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Cryospheric Sciences

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Image of the Week – Kicking the ice’s butt(ressing)

Risk map for Antarctic ice shelves shows critical ice shelf regions, where local thinning increases the ice flow from the continent into the ocean [Credit: modified from Reese et al., 2018]

Changes in the ice shelves surrounding the Antarctic continent are responsible for most of its current contribution to sea-level rise. Although they are already afloat and do not contribute to sea level directly, ice shelves play a key role through the buttressing effect. But which ice shelf regions are most important for this?


The role of ice-shelf buttressing

Schematic ice-sheet-shelf system: buttressing arises when an ice shelf is laterally confined in an embayment or locally grounds at pinning points [Credit: Ronja Reese & Maria Zeitz]

In architecture, the term “buttress” is used to describe pillars that support and stabilize buildings, for example ancient churches or dams. In analogy to this, buttressing of ice shelves can stabilize the grounded ice sheet (see this blog article about the marine ice sheet instability). It can be understood as a backstress that the ice shelf exerts on the grounding line – the line that separates the grounded ice from the floating ice shelves. When an ice shelf thins or disintegrates, this stress can be reduced, then the ice flow upstream is less restrained and can increase.

This effect has been widely observed in Antarctica: the thinning of ice shelves in the Amundsen Sea is driven by the ocean and linked to ice loss there (see this blog article) and after the spectacular disintegration of Larsen A and B ice shelves the adjacent ice streams accelerated.

Which ice shelf regions are important?

Risk maps show how important each ice-shelf location is: if an ice shelf thins in this location, how much does the flux across the grounding line increase? We estimated this immediate increase using the numerical ice-flow model Úa. At first glance, one can see that all ice shelves have regions that influence upstream ice flow, and thus, provide buttressing. The highest responses occur near grounding lines of fast-flowing ice streams. Equally strong responses are found in the vicinity of ice rises or ice rumples – where the ice shelf re-grounds locally and is subject to basal drag. On the other hand, “passive” regions with negligible flux response are located towards the calving front, but also in spots close to the grounding line. Flux response signals can sometimes travel quite far – for example a perturbation near Ross Island accelerates the ice flow in almost the entire Ross Ice Shelf and reaches ice streams more than 900km away (not visible in the figure).

Risk maps for Antarctic ice shelves, as presented here, help us to get a better understanding of the critical ice shelf regions – if you are interested to read more, please see for example Gagliardini, 2018 and Reese et al., 2018.

Edited by Scott Watson and Sophie Berger


Ronja Reese is a postdoctoral researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, in the ice dynamics working group. She investigates ice dynamics in Antarctic with a focus on ice-ocean interactions and ice-shelf buttressing. She created the risk map together with Ricarda Winkelmann, Hilmar Gudmundsson and Anders Levermann. Contact Email: ronja.reese@pik-potsdam.de

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Image of the Week — Into Iceberg Alley

Tabular iceberg, Ross Sea, Antarctica [Credit: Marlo Garnsworthy]

Crew in hardhats and red safety gear bustle about, preparing our ship for departure. A whale spouts nearby in the Straits of Magellan, a fluke waving in brief salute, before it submerges again. Our international team of 29 scientists and 2 science communicators, led by co-Chief Scientists Mike Weber and Maureen Raymo, is boarding the JOIDES Resolution, a scientific drilling ship. We’re about to journey on this impressive research vessel into Antarctic waters known as Iceberg Alley for two months on Expedition 382 of the International Ocean Discovery Program.

Not only are these some of the roughest seas on the planet, it is also where most Antarctic icebergs meet their ultimate fate, melting in the warmer waters of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), which races unimpeded around the vast continent. And there, in the Scotia Sea, we will drill deep into the sea floor to learn more about the history of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.


The Drilling Ship

The JOIDES Resolution, our scientific drilling ship [Credit: William Crawford and IODP]

The JOIDES Resolution is a 134-meter-long research vessel topped by a derrick towering 62 meters above the water line. It can drill hundreds of meters into the sea floor to retrieve long cylinders of mud called cores. Analyzing this sediment can tell scientists much about geology and Earth’s history, including the history of Climate Change.

“Sediment cores are like sedimentary tape recorders of Earth’s history,” says Maureen Raymo. “You can see how the climate has changed, how the plants have changed, how the temperatures have changed. Imagine you had a multilayer cake and a big straw, and you just stuck your straw into your cake and pulled it out. And that’s essentially what we do on the ocean floor.”

Our drilling sites in the Scotia Sea. [Figure modified from Weber, et al (2014)]

Our expedition is “going to a place that’s never really been studied before,” adds Maureen Raymo. “In fact, we don’t even know what the age of the sediment at the bottom will be.” Nevertheless, we hope to retrieve a few million years’ worth of sediment, perhaps even more. The sediment cores will provide a nearly continuous history of changes in melting of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

What can these cores tell us?

As icebergs melt, the dust, dirt, and rocks they carry—known as “iceberg rafted debris”—fall down through the ocean and are deposited as sediment on the seafloor. Analyzing this sediment can tell us when the icebergs that deposited it calved from the ice sheet, and even where they came from. At times when more debris was deposited, we know more icebergs were breaking away from the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which tells us the ice sheet was less stable.

Much shorter cores previously collected at our drilling sites reveal high sedimentation rates, allowing us to observe changes in the ice sheet and the climate on short timescales (from just tens to hundreds of years).

We now know that rapid discharge of icebergs—caused by rapid melting of Antarctic ice shelves and glaciers—occurred in the past, and that episodes of massive iceberg discharge can happen abruptly, within decades. This has huge implications for how the Antarctic Ice Sheet may behave in the future as our world warms.

Where do icebergs come from?

Ok, let’s back up a little—back to where these icebergs were born. Icebergs break off or “calve” from the margins (edges) of ice shelves and glaciers. Ice shelves are floating sheets of ice around the edges of the land. They are important because they have a “buttressing” effect—that is, they act as a wall, holding back the ice behind them. Glaciers are great flowing rivers of ice that grind their way across the land, picking up the rocks and dirt that become iceberg-rafted debris.

Thwaites velocity map animation [Credit: Kevin Pluck, Pixel Movers & Maker]

Most Antarctic icebergs travel anti-clockwise around Antarctica and converge in the Weddell Sea, then drifting northward into the warmer waters of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.

Iceberg flux 1976-2017  [Credit: Kevin Pluck & Marlo Garnsworthy, Pixel Movers & Makers]

As our planet warms due to our greenhouse gas emissions, warmer ocean currents are melting Antarctica’s massive glaciers from below, thinning, weakening, and destabilizing them. In fact, the rate of Antarctic ice mass loss has tripled over the last decade alone.

Polar researchers predict that global sea level will rise up to one meter (around 3.2 feet) by the end of this century, and most of this will be due to melting in Antarctica. And if vulnerable glaciers melt, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is more likely to collapse, raising sea level even further.

