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Imaggeo on Mondays: Seeing the world through a pothole

Imaggeo on Mondays: Seeing the world through a pothole

A beautiful image of a forest reflected in a pool of water within a pothole in southern Finland is this Monday’s Imaggeo image and it brought to you by Mira Tammelin, a Finish researcher.

The photo illustrates a pothole in the Askola pothole area in southern Finland. The pothole area is situated on the steep slopes next to river Porvoonjoki, approximately 70 kilometers to the northeast from the capital city Helsinki and 30 kilometers to the north from the Gulf of Finland. The potholes are carved into an outcrop of Proterozoic rocks that is surrounded by boreal taiga forest, which consists of mainly of coniferous tress such as pine, spruce and larch.

Potholes are cylinder-shaped cavities that form when stones carried by water start to circle in an eddy and churn the surrounding rock for an extended period of time. The majority of Finnish potholes, including those in Askola, were formed under a melting continental ice sheet during the late stages of the last glaciation 13 000 – 10 000 years ago. The area is also archaeologically important as it is one of the first places in Finland where humans settled after the deglaciation.

The more or less 20 potholes in Askola vary in shapes and sizes and some of them belong to the largest in the world. The largest pothole in Askola, called The Giant’s Tub, is 4.2 meters wide and 10.3 meters deep. The pothole in the picture is one of the smaller potholes in the area with a diameter less than a meter. It has filled with rainwater thus reflecting a beautiful, sunny midsummer day.

By Mira Tammelin, Research Fellow at the University of Turku, Finland.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Geoscience Column: Recent and future changes in the Greenland Ice Sheet

Geoscience Column: Recent and future changes in the Greenland Ice Sheet

Over the past few decades, the Arctic region has warmed more than any other on Earth. The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing mass faster than ever before, and is expected to keep melting with consequences for global sea-level rise and ocean circulation. At a media briefing, during the EGU’s General Assembly in April (stream it here), researchers presented new results on the factors that influence the Greenland Ice Sheet’s rapid and profound changes – from glacial lakes to clouds and snow darkening.

The vast expanse of the Greenland Ice Sheet covers an area of 1.71 million km2 (approximately a tenth of the size of Russia), and holds a staggering volume of ice: 2.85 million km3. The ice sheet is only rivalled in size by one other: the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Scientist have calculated that the Greenland Ice Sheet stores enough freshwater to raise sea level by 7.4m, should all the ice melt, so understanding what causes the ice to melt now and in the future is critical!

The importance of clouds

When you think of clouds, you probably think of them as purveyors of rain and bad weather. But that is not all; clouds form an intrinsic part of the climate system which is more complex than simply how they affect day to day weather. In Greenland, (as elsewhere across the globe), clouds are a source of precipitation, bringing all-important snow which accumulates on the ice sheet and makes it grow in size.

Southern Tip of Greenland.  Satellite Image by  NASA. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Southern Tip of Greenland. Satellite Image by NASA. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Clouds also affect temperatures: on a clear day you’ll feel the warmth of the sun on your back, but as night falls temperatures start dropping quickly as heat is lost to the atmosphere. However, if in the late afternoon the clouds started rolling in, the night would be warmer, as clouds stop heat being lost to the atmosphere. If they stick around long enough though, they promote cooling, as they reflect sunlight away from the Earth’s surface.

“On a global scale, clouds (on average) tend to cool the Earth’s surface, but there are many regional differences”, explained Kristof Van Tricht,(a PhD student at the University of Leuven in Belgium), during the press conference.

It turns out that, in Greenland, the warming effect of clouds dominates, and warming of the surface encourages melting of the ice sheet. However, the remoteness of the area means that direct observations of just how much the clouds warm the surface and to what extent this impacts on the ice sheet has been limited. Until now.

Using satellite observations, Van Tricht and his team have been able to study the warming effect of clouds in more detail than ever before. Their models show that, in the presence of clouds, the Greenland Ice Sheet can be up to 1.2°C warmer, which can cause substantial melting. Compared to models ran without cloud cover, the ice sheet could melt up to 38% more. This equates to 12% more runoff from the ice sheet into the oceans, solely due to the presence of clouds.

Predictions of what the findings mean for the ice sheet in the future are tricky though. The scientists’ model is based on real-time observations and so it isn’t possible to look into the future. For that, improved cloud model simulations are needed.

Beautiful lakes

Lakes form, seasonally, on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet as a result of run-off water pooling in depressions in the ice. Although beautiful to look at, because they are darker than the surrounding ice, they attract more heat. The lakes also drain sporadically, and when they do, some of the water they hold drains through the ice making its way to the base of the ice sheet. Once there, the water lubricates the base of the ice sheet and promotes it to flow more easily and quickly towards the ocean. Combined, these two effects affect the dynamics of the ice sheet.

