere else in East Antarctica. This, coupled with the presence of low-lying subglacial basins upstream means the Totten Glacier catchment area could be at risk of substantial ice loss under ocean-warming conditions.”
Learn more about the processes causing this retreat and the potential sea level rise associated with it.
Are Dams the Glaciers of Tomorrow?
From Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL:
“Water management in reservoirs could substantially mitigate future summer water shortages, expected as a consequence of ongoing glacier retreat, researchers report. The team simulated the effect of climatic change on glaciers across the European Alps and estimated that two thirds of the effect on seasonal water availability could be avoided when storing water in areas becoming ice free.”
Find out how these researchers suggest dealing with glacier retreat and water supplies.
Scientists Present New Research on Tibet’s Climate Risks
From The Columbus Dispatch:
“A consortium of scientists from around the world have gathered in Columbus at Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center for the first U.S. meeting about climate issues facing the Tibetan Plateau, a region that includes about 100,000 square kilometers of glaciers that provide drinking water to nearly a third of the Earth’s people.”
Read more about the importance of the Tibetan Plateau and why these scientists feel action is so urgently needed.