Blue is old ice, Mc Murdo Sound, Antarctica [Credit: Marlo Garnsworthy]

 

A Hazardous Voyage

We face several hazards on this journey. We are hoping we won’t encounter sea ice, as our vessel is not ice-class, but it’s something we must watch for, especially later in the cruise as winter draws nearer. It is certain that, at times, we’ll experience a sea state not conducive to coring—or to doing much but swallowing sea-sickness medication and retiring to one’s bunk. In heave greater than 4–6 meters, operations must stop for the safety of the crew and equipment.

Of course, our highly experienced ice observer will be ever on the lookout for our greatest hazard—icebergs, of course! We are likely to encounter everything from very small “growlers” to larger “bergy bits” to massive tabular bergs. In fact, it is the smaller icebergs that present the most danger to the ship, as large icebergs are both visible to the eye and are tracked by radar, while smaller ones can be more difficult to detect, especially at night. Nevertheless, we are intentionally sailing into the area of highest iceberg concentration and melt.

“My hope,” says Mike Weber, “is that our expedition will unravel the mysteries of Antarctic ice-sheet dynamics for the past, and this may tell is something about its course in the near future.”

“Bergy bit”, Ross Sea, Antarctica [Credit: Marlo Garnsworthy]

Edited by Sophie Berger


The JOIDES Resolution is part of the International Ocean Discovery Program and is funded by the US National Science Foundation.

Marlo Garnsworthy is an author/illustrator, editor, science communicator, and Education and Outreach Officer for JOIDES Resolution Expedition 382 and previously NBP 17-02. She and Kevin Pluck are co-founders of science communication venture PixelMoversAndMakers.com, creator of the animations in this article.

Image of the Week – The solid Earth: softer than you might think!

Rebounding beach in the Canadian Artic [Credit : Mike Beauregard distributed by Wikimedia Commons]

Global sea level is rising and will continue to do so over the next century, as has once again been shown in the recent IPCC special report on 1.5°C. But did you know that, in some places of our planet, local sea level is actually falling, and this due to rising of the continent itself?! Where is this happening? In places where huge ice sheets used to cover the land surface during the last ice age, such as Scandinavia, Canada, or Siberia. Even though these ice sheets melted several thousands of years ago, the land that once lied under them is still rising in reaction to the release of their previous burden. This is what we call Glacial Isostatic Adjustment or GIA. Where does this adjustment come from? Our Earth is not as solid as you would think…


Our Image of the Week represents a layered beach located in Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic. This specific landform is caused by the glacial rebound of the Arctic coastline resulting from the response of the lithosphere to the melting of the Laurentide Ice sheet, an ice sheet that used to cover the North American continent until less than 10 000 years ago.

Earth during Last Ice Age [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

What is Glacial Isostatic Adjustment?

Imagine sitting on a very comfy couch, watching a movie. At the end of the movie, the couch has perfectly adapted to the shape of your body. Once you get up, you’re still able to see where you’ve been sitting, as the couch takes a little time to get back to its original form. Well… this is exactly what happens with the Earth’s crust and mantle. To understand this, you need to visualize the internal structure of our planet Earth, which is layered in spherical shells: under our feet lie the rocky tectonic plates, which constitute the Earth’s crust. These crusty plates – whose thickness varies between a few kilometers under oceans to a few tens of kilometers under the continents – are floating on a viscous layer, called the mantle. It is almost 3000 kilometers thick and actually slowly flows like a liquid, at a speed of a few centimeters per year.

Even though the Earth’s crust is a very strong material, the pressure applied by an ice sheet thick of several kilometers is so important that the crust will locally deform under the heavy ice mass, sinking down into the viscous mantle. That’s what happened over large areas of the Northern Hemisphere that were covered by ice masses during the last ice age, and what is still happening in the remaining ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, which have been depressing the Earth’s crust beneath them for thousands of years.

Just like for the couch in the example above, when the weight is removed, the mantle rebounds, carrying with it the overlying crust. Over the 20 000 years since the last glacial maximum, lands now relieved of their previous ice-burden are gradually rebounding. The Earth’s delayed response to the variation of mass on its surface is explained by the viscous character of the Earth’s mantle.

Glacial Isostatic Adjustment [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Why is it important to take it into account?

Even though the Siberian, Scandinavian and Laurentide ice sheets melted several thousands of years ago (causing a rise in global sea level), these regions that were previously glaciated are still locally emerging to compensate the loss of their overlying weight. The level of the coastline relative to the local sea-level thus increases. One says that the “relative sea level” is falling, and this at a rate that is essentially determined by the rate of the post-glacial rebound (which can exceed 1 cm/year in some areas, as shown in the figure below!). The rates of relative sea level can be influenced even at sites that are quite far away from the centres of the last glaciation, although it is much less significant.

Rate of the post-glacial rebound [Credit: NASA, Wikimedia Commons]

A good understanding of glacial isostatic adjustment is important to distinguish the different components and contributors to a local sea-level evolution: what part is due to the uplift of the land? And what part is due to the rising of global sea-level?
In addition, glacial isostatic adjustment also impacts the behaviour of  modern Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. By influencing the geometry of the underlying bedrock, it will impact the sensitivity of the ice sheet to global warming and thus the glacial isostatic adjustment itself: this is a vicious circle!

The problem is that glacial isostatic adjustment also depends on the local properties of the Earth’s crust and mantle, which are not constant at the Earth’s surface. A lot of work is still needed to understand all of this properly. Luckily, since NASA launched GRACE – a satellite mission that maps variations in the Earth’s gravity field –  in 2002, scientists have observations they can use to constrain their models and improve their understanding of this complicated matter.

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard and Sophie Berger

Bridging the crevasse: working toward gender equity in the cryosphere

Figure 1: PhD student Gemma Brett conducts fieldwork examining variability in the distribution of the sub-ice platelet layer in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica [Credit: Florence Isaacs]

Today is International Women’s Day. As three early career glaciologists, we set out to investigate the state of gender diversity in the cryospheric sciences. Is there a better day for this than the day of recognition of the fight for women’s rights across the globe?


“The extreme nature of high alpine and polar environments made the rhetoric of mountaineering and glaciology heroic and masculine, which made both pursuits the embodiment of gentlemanly activity”
— Jaclyn R. Rushing
Women and Glaciers: Changing Dynamics in Sport, Science, and Climate Change

Descended from the earliest mountaineers and explorers, glaciology has been, like many sciences, long dominated by men. As today is International Women’s Day, we set out to understand gender diversity in the cryospheric sciences. With this blog post, we aim to provide two resources: 1) the most up-to-date statistics about gender in the cryospheric sciences and 2) a list of things that you can do to improve diversity in our beloved discipline.

As Lora Koenig and her co-writers succinctly stated:

If we value diversity and believe our discipline will be at its best when every student has equal opportunity, then we must do more than talk; we must act. Awareness and data collection are part of ensuring a diverse field now and in the future.”