 Drained Supraglacial Lake Bed. This lake has drained through the bottom for several years in a row. The large block was initially formed in summer of 2006, but large cracks run through it from subsequent lake drainages.  Credit: Ian Joughin (distributed via  imaggeo.egu.eu )

Drained Supraglacial Lake Bed. This lake has drained through the bottom for several years in a row. The large block was initially formed in summer of 2006, but large cracks run through it from subsequent lake drainages.
Credit: Ian Joughin (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu )

At present, the lakes generally form within the ablation zone – the low-altitude regions towards the edges of the ice sheets where ice is lost through melting, evaporation, calving and other processes – where it is already warmest on the ice sheet.

At the press conference, Andrew Sheperd presented research carried out by Amber Leeson, on how the location on the ice at which the supraglacial (meaning they form on the surface of the ice) lakes form might change with a warming climate and what this means for the Greenland Ice Sheet.

As the climate warms, higher altitude regions on the ice sheet will too. Through building a hydrological model, Leeson found that the lakes spread father inland. According to Leeson’s simulation

“by 2050, the lakes have spread about 50 to 100 km further inland, so more of the ice sheet is potentially exposed to this lubrication effect,” added Shepard.

This is equivalent to an estimated 48–53% increase in the area over which they are distributed across the ice sheet as a whole.

Previous studies of how the ice sheet might respond to a warming climate do not consider the effects of the added melt water volume at the base of the ice sheet as a result of more lakes at the surface. Leeson’s findings mean that these models need to be re-run so that scientists can fully understand the potential implications. This is particularly true in terms of the lubrication effect at the base of the ice and whether the ice will more readily slip towards the oceans, potentially heightening the risk of sea level rise.

 By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer

 

Further reading and information

You can stream the full press conference by following this link: http://client.cntv.at/egu2015/PC9.

Details of the speakers at the press conference are available at: http://media.egu.eu/press-conferences-2015/#greenland

This blog post presents only some of the findings which were discussed during the press conference. Other aspects of this press conference where covered in the media, you can find more on those here and by following this link.

Kristof Van Tricht, Gorodetskaya, I.V., L’Ecuyer, T. et al. Clouds enhance Greenland ice sheet mass loss, Geophysical Research Abstracts Vol. 17, EGU2015-12737-1, 2015 (conference abstract).

Amber A. Leeson, Sheperd, A., Briggs, K. et al. Supraglacial lakes on the Greenland ice sheet advance inland under warming climate, Nature Climate Change, 5, 51–55, doi:10.1038/nclimate2463, 2015.

Amber A. Leeson, Sheperd, A., Briggs, K. et al. Supraglacial lakes advance inland on the Greenland ice sheet under warming climate, Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 17, EGU2015-934-1, 2015 (conference abstract).

Imaggeo on Mondays: Foehn clouds

This week’s post is brought to you by Stefan Winkler, a Senior Lecturer in Quaternary Geology & Palaeoclimatology, who explains how the mountain tops of the Southern Alps become decorated by beautiful blanket-like cloud formations.

The Sothern Alps of New Zealand are a geoscientifically dynamic environment in all aspects. They are arguably one of the youngest high mountain ranges in the world formed at the plate tectonic boundary between the Australian and the Pacific Plate. Their dominating tectonic structure, the Alpine Fault running some 600 km mainly parallel to the mountain ranges of New Zealand’s South Island, caused not only an impressive horizontal displacement of rock formations, but also an overall vertical uplift of estimated c. 20 km during the past 10 – 15 Million years. Aoraki/Mt.Cook visible in the left background on the image with its height of ‘only’ 3724 m a.s.l. is the highest peak of the mountain range that is currently uplifted by 4 – 5 mm per year. Together with reconstructed uplift rates of up to 10 mm per year for the centre of the Southern Alps this indication how efficient and important weathering and erosion processes are in this region.

Foehn clouds over Aoraki/Mt.Cook. Credit: Stefan Winkler (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Foehn clouds over Aoraki/Mt.Cook. Credit: Stefan Winkler (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The ranges of the Southern Alps rise just 10 – 15 km inland the West Coast of the South Island as a wall parallel to the coast line up to 3,000 metres and more. They are a major topographic obstacle for the predominantly westerly airflow and provide a classic example of how ‘föhn’ winds are generated along mountain ranges perpendicular to an air flow. Föhn winds are dry and warm, forming on the downside of a mountain range. On the western slopes of the Southern Alps, orographic precipitation amounts to impressive 5,000 mm at the base and 10,000 mm + on in the high-lying accumulation areas of the mountain glaciers concentrating around the Main Divide. At and east of the Main Divide this locally named ‘Nor’wester’ creates impressive foehn clouds (altocumulus lenticularis, hogback clouds, seen in this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays image) that form in waves parallel to the Main Divide and are often streamlined by the high wind speed. The frequent occurrence of strong and warm Nor’westers contributes to the sharp decline of precipitation immediately east of the Main Divide.

