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Cryospheric Sciences

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Image of the Week – Delaying the flood with glacial geoengineering

Figure 1: Three examples of glacial geoengineering techniques to mitigate sea-level rise from ice-sheet melting [Credit: Adapted from Figure 1 of Moore et al. (2018); Design: Claire Welsh/Nature].

As the climate is currently warming, many countries and cities are preparing to cope with one of its major impacts, namely sea-level rise. Up to now, the mitigation of climate change has mainly focused on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Large-scale geoengineering has also been proposed to remove carbon from the atmosphere or inject aerosols into the stratosphere to limit the rise in temperature. But locally-targeted geoengineering techniques could also provide a way to avoid some of the worst impacts, like the sea-level rise. In this Image of the Week, we present examples of such a technique that could be applied to the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets (Moore et al., 2018; Wolovick and Moore, 2018).


Sea level is rising…

The sea level of the world oceans has been rising at a mean rate of 3 mm per year since the 1990s, mainly due to ocean thermal expansion, land-ice melting and changes in freshwater storage (see this post). More than 90% of coastal areas could experience a sea-level rise exceeding 20 cm with a 2°C warming (relative to the pre-industrial period), which is likely to happen by the middle of this century (Jevrejeva et al., 2016).

The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets constitute two huge reservoirs of ice and contain the equivalent of 60 and 7 m of sea-level rise, respectively, if completely melted. Although a complete disintegration of these two ice sheets is not on the agenda in the coming years, surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the flow of some major polar glaciers could be enhanced by different positive feedbacks (see this post on climate feedbacks and this post on marine ice sheet instability). These feedbacks would elevate the sea level even more than projected by the models.

… but could potentially be delayed by glacial geoengineering

In order to cope with this threat, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions might not be sufficient to delay the rise of sea level. One alternative has been suggested by Moore et al. (2018) and consists of using glacial geoengineering techniques in the vicinity of fast-flowing glaciers of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. They propose three different ways to delay sea-level rise from these glaciers and these are presented in our Image of the Week (Fig. 1):

A.   A pumping station could be installed at the top of the glacier with the aim of extracting or freezing the water at the glacier base. This would slow down the glacier sliding on the bedrock and reduce its contribution to sea-level rise.

B.   An artificial island (about 300 m high) could be built in the cavity under the floating section of the glacier (or ice shelf). This would enhance the so-called buttressing effect (see this post) and decrease the glacier flow to the ocean.

C.   A wall of up to 100 m high could be built in the ocean bay right in the front of the ice shelf. This would block (partially or completely) any warm water circulating underneath the ice shelf and delay the sub-shelf melting (see this post).

In theory

Wolovick and Moore (2018) studied in detail the possibility of building artificial islands (proposal B above) underneath the ice shelf of Thwaites Glacier (West Antarctica), one of the largest glacier contributors to the ongoing sea-level rise. They used a simple ice-flow model coupled to a simple ocean model and considered different warming scenarios in which they introduced an artificial island underneath the ice shelf.

Figure 2 below illustrates an example coming from their analysis. In the beginning (Fig. 2b), the grounding line (separation between the grounded ice sheet in blue and the floating ice shelf in purple) is located on top of a small mountain range. When running the model under a global warming scenario, the grounding line retreats inland and the glacier enters into a ‘collapsing phase’ (Fig. 2c; marine ice sheet instability). The introduction of an artificial island under the ice shelf with a potential to block half the warm ocean water allows the ice shelf to reground (Fig. 2d; the ice-shelf base touches the top of the small island below). The unprotected seaward part of the ice shelf shrinks over time, while the protected inland part thickens and regrounds (Fig. 2e-f), which overall decreases the glacier mass loss to the ocean.

Figure 2: Example of a model experiment realized on Thwaites Glacier by Wolovick and Moore (2018). Different times are presented and show the (b) initial state, (c) the collapse underway, (d) the initial effect of the construction of the artificial island below the ice shelf, (e) the removal of the seaward ice shelf and thickening of the landward ice shelf, (f) the stabilization of the glacier [Credit: Figure 5 of Wolovick and Moore (2018)].

In practice

The model experiments presented above show that delaying sea-level rise from glacier outflow is possible in theory. In practice, this would mean substantial geoengineering efforts. For building a small artificial island under the ice shelf of Pine Island Glacier (West Antarctica), 0.1 km3 of gravel and sand would be necessary. That same quantity would be sufficient to build a 100 m high wall in front of Jakobshavn Glacier (Greenland) to prevent warm water from melting the ice base. For building such a wall in front of Pine Island Glacier, a quantity of 6 km3 (60 times more than Jakobshavn) of material would be needed.

In comparison, the Three Gorges Dam used 0.03 km3 of cast concrete, the Hong Kong’s airport required around 0.3 km3 of landfill, and the excavation of the Suez Canal necessitated 1 km3 of material. Thus, the quantities needed for building glacial geoengineering structures are comparable in size to the current large engineering projects.