Note: Our use of ‘women’ is intended to encompass all those who are female-identifying. The only statistics and research on this topic that were available at the time of writing lean heavily on the classification of individuals as ‘male’ or ‘female’. We wish to highlight that these sources exclude those of us with a gender identity that does not fit within this binary, and emphasise that we are speaking within these limitations in this article. Also, while this article focuses on research about women within academia, the experiences of women involved in knowledge-gathering outside this formal structure are varied and important.

The gender gap in science

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, fewer than 30% of the world’s researchers are women, and women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) “publish less, are paid less for their research and do not progress as far as men in their careers”.

Figure 2 shows data from our blog’s host, the European Geosciences Union (EGU) – all sections considered – for the past two years. Women currently account for one-third of all EGU members. On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) has a slightly lower percentage of women — about 30% of all members in 2018.

Figure 2. Gender breakdown in EGU membership data – all sections considered – for 2018. The numbers presented are valid as of 08/03/2018. These numbers are estimates as they account only for active members who have filled out their membership profile. Members are not directly asked what gender they are, but they have been asked to select their salute (Mr vs Ms/Mrs), and self-designate as early-career. Emeritus members are members older than 60 or retired. Width is not to scale [Credit: Barbara Ferreira, EGU Media and Communications Manager].

How does the cryosphere compare?

We reviewed data from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the International Glaciological Society (IGS). Unfortunately, the EGU Cryosphere section has not yet published a breakdown of gender diversity (it’s on its way!).

Figure 3. Gender breakdown in AGU Cryosphere Sciences and International Glaciological Society membership data for all members in 2018 and by career stage in 2015. Circle size is not to scale [Credit: Lara Koenig for AGU data and Louise Buckingham, Doug MacAyeal, and Francisco Navarro for IGS data].

Similar to the overall gender breakdown, women make up 32% of all the AGU Cryosphere members in 2018 (Fig. 3). The IGS had a lower percentage: about 20% of its 670 members could be identified as women by name, although this was not self-reported and some members’ gender could not be discerned.

One significant trend that has been noted in previous posts on diversity in the cryosphere is that the gender imbalance is inversely proportional to career stage — more women are joining as students. A similar trend was recognized in 2015 AGU Cryosphere and IGS membership data (Figure 3) as well as in recent Australian data showing that in STEMM (STEM + Medicine), women make up half of postgraduate students!

However this trend cannot yet be seen in senior academic positions. There are two causes. One, a supply problem: women were historically excluded from the sciences (see below). Two, a filtering problem: the gender-filtered leaky pipeline” phenomenon describes how science progressively loses women as their scientific career evolves.

Many factors are responsible for women leaving the sciences. Awards, first authorships, and representation on boards and committees can play a big factor in whether scientists receive job offers or tenure. Do women receive nominations at a level at least proportional to representation? Data is limited on this front, but we have found that:

Like the UNESCO effort to follow and explore the careers of women in science, we urge AGU, EGU, IGS, and other Arctic and Antarctic institutions and communities to track the retention and acknowledgement of early-career women. We need to retain women, not just recruit them.

Barriers to access or the origins of the gender gap

A 2013 study published in Nature identified that “Despite improvements, female scientists continue to face discrimination, unequal pay, and funding disparities”. This study has been reproduced in all shades and flavors. Here is a non-exhaustive list of factors that could contribute to the underrepresentation of women in the cryospheric sciences (most of the following points apply to any scientific field of study):

  • Participating in conferences and presenting research is a mean of spreading scientific results, finding employment opportunities and funds, and obtaining awards and recognition. However, abstracts to conferences from male authors are more likely to be rated higher. It has also been shown that women were invited and assigned oral presentations less often than men for the AGU Fall Meetings, and also elect for poster presentations only more than men. White men are also more likely to receive a response from a potential PI despite identical resumes to a female applicant.
  • Fieldwork is associated with a lack of safety and inclusivity: women bear the brunt of harassment in science — half of all women in science have been sexually harassed, and in a recent study on 95 Australian women who conducted fieldwork in Antarctica, 63% — 60 women — reported being harassed or sexually harassed in the field. Of those, 47 felt unable to take any action. Women are more likely to be on the receiving end of microaggressions, which have long-lasting impact.  
  • Historical barriers to participation in polar field work: there are few well-known examples of female scientists in history, a result of women being unacknowledged for their scientific contributions (e.g. Julia Weertman, until recently) or barred from participating in research. For example, the British Antarctic Survey barred women until 1987, when they allowed Liz Morris to join an expedition. Glaciology has long been – and still remains, despite recent improvements – a male-dominated field.
  • Women are often the primary caregivers to children, family with mental illness, and aging parents or partners, on top of their work as researchers. Goulden et al. (2011) have shown that family formation like marriage and childbirth accounts for the largest leaks in the “pipeline” in the sciences. They also underline the limited benefits (such as paid maternity and parental leave) that are offered to scientists. As a consequence, in the US, nearly half of female scientists leave full-time science after their first child.
  • The outdoor industry continues to be male dominated, e.g. in guiding careers, meaning that women are more likely to experience barriers to access. Outdoor gear and tools, including gear provided by the U.S. Antarctic Program, are exclusively or heavily fit for men, making fieldwork more difficult and often more dangerous for women. New Zealand is one of the only countries that has women-specific polar clothing.

What can we do?

So what’s the state of gender in the cryosphere? We are making progress. Indeed, the gender balance in the cryosphere is improving:

  • Hulbe et al. [2010] documented the sex of first and second authors in International Glaciological Society journals from 1948 to 2010. Female authors comprised about 5% of authors from the 1950s through the 1980s, 13% in the 1990s, 16% in the 2000s, and roughly 20% by the end of the study.
  • An analysis of IGS memberships numbers indicates that the proportion of female members has increased over time.
  • The percentage of women in the American Geophysical Union Cryosphere section rose from around 26% in 2013 to about 32% in 2018.

As early career scientists, this is heartening — the efforts to improve gender diversity are working. We, as early-career women, stand not just on the shoulders of the pioneering women that opened the door, but of a whole community reckoning with its biases. The thing we’re most often asked is What can I (as a male PI, as an institutional leader, as a PhD student organizing seminars) do?”. The figures below gather a few ideas about where to start. Please comment with your own! Of course, these also apply to the broader spectrum of physical sciences and academia.

Fixing gender imbalance in the cryosphere [Credit: Florence Isaacs, Elizabeth Case and Violaine Coulon]

Conclusion

With this post, we hope to open discussions about gender diversity in the cryospheric sciences, how it’s changing (for the better), and what you can do to help increase diversity. Others have written recently and extensively about this, including Christina Hulbe, Lora Koenig, and others. We have put together a list of some of these resources below. We will continue to update this, so please let us know if there is something that needs to be added.