The foreground of the image displays another aspect of this dynamic environment: the current wastage and retreat of glaciers in New Zealand. The section of the proglacial lake with its sediment-laden greyish water colour on the image would still have been covered by the debris-covered lower glacier tongue of Mueller Glacier only 15 years ago. Now, the terminus has retread to a position to the left outside the image. The lake is bounded by the glacier’s lateral moraine – unconsolidated accumulations of rock and soil debris resulting from weathering of the rock walks surrounding a glacire – that are more than 120 m high from base to top (or crest, to give it its technical name) and were last overtopped during the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’ when the glacier surface reached higher than its crest. At this glacier, the maximum of this Little Ice Age has been dated to 1720/30, but as late as during the late 20th century it remained close to its frontal maximum position and had only shrunk vertically. Today the lateral moraines are heavily reworked and eroded by paraglacial processes following the latest vertical and horizontal ice retreat. In some places on Mueller Glacier’s foreland the crest of lateral moraines retreat up to 1 m per year back and give again evidence of a very dynamic geo-ecosystem.

By Stefan Winkler, Senior Lecturer in Quaternary Geology and Palaeoclimatology at the Univeristy of Canterbury.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Floods and droughts set to increase due to climate change

Floods and droughts set to increase due to climate change

The planet is set to encounter a record-level amount of floods and droughts by 2050 – researchers recently announced at the European Geosciences Union’s General Assembly in Vienna. Nikita Marwaha shares their predictions on the impact that climate change will have on these extreme weather conditions.

In a study by the Joint Research Centre (JRS) – the European Commission’s in-house science service – new climate impact models are being used to determine future flood risk in Europe under conditions of climate change. These state-of-the-art models, presented by JRS scientist Lorenzo Alfieri, indicate that the change in frequency of extreme river discharge is likely to have a larger impact on the overall flood hazard than changes in their magnitude.

“We predict a 150% increase in future flood risk by 2050”, Alfieri said. This dramatic increase will trigger the so-called “floods of the century” that we currently experience every 100 years, to double in frequency – submerging much of Europe under water within the next few decades. As a result, the extent of damage and number of people affected are expected to increase by 220% by the end of the century.

With more lives predicted to be touched by this climate change-induced flooding, it is of utmost importance to accurately calculate projections of future flood events and to assess the situation that our planet faces. In this study, the JRC applied the most recent climate change projections to assess future flood risk in Europe. Using statistical tools and dedicated analysis, flood simulation was carried out to evaluate changes in the frequency of extreme river discharge peaks.

These projections of future flood events were then combined with data on the exposure and vulnerability of populations, in order to estimate the overall flood risk in Europe under a high-emission climate scenario. Socio-economic scenarios were also investigated. The research addressed both current and future scenarios – with the dates of 2020, 2050 and 2080 used in the socio-economic impact models of large, European river floods.

Satellite picture of Europe. Land terrain and bathymetry (ocean-floor topography). Credit: Koyos (distributed via  Wikimedia Commons)

Satellite picture of Europe. Land terrain and bathymetry (ocean-floor topography). Credit: Koyos (distributed via Wikimedia Commons)

Alfieri estimated that between 500,000 and 640,000 people will be affected by river floods by 2050, increasing to 540,000 – 950,000 by 2080, as compared to 216,000 in today’s climate. A wider range was found for the annual economic impact of flood damage. It is currently estimated at 5.3 billion EUR, set to rise to between 20 and 40 billion EUR in 2050 and to between 30 and 100 billion EUR in 2080. Such predictions are dependent on future economic growth, resulting in the larger range of figures presented at the conference.

Another extreme weather condition that the planet faces is drought – said to increase before the middle of the century. Yusuke Satoh, a researcher from the International institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) shared new research suggesting that some parts of the world may see unpreceded levels of drought before 2050. These new findings urge swift action to be taken to adapt reservoirs and water management policies in accordance with the depleting water resources.

“Our study shows an increasing urgency for water management systems to adapt for future drought”, Satoh said in a statement at the press conference. “In order for policymakers to plan for adaptation, they need to know when and where this is likely to happen, and have an understanding of the levels of uncertainty in such projections”.

Droughts are predicted to grow more severe and frequent by 2050 for 13 of the 26 countries mapped by the organisation. A new measure was proposed in this study – Timing of Perception Change for Drought (TPCD). This drought will surpass all historical records and countries will reach TPCD at varying times – with western United States feeling the effects as early as 2017, and the Mediterranean by 2027, at current emission rates.

The new study by IIASA combined five different global climate models to examine two different scenarios for future climate change – a 1°C and 3.7°C rise in temperatures by 2100. This technique allowed researchers to address the uncertainty of our planet, since climate change is a manmade environment issue that is difficult to accurately foresee using just one climate model.

From this research, the predicted arrival date of these record-breaking droughts was found to be more uncertain in the Sahara, sub-Saharan Africa and South Australia regions, with certainty very high in southern South America and the Central United States.

Being aware of where the uncertainty lies in the world is important. It allows policymakers and water resource managers to prepare for greater future variations in water availability, since the historical data that the hydrological structures of today are built on, will eventually become void as climate change carves new figures into the history books.

Satoh advised measures such as releasing water from reservoirs during the dry season to relieve the onset of future dryness. “The earlier we take this seriously, the better we will be able to adapt”, he said.

Controlling the amount of seasonal water precipitation and water use, will allow us to manage both the natural and manmade causes of hydrological drought – giving us better control as the effects of climate change begin to set in.

By Nikita Marwaha, EGU Press Assistant and EJR-Quartz Editor

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