We also want to acknowledge the severe lack of racial and ethnic diversity, and a lack of research on the experiences of queer and disabled people in the geosciences. Where we have made strides for some women, we have left behind many others…

Further resources

Edited by Clara Burgard


Violaine Coulon is a PhD student of the glaciology unit, at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Brussels, Belgium. She is using a numerical ice sheet model to investigate the dynamics and stability of the Antarctic Ice Sheet for the past 1.5 million years. She also investigates the sensitivity of the Antarctic Ice Sheet to the incorporation of lateral variability in the viscoelastic Earth structure across Antarctica.

 

 

Florence Isaacs is a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington’s Antarctic Research Centre, New Zealand. Her current research examines the relationship between Southern Hemisphere climate variability, sea ice, and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. She is passionate about increasing diversity in science, and tweets at @flisaacs.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Case is a PhD student at Columbia University and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory investigating ice deformation through radar and modelling. She rode her bike across the country in 2015 as a co-founder of Cycle for Science, and continues to advocate for adventure-based science education. You can find her @elizabeth_case.

 

Image of the Week – Why is ice so slippery?

Ice can be slippery! [Credit: giphy.com]

Having spent most of my life in places where the temperature hardly ever falls below zero, my first winter in Sweden was painful. Especially for my bum, who met the ice quite unexpectedly. Reading the news this week, from reports of emergency services overwhelmed after so many people had slipped to a scientific study on how no shoes have a good enough grip, via advice on how to walk like a penguin, I understand I am far from alone in having a problem with ice. But why is ice so slippery anyway? This is what we will talk about in this Image of the Week.


Did you know that you lacked friction?

To understand why one might fall sometimes, let us start with why one usually can walk without falling: friction! Friction is a resistive force that can have three causes:

  • Adhesion (think about glue or tape)

  • Surface roughness (think about sandpaper)

  • Deformation (think about dragging a suitcase over a gravel path)

Each of these types of friction is nicely explained on this website, so I will concentrate on our walking question. Note that if you are standing still, it is a different story; then we are talking about static (instead of dynamic) friction. And everything is actually a bit more complicated than the distinction between the three causes, since adhesion and roughness are somehow related. I will not get into that, but if that stirred your interest, you could have a look at this paper. Anyway, back to walking.

The roughness of our roads and pavements, along with that of your shoes and their deformation ability, is, of course, crucial. But in the case of water after the rain or rotten autumn leaves, adhesion can be the deciding factor between casually walking and experiencing a sudden unexpected loss of altitude: not that much adhesion between your foot and what you walk on, but rather between what you walk on and the rest of the world. And that is exactly the problem with ice.

Frozen lake [Credit: Nilay Dogulu (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)]

Water really is a weird material

Coming from a place where people rarely worry about ice, I had never heard the commonly accepted reasons why ice is slippery. A quick internet search informed me that a common belief is that ice is slippery because, by walking on it, we melt the very surface of the ice through the pressure of our weight and/or the heat of the friction. As a result, we end up with a dangerous layer of liquid water between our foot and the ice, lose adhesion, and … boom! A study published this summer has a different explanation: water in its solid form is made of chains of molecules attached to three other water molecules. But the chain has to stop somewhere, so, at the very surface, molecules are only attached to one or two others, and can, as a result, be easily detached from the rest of the ice. When that happens, they just hang around on top of the ice, “like marbles on a dancefloor“.

However, it cannot be seen as a layer of liquid water, rather as a gas, the authors of that new study say. Not that it makes a big difference when you are on the floor… The good (?) news is, this strange property of ice depends on temperature. They report that ice is the most treacherous at -7°C, but then becomes safer as the temperature decreases.

EGU Cryosphere friendly advice: how to walk around -7°C

Personally, I avoid roads and pavements like the plague and walk on frozen paths and grass, which retain some roughness unless covered by a lot of snow. Since it is not always possible, adopt the technique of our favourite polar animal:

  • put your centre of mass ahead of you by slightly bending your torso forward

  • go slowly

  • move your foot next to each other, instead of in front of one another

  • or give up and slide on your belly!

One of our favourite polar animals [Credit: Giuseppe Aulicino (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)].

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard

Ice-hot news: The cryosphere and the 1.5°C target

Ice-hot news: The cryosphere and the 1.5°C target

Every year again, the Conference of Parties takes place, an event where politicians and activists from all over the world meet for two weeks to discuss further actions concerning climate change. In the context the COP24, which started this Monday in Katowice (Poland), let’s revisit an important decision made three years ago, during the COP21 in Paris, and its consequences for the state of the cryosphere…


1.5°C target – what’s that again?

Last October, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report (SR15) on the impacts of a 1.5°C global warming above pre-industrial levels. This target of 1.5°C warming was established during the 21st conference of the parties (COP21), in a document known as the Paris Agreement. In this Agreement, most countries in the World acknowledge that limiting global warming to 1.5°C warming rather than 2°C warming would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

But wait, even though achieving this target is possible, which is not our subject today, what does it mean for our beloved cryosphere? And how does 1.5°C warming make a difference compared to the 2°C warming initially discussed during the COP21 and previous COPs?

A reason why the cryosphere is so difficult to grasp is the nonlinear behaviour of its components. What does this mean ? A good basic example is the transition between water and ice. At 99.9°C, you have water. Go down to 0.1°C and the water is colder, but this is still water. Then go down to -0.1°C and you end up with ice. The transition is very sharp and the system can be deeply affected even for a small change in temperature.

As a main conclusion, studies conducted in the context of SR15 show that, below 1.5°C of global warming, most components of the cryosphere will be slightly affected, while above that level of warming, there is more chance that the system may respond quickly to small temperature changes. In this Ice Hot News, we review the main conclusions of the SR15 concerning ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice and permafrost, answering among others the question if achieving the 1.5°C target would prevent us to trigger the potential nonlinear effects affecting some of them.

Ice sheets

The two only remaining ice sheets on Earth cover Greenland and Antarctica. If melted, the Greenland ice sheet could make the sea level rise by 7 m, while the Antarctic ice sheet could make it rise by almost 60 m. A recent review paper (Pattyn et al., 2018), not in SR15 because published very recently, shows that keeping the warming at 1.5°C rather than 2°C really makes the differences in terms of sea level rise contribution by the two ice sheets.

Greenland is a cold place, but not that cold. During the Holocene, the surface of the ice sheet always melted in summer but, in the yearly mean, the ice sheet was in equilibrium because summer melt was compensated by winter accumulation. Since the mid-1990s, Greenland’s atmosphere has warmed by about 5°C in winter and 2°C in summer. The ice sheet is thus currently losing mass from above and its surface lowers down. In the future, if the surface lowers too much, this could accelerate the mass loss because the limit altitude between snow and rainfalls may have been crossed, further accelerating the mass loss. The temperature threshold beyond which this process will occur is about 1.8°C, according to the Pattyn et al., 2018 paper.

Antarctica is a very cold continent, much colder than Greenland, but it has been losing mass since the 1990s as well. There, the source of the retreat is the temperature increase of the ocean. The ocean is in contact with the ice shelves, the seaward extensions of the ice sheet in its margins. The warmer ocean has eroded the ice shelves, making them thinner and less resistant to the ice flow coming from the interior. And if you have read the post about the marine ice sheet instability (MISI), you already know that the ice sheet can discharge a lot of ice to the ocean if the bedrock beneath the ice sheet is deeper inland than it is on the margins (called retrograde). MISI is a potential source of nonlinear acceleration of the ice sheet that, along with other nonlinear effects mentioned in the study, could trigger much larger sea level rise contribution from the Antarctic ice sheet above 2 to 2.7°C.

You can find complementary informations to the Pattyn et al., 2018 paper in SR15, sections 3.3.9, 3.5.2.5, 3.6.3.2 and in FAQ 3.1.

Glaciers crossing the transantarctic mountains, one of them ending up to Drygalski ice tongue (left side) in the Ross sea. The ice tongue is an example of those ice shelves that form as grounded ice flows toward the sea from the interior. Ice shelves are weakened by a warmer ocean, which accelerates upstream ice flow [Credit: C. Ritz, PEV/PNRA]

Glaciers

Over the whole globe, the mass of glaciers has decreased since pre-industrial times in 1850, according to Marzeion et al., 2014. At that time, climate change was a mix between human impact and natural variability of climate. Glacier response times to change in climate are typically decades, which means that a change happening, for instance, today, still has consequences on glaciers tens of years after. Today, the retreat of glaciers is thus a mixed response to natural climate variability and current anthropogenic warming. However, since 1850, the anthropogenic warming contribution to the glacier mass loss has increased from a third to more than two third over the last two decades.

Similarly to the Greenland ice sheet, glaciers are prone to undergo an acceleration of ice mass loss wherever the limit altitude where rainfall occurs more often than snowfall is higher and at the same time the glacier surface lowers. However, as opposed to ice sheets, glaciers can be found all over the world under various latitudes, temperature and snow regimes, which makes it difficult to establish a unique temperature above which all the glaciers in the world will shrink faster in a nonlinear way. There are, however, model-based global estimates of ice mass loss over the next century. The paper from Marzeion et al., 2018, shows that under 1.5-2°C of global warming, the glaciers will lose the two thirds of their current mass, and that for a 1°C warming, our current level of warming since pre-industrial times, the glacier are still committed to lose one third of their current mass. This means the actions that we take now to limit climate change won’t be seen for decades.

You can find complementary informations in SR15, sections 3.3.9, 3.6.3.2 and in FAQ 3.1.

Sea ice

As very prominently covered by media and our blog (see this post and this post), the Arctic sea-ice cover has been melting due to the increase in CO2 emissions in past decades. To understand the future evolution of climate, climate models are forced with the expected CO2 emissions for future scenarios. In summer, the results of these climate model simulations show that keeping the warming at 1.5°C instead of 2°C is essential for the Arctic sea-ice cover. While at 1.5°C warming, the Arctic Ocean will be ice-covered most of the time, at 2°C warming, there are much higher chances of a sea-ice free Arctic. In winter, however, the ice cover remains similar in both cases.

In the Antarctic, the situation is less clear. On average, there has been a slight expansion of the sea-ice cover (see this post). This is, however, not a clear trend, but is composed of different trends over the different Antarctic basins. For example, a strong decrease was observed near the Antarctic peninsula and an increase in the Amundsen Sea. The future remains even more uncertain because most climate models do not represent the Antarctic sea-ice cover well. Therefore, no robust prediction could be made for the future.

You can find all references were these results are from and more details in Section 3.3.8 of the SR15. Also, you can find the impact of sea-ice changes on society in Section 3.4.4.7.

Caption: Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean [D. Olonscheck]

Permafrost

Permafrost is ground that is frozen consecutively for two years or more. It covers large areas of the Arctic and the Antarctic and is formed or degraded in response to surface temperatures. Every summer, above-zero temperatures thaw a thin layer at the surface, and below this, we find the boundary to the permafrost. The depth to the permafrost is in semi-equilibrium with the current climate.

The global area underlain by permafrost globally will decrease with warming, and the depth to the permafrost will increase. In a 1.5°C warmer world, permafrost extent is estimated to decrease by 21-37 % compared to today. This would, however, preserve 2 millions km2 more permafrost than in a 2°C warmer world, where 35-47 % of the current permafrost would be lost.

Permafrost stores twice as much carbon (C) as the atmosphere, and permafrost thaw with subsequent release of CO2 and CH4 thus represents a positive feedback mechanism to warming and a potential tipping point. However, according to estimates cited in the special report, the release at 1.5°C warming (0.08-0.16 Gt C per year) and at 2°C warming (0.12-0.25 Gt C per year) does not bring the system at risk of passing this tipping point before 2100. This is partly due to the energy it takes to thaw large amounts of ice and the soil as a medium for heat exchange, which results in a time lag of carbon release.
The response rates of carbon release is, however, a topic for continuous discussion, and the carbon loss to the atmosphere is irreversible, as permafrost carbon storage is a slow process, which has occurred over millennia.

Changes in albedo from increased tree growth in the tundra, which will affect the energy balance at the surface and thus ground temperature, is estimated to be gradual and not be linked to permafrost collapse as long as global warming is held under 2°C.

The above-mentioned estimates and predictions are from the IPCC special report Section 3.5.5.2, 3.5.5.3 and 3.6.3.3.

Slope failure of permafrost soil [Credit: NASA, Wikimedia Commons].

So, in summary…

In summary, what can we say? Although the 1.5°C and 2°C limits were chosen as a consensus between historical claims based on physics and a number that is easy to communicate (see this article), it seems that there are some thresholds for parts of the cryosphere exactly between the two limits. This can have consequences on longer term, e.g. sea-level rise or permanent permafrost loss. Additionally, as the cryosphere experts and lovers that we are here in the blog team, we would mourn the loss of these exceptional landscapes. We therefore strongly hope that the COP24 will bring more solution and cooperation for the future against strengthening of climate change!

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard and Violaine Coulon


Lionel Favier is a glaciologist and ice-sheet modeller, currently occupying a post-doctoral position at IGE in Grenoble, France. He’s also on twitter.

 

 

 

Laura Helene Rasmussen is a Danish permafrost scientist working at the Center for Permafrost, University of Copenhagen. She has spent many seasons in Greenland, working with the Greenland Ecosystem Monitoring Programme and is interested in Arctic soils as an ecosystem component, their climate sensitivity, functioning and simply understanding what goes on below.

 

 

Clara Burgard is a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg. She investigates the evolution of sea ice in general circulation models (GCMs). There are still biases in the sea-ice representation in GCMs as they tend to underestimate the observed sea-ice retreat. She tries to understand the reasons for these biases. She tweets as @climate_clara.

 

Image of the Week – Climbing Everest and highlighting science in the mountains

Image of the Week – Climbing Everest and highlighting science in the mountains

Dr Melanie Windridge, a physicist and mountaineer, successfully summited Mount Everest earlier this year and has been working on an outreach programme to encourage young people’s interest in science and technology. Read about her summit climb, extreme temperatures, and the science supporting high-altitude mountaineering in our Image of the Week.


It’s bigger than it looks! Experiencing the majesty of Everest

In April/May this year I climbed Mount Everest. To the top. It was two months of patient toil but in surroundings so majestic, impressive and inspiring. The Western Cwm (an amphitheatre-like valley shaped by glacial erosion) is vast, the summit ridge is steep and Khumbu Glacier was fascinating in itself. Our base camp was on the glacier and it changed daily in subtle ways – the ice melted, the rocks moved, the paths morphed. And the icefall was slightly different each time I passed through – the route changing through a collapsed area, a crevasse widening, or the rope buried by ice-block debris fallen from above. It’s a wonderful, interesting place and I am grateful to have experienced it. You can read more about the climb on my personal blog.

Fig.2: The view up the Western Cwm from Camp 1. Lhotse can be seen in the distance and the summit of Everest mid-left. [Credit: Melanie Windridge].

Everest, of course, is extreme. It is steep almost everywhere, so you barely get a let-up anywhere beyond the Western Cwm. The temperature differences are extreme too – it is extremely hot or extremely cold. I took a couple of temperature loggers with me to the summit (one in a base-layer pocket under my down suit and one in an outer pocket of my rucksack). You can see from the graph of summit night (the climb from Camp 4 to the summit of Everest) (Fig. 3) how the temperature varied by tens of degrees.  Since climbers dress for the coldest temperatures, this can be quite uncomfortable when the sun comes out.  The temperature on summit night got down to about -25°C, but during the day it rose to 10 degrees or more so that we were sweating into our down suits.

 

Fig.3: Graph showing the readings from two separate temperature loggers on summit night – one in a base-layer pocket under the down suit (Down suit temperature) and one in an outer pocket of the rucksack (Air temperature). The temperature rises quickly after sunrise, which was experienced on the summit [Credit: Melanie Windridge and Scott Watson].

Sharing the Science of the Summit

It was science that really got me interested in Everest, when I realised that the main reason the British had succeeded in 1953 but hadn’t in the 1920s and 30s was because of scientific understanding and the state of technology. But so often we don’t talk about the science that supports us in these great endeavours; instead we put it all down to the strength of the human spirit. I think we need to talk about both.

As part of my climb, I have been working on an outreach project to highlight how science and technology have improved safety and performance on Everest. I have made Science of Everest videos for the Institute of Physics YouTube channel and will be giving public talks. I wanted to show how science supports us and what has improved in recent decades to contribute to the falling death rate on Everest.

In the video series I look at changes in weather forecasting, communications, oxygen, medicine and clothing. We also consider risk and preparation – videos that went out before I left for Everest – because, as a scientist, I looked into past data to see how I could give myself the best chance of reaching the summit and returning safely.

 

 

Communication has improved not only because we have a greater variety than was available to the first ascentionists or the early commercial climbers (we have satellite phones, mobile/cell-phones and WiFi now), but also because everything is a lot smaller. Electronic components have greatly reduced in size so that radios used on the mountain now are small and handheld in comparison to the bulky sets of the 1950s (see video above).

 

 

Of course, the implication of the project is wider than just Everest. I am interested in the importance of science and exploration in general. For me, Everest is an icon of exploration – the way that human curiosity, ingenuity, determination and endurance come together to drive us forward. Reaching into the unknown is good for us, on a societal level and on a personal level. I hope to give an appreciation of the value of science in our lives, give students an insight into interesting careers that use science, and show the value of doing things that scare us!

 

Further reading

Edited by Scott Watson and Clara Burgard


Dr Melanie Windridge is a physicist, speaker, writer… with a taste for adventure. She is Communications Consultant for fusion start-up Tokamak Energy, author of “Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights” and is currently working on a book about Mount Everest.
Website: www.melaniewindridge.co.uk (see the Science & Exploration blog to read about the Everest climb)
Twitter @m_windridge, Facebook /DrMelanieWindridge, Instagram @m_windridge
Science of Everest videos on the Institute of Physics YouTube channel http://bit.ly/EverestVids

Image of the Week – Inspiring Girls!

Image of the Week – Inspiring Girls!

What, you may ask, are this group of 22 women doing standing around a fire-pit and what does this have to do with the EGU Cryosphere blog? This group of scientists, artists, teachers, and coaches gathered 2 weeks ago in Switzerland to learn how to become instructors on an Inspiring Girls Expedition. But what, you may ask again, is an Inspiring Girls Expedition? Well read on to find out more…


What is an Inspiring Girls Expedition?

In 1999 Glaciologist Erin Petit, Geographer Michele Koppes, and 5 high-school girls hiked out onto the South Cascade Glacier in Washington State. For the next week, this motley crew spent their time camped out on a glacier moraine, exploring the landscape and performing scientific experiments by day, and talking and listening to each others thoughts and stories by night – that was the birth of Girls on Ice.

Over the next 13 years, more expeditions took place and more instructors (scientists, artists and mountain guides) started to get involved. In 2012, a second Girls on Ice expedition was born in Alaska and, in the years since, there have been Girls on Ice expeditions in 4 different locations and in 2 different languages! The idea has expanded to other areas of wilderness expedition as well, with new projects starting up: Girls on Rock, Girls in Icy Fjords and Girls on Water – nowadays these expedition are collectively known as Inspiring Girls Expeditions!

But I haven’t really answered the question – what is an Inspiring Girls Expedition? It is a wilderness and science education program for high-school aged girls. Over the course of around 12 days, these girls get the chance to explore a wilderness setting, learn about scientific thinking, increase self-confidence, and push their physical and intellectual boundaries as part of a single-gendered team. And, importantly – it’s FREE – opening it up to girls who might not have the financial means to do something like this otherwise. Everyone who goes on the expedition from scientists to mountain guides and instructors is female, making this expedition pretty unique! I think the philosophy of Inspiring Girls is best described by their mission statement:

Our mission is to bring out your natural curiosity, inspire your interest in science, connect the arts and sciences, free you from gender roles, provide a less competitive atmosphere, and encourage trust in your physical abilities.

The workshop

I’ve been following the work of Girls on Ice for a while, so when I saw a chance to go on an instructor training course, I enthusiastically signed up! Over 4 days in June 2018, a group of women from at least 8 different countries got together in a hiking hut in Switzerland for an Inspiring Girls Instructor Workshop, hosted by Swiss Girls on Ice. We came from a broad range of backgrounds: glaciologists, climate scientists, biologists, artists, architects, professional coaches, teachers (I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone!). We started off by learning more about the Inspiring Girls philosophy, what they expeditions aim to teach, and how they keep the girls safe and deal with any issues that might arise. Then came the thinking part for us…How do you teach in a wilderness setting? How to keep teenage girls engaged in what you are doing? What is a good leader? This gave us a lot of food for thought and we discussed a lot of these issues late into the evenings!

Then the fun part (although we all look rather serious in the pictures – below), working on ideas for new Inspiring Girls Expeditions (the current expeditions are often over-subscribed so there is certainly scope for more expeditions in more places) with the hope of inspiring more girls! So definitely watch this space for more expeditions coming to a mountain, cave or forest near you!

Figure 2: Workshop participants designing new Inspiring Girls Expeditions [Credit: Marijke Habermann]

It was a fantastic few days, with a fantastic bunch of women and I certainly came away feeling inspired myself!

I have to admit, this isn’t your usual Image of the Week blog post, however, I hope the relevance to scientists, science educators, and anyone else that follows the blog is clear! There is a need to show girls and young women that they have the potential to do what they want: be that a glaciologist, a mountain guide (both very much male dominated careers) or something entirely different! This type of expedition, in a single-gendered environment, is a very effective way to help build courage, confidence, and self-reliance!

This sounds cool – how can I get involved?

The team at Inspiring Girls are always looking for new people who are keen and enthusiastic about their project to get involved as volunteers, by donating a bit of cash or simply spreading the word about the expeditions – check their website to see how you can help out!

Edited by Clara Burgard

Image of the Week – Polar Prediction School 2018

Image of the Week – Polar Prediction School 2018

Early career scientists studying polar climate are one lucky group! The 29 young scientists who took part in the 10 day Polar Prediction School this year were no exception. They travelled to Arctic Sweden to learn and discuss the challenges of polar prediction and to gain a better understanding of the physical aspects of polar research.


The Year of Polar Prediction

The Year of Polar Prediction (YOPP) was launched on May 15th 2017; a large 2 year project that ‘aims to close gaps in polar forecasting capacity’ and ’lead to better forecasts of weather and sea-ice conditions to improve future environmental safety at both poles’. With these aims in mind, and with the support of the related APPLICATE project and the Association for Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS), a ten day Polar Prediction School took place in Abisko, Sweden in mid-April.

Abisko is a little town of 85 inhabitants, located north of the Arctic Circle (68°N) next to a National Park and a large lake. Due to the interesting habitats found in the region it is an excellent place to undertake polar research. Consequently, a scientific research station is located in the town, where research mainly focuses on biology, ecology, and meteorology.

Heading back to the research station (seen at the back of the picture) after a long hike [Credit: C. Burgard].

The 29 school participants were made up of Master students, PhD students, and PostDocs, with some studying the Arctic and some the Antarctic. The participants had diverse research backgrounds, with research that focused on atmospheric sciences, oceanic sciences, glaciers, sea ice and hydrology of polar regions, and used a range of techniques, from weather or climate models to in-situ or satellite observations. However, in the end, we were all linked together by our interest in the polar regions. Both this diversity and this link in our research helped us to exchange ideas about the common issues and the differences in all our disciplines.

The school programme

The course aimed to broaden students’ knowledge around their very specific PhD area. Therefore, the school covered a huge range of topics including polar lows, polar ocean-sea ice forecasting, remote sensing of the cryosphere, boundary layers, clouds and much more! Each day was made up of a mixture of lectures and practical sessions, which included:

  • Computer modelling exercises, for example using a simple 1D sea ice model
  • Observations, which included measuring temperature and wind from a weather station on the frozen lake next to the station, and daily radiosonde launches at lunchtime, in sync with radiosonde launches worldwide. These results were compared to model predictions each day.
  • Data assimilation, which focused on understanding the shortcomings in reanalysis products that we all use, including sources of uncertainty and error in the products and how they may impact our own work.

After dinner each evening a different group gave an informal weather briefing for the next day, which was often condensed down to how cloudy it would be, the amount of snow predicted (very little), and temperature (which averaged 2-3°C). Not quite the harsh, sub-zero temperatures that most of us had packed for! Each day was broken up by two coffee breaks (always accompanied by an obligatory cinnamon roll!) and meals which were taken all together in the main research building. This dragged everyone out of the lecture room to chat and refresh before the next session.

As is usual for any worthwhile meteorological fieldwork, we installed a small weather mast on the lake [Credit: C. Burgard].

Living Arctic weather for real

The usual weather in Abisko during April is fairly dry with temperatures ranging from 2°C to -6°C. In preparation for the cold, most of us had brought an abundance of wooly jumpers, thick thermal layers and numerous pairs of socks. However, on arrival in Abisko, the sun was shining and it was a balmy 7°C for the first two days. Whilst erecting the meteorology mast many of us were wearing T-shirts and sunglasses, after abandoning our warmer gear. The warm weather was not to last! Cloudy, relatively mild (2°C to -2°C) conditions persisted throughout most of the week, and it remained dry, which made it easier to forecast the weather but we were all hoping for a little snow! Finally, on the final day of the summer school, large snowflakes fell, although sadly it all melted quite quickly.

When we arrived, the whole area was coated in a thick layer of white snow and the frozen lake was covered. However, by the end of our visit, the bare earth was visible, and the top of the lake was slushy puddles of water. The changes in weather throughout the summer school made for interesting observation records. The albedo (reflectivity) of the lake surface went from approximately 0.8 for the fresh, white snow, but was reduced to 0.4 for the darker, water covered lake surface. It was great to see some theory in action!

Exploring the region

Luckily, we were also given a free day , in which we could explore the region, go skiing or just relax. One large group went off hiking, whilst a smaller group went cross country skiing and a few had a walk to the nearby frozen waterfall. But don’t worry, the science still continued! A group of 3 people stayed close by to release the lunchtime radiosonde.

Abisko children launching a radiosonde! [Credit: J. Turton]

Our visit to the area coincided with the exciting annual ice fishing contest! Whilst cars and small DIY tools are common place in many cities, in Abisko it is a snow mobile (or skidoo) and an ice drill, so they were well versed in the art of ice fishing! The majority of the town’s occupants arrived at the lake and started drilling small holes to catch some fish. After two hours, a number of prizes were awarded (e.g for the longest fish caught). Unfortunately, some of the holes were a little too close to our meteorology mast, and some cables were pulled out, but thankfully we still collected some good data!

An important aspect of any research is engaging with the local communities and communicating effectively with them. So all of the summer school attendees gathered by the lake to watch the ice fishing contest, and a large number of the children from Abisko gathered to watch us release the radiosonde, even helping launch one. They found our activities just as exciting as we found theirs!

And we did some science communication as well!

A crucial aspect of science is how you communicate it to a variety of audiences. The way you might discuss your thesis to your viva panel should be completely different to the way you describe your science to your Great Aunt Linda or to a group of 10-year olds who are attending your outreach event. As part of the summer school, we learnt a range of tips and tricks for communicating science, thanks to Jessica Rohde. Jess is the communications officer for IARPC (Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee) Collaborations and has years of science communication experience under her belt. Each evening we had a short lecture by Jess, which focused on a specific area of communication including presentation slide design, knowing your audience, listening to the audience and finding the story behind your science. Once we had learnt the theory we then put what we had learnt into practice. We did a bit of  improv’, which included 1-minute elevator pitches and tailoring your science to taxi drivers, the Queen of England and models (no not computer models, the Kate Moss variety). An important take-home message was that there is no such thing as the ‘general public’. When designing your outreach event, the ‘general public’ could involve children of all ages (and therefore all learning levels), parents, teachers, professors and pensioners. Therefore, you should listen to the needs of your audience and understand what their motivation is.

You can check out the final results of these sessions here!

In summary…

In the end, although the school was quite intense, everyone was sad to part. We are sure we will all remember this exciting time, where we learnt about the many aspects of polar prediction, and what to consider when tackling science communication. We hope that this school will be organized again in the next years to provide this amazing and unforgettable experience to all those who could not join this year’s Polar Prediction School!

Further reading

Edited by Morgan Jones


Rebecca Frew is a PhD student at the University of Reading (UK). She investigates the importance of feedbacks between the sea ice, atmosphere and ocean for the Antarctic sea ice cover using a hierarchy of climate models. In particular, she is looking at the how the importance of different feedbacks may vary between different regions of the Southern Ocean.
Contact: r.frew@pgr.reading.ac.uk

 

 

Jenny Turton is a post doc working at the institute for Geography at the University of Erlangen-Nuernberg, in the climate system research group. Her current research focuses on the interactions between the atmosphere and surface ice of the 79N glacier in northeast Greenland, as part of the GROCE project. 

 

 

 

Clara Burgard is a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg. She investigates the evolution of sea ice in general circulation models (GCMs). There are still biases in the sea-ice representation in GCMs as they tend to underestimate the observed sea-ice retreat. She tries to understand the reasons for these biases.

Image of the Week — Biscuits in the Permafrost

Fig. 1: A network of low-centred ice-wedge polygons (5 to 20 m in diameter) in Adventdalen, Svalbard [Credit: Ben Giles/Matobo Ltd]

In Svalbard, the snow melts to reveal a mysterious honeycomb network of irregular shapes (fig. 1). These shapes may look as though they have been created by a rogue baker with an unusual set of biscuit cutters, but they are in fact distinctive permafrost landforms known as ice-wedge polygons, and they play an important role in the global climate.


Ice-wedge polygons: Nature’s biscuit-cutter

In winter, cracks form when plummeting air temperatures cause the ground to cool and contract. O’Neill and Christiansen (2018) used miniature accelerometers to detect this cracking, and found that it causes tiny earthquakes, with large magnitude accelerations (from 5 g to at least 100 g (where g = normal gravity)!). Water fills the cracks when snow melts. When the temperature drops, the water refreezes and expands, widening the cracks. Over successive winters, the low tensile strength of the ice compared to the surrounding sediment means that cracking tends to reoccur in the ice. As the cycle of cracking, infilling, and refreezing continues over centuries to millennia, ice wedges develop.

Subsurface ice wedge growth causes small changes in the ground surface microtopography. There are linear depressions, known as troughs, above the ice wedges (fig. 2). Adjacent to the troughs, the soil is pushed up into raised rims. From these raised rims, the elevation drops off into the polygon centre, forming low-centred polygons (fig. 2a).

Shaping Arctic landscapes

Permafrost in the Northern hemisphere is warming due to increasing air temperatures (Romanovsky et al. (2010). As air temperatures rise, the active layer (the ground that thaws each summer and refreezes in winter) deepens.

As permafrost with a high ice content thaws out, the ice melts and the ground subsides. On the other hand, permafrost containing no ice does not experience subsidence. Consequently, permafrost thaw can cause differential subsidence in ice-wedge polygon networks. This re-arranges the surface microtopography: ice wedges melt, the rims collapse into the troughs, and the polygons become flat-centred and then eventually high-centred (fig. 2b and c; Lara et al. (2015)). Wedge ice is ~20 % of the uppermost permafrost volume, and so this degradation could have a big impact on the shape of Arctic landscapes.

Are ice wedge polygons climate amplifiers?

Fig. 2: Schematic diagrams of polygon types and features [Credit: Wainwright et al. (2015)].

The transition from low-centred to high-centred ice-wedge polygons affects water distribution across the polygonal ground. The rims of low-centred polygons tend to block water drainage, whereas the troughs facilitate relatively fast and effective drainage of water from the polygonal networks (Liljedahl et al., 2012). So, during summer, the centres of low-centred polygons are frequently flooded with stagnant water, whereas the central mounds of high centred polygons are well drained (and good to sit on at lunchtime!). The contrast in hydrology influences vegetation, surface energy transfer, and biogeochemistry, in turn influencing carbon cycling and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

High-centred polygons can have increased carbon dioxide emissions compared to low-centred polygons, on account of their lower soil moisture, reduced cover of green vascular vegetation and the well-drained soil (Wainwright et al., 2015). On the other hand, once plant growth during peak growing season is accounted for, this can actually cause a net drawdown of carbon dioxide in high-centred polygons (Lara et al., 2015). In contrast, there is general agreement that low-centred polygons are associated with high summer methane flux (Lara et al., 2015; Sachs et al., 2010; Wainwright et al., 2015). This is due to multiple interacting environmental factors. Firstly, low centred polygons have a higher temperature, which increases methane production rates. Secondly, they also have moister soil, which decreases the consumption of methane, owing to the lower oxygen availability. Thirdly, the low-centred polygons often have more vascular plants that help transport the methane away from its production site and up into the atmosphere. Lastly, the low-centred polygons had higher concentrations of aqueous total organic carbon, which provides a good food source for methanogens.

Outlook

As the climate warms, ice wedge polygons will increasingly degrade. The challenge now is to figure out whether the transition from low-centred to high-centred polygons will enhance or mitigate climate warming. This depends on the balance between the uptake and release of methane and carbon dioxide, as well as the rate of transition from high- to low-centred polygons.

Further Reading

Lara, M.J., et al. (2015), Polygonal tundra geomorphological change in response to warming alters future CO2 and CH4 flux on the Barrow Peninsula. Global Change Biology, 21(4), 1634-1651

Liljedahl, A.K., et al. (2016), Pan-Arctic ice-wedge degradation in warming permafrost and its influence on tundra hydrology. Nature Geoscience, 9, 312-316.

Wainwright, H.M., et al. (2015), Identifying multiscale zonation and assessing the relative importance of polygons geomorphology on carbon fluxes in an Arctic tundra ecosystem. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 707-723.

On permafrost instability: Image of the Week – When the dirty cryosphere destabilizes! | EGU Cryosphere Blog

On polygons in wetlands: Polygon ponds at sunset | Geolog

Edited by Joe Cook and Sophie Berger


Eleanor Jones is a NERC PhD student on the EU-JPI LowPerm project based at the University of Sheffield and the University Centre in Svalbard. She is investigating the biogeochemistry of ice-wedge polygon wetlands in Svalbard. She tweets as @ElouJones. Contact Email: eljones3@sheffield.ac.uk