However, many other aspects need to be considered when implementing such a project. In particular, the construction of such structures in cold waters surrounded by icebergs and sea ice is much more difficult than in a typical temperate climate. A detailed study of physical processes in the region of the glacier, such as ocean circulation, iceberg calving, glacier sliding and erosion, and melting rates, is needed before performing such projects. Also, the number of people needed to work on a project of this scale is an important factor to include.

Potential adverse effects

Beside all the factors that need to be considered to implement such a project, there is a list of potential adverse effects. One of the main risks is to the marine ecosystems, which could be affected by the constructions of the islands and walls. Also, if not properly designed, the geoengineering solutions could accelerate the sea-level rise instead of delaying it. For instance, in the case of water extraction (proposal A above), the glacier might speed up rather than slow down if water at the glacier’s base is trapped in pockets.

Wolovick and Moore (2018) do not advocate that glacial geoengineering is done any time soon, due to the different factors mentioned above. Instead, they suggest that we start thinking about technological solutions that could delay sea-level rise. Other studies also look at different glacial geoengineering ideas (see this post).

In summary

Glacial geoengineering techniques constitute a potential way to cope with one of the greatest challenges related to global warming, namely sea-level rise. In theory, these projects are possible, while in practice a series of technical difficulties and potential ecological risks do not allow us to implement them soon.

While important to keep thinking about these solutions, the most important action that humanity can take in order to delay sea-level rise is to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. And scientists like us need to keep carefully studying the cryosphere and the Earth’s climate in general.

Further reading

Edited by Jenny Turton


David Docquier is a post-doctoral researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. He works on the development of processed-based sea-ice metrics in order to improve the evaluation of global climate models (GCMs). His study is embedded within the EU Horizon 2020 PRIMAVERA project, which aims at developing a new generation of high-resolution GCMs to better represent the climate.

 

Image of the Week – Greenland’s fjords: critical zones for mixing

Image of the Week – Greenland’s fjords: critical zones for mixing

One of the most challenging research questions to address in the Arctic is how freshwater discharge from Greenland’s largest glaciers affects the biogeochemistry of the ocean. Just getting close to the calving fronts of these large marine-terminating glaciers is difficult. Fjords, hundreds of kilometers long and full of icebergs which shift with the wind and roll as they melt, make the commute a little difficult. Navigating these fjords to within a few kilometers of Greenland’s largest glaciers requires a combination of luck, skillful handling of small boats and a ‘fortune favors the brave’ attitude to sampling which would probably upset even the most relaxed of University Health and Safety Officers. The limited field data we have from Greenland’s fjords must therefore be combined with other data sources in order to understand what happens between glaciers and the ocean.


The Challenge

The amount of freshwater discharged from the Greenland ice sheet into the ocean increases in response to climate change. This may affect both the fisheries which support the island’s economy and the carbon sink associated with fjord systems – the largest per unit surface area in the ocean. As a consequence, we need to assess how exactly this cold freshwater will affect the ocean. To do so requires collaboration of scientists with different backgrounds:

  • glaciologists, to understand the different components of freshwater released (ice melt, surface runoff, subglacial discharge),

  • physicists, to understand the fate of freshwater within a dynamic water column,

  • chemists, to understand how the availability of resources shifts in response to increasing freshwater

  • biologists, to understand the net effects of multiple physio-chemical changes to the environment on living organisms.

In the context of climate change it is also always worth remembering that the increase in Greenland ice sheet discharge occurs alongside other changes in the Arctic, such as the disappearance of sea ice and warming of the atmosphere and ocean. Thus, we really must unleash 4-dimensional thinking in order to understand the processes that are currently at work in the whole Arctic.

Recent work around Greenland has shown that one particularly important factor in determining how a glacier affects downstream marine ecosystems is whether it terminates on land or in the ocean. When a glacier sits in the ocean and releases meltwater at depth, this cold freshwater rapidly mixes with deep nutrient-rich seawater. This buoyant mix, known as an upwelling plume, rises upwards in the water column. These buoyant plumes act as a ‘nutrient pump’ bringing macronutrients from deep seawater to the surface and thus driving quite pronounced summertime phytoplankton blooms. Around Greenland, these blooms are quite remarkable. Summertime productivity in the open Atlantic is generally quite limited, while the main time of year when phytoplankton bloom is spring. In several of Greenland’s fjords, however, phytoplankton bloom over the meltwater season (around May-September). Understanding how these upwelling-driven blooms operate, and more importantly how they will change in the future, is a formidable challenge. There is an almost complete lack of either physical or biogeochemical data within a few kilometers of most large marine-terminating glaciers and thus our ability to quantify the relationship between discharge and downstream productivity is limited.

Contrasting effects of meltwater around Greenland depending on where the glacier terminates with respect to sea-level. [Credit: Fig 3 from Hopwood et al., (2018)].

Modelling what we cannot measure

Fortunately however, the field of subglacial discharge modelling is relatively well advanced. Since the 1950s, plume models have been used to describe reasonably well the subglacial discharge downstream of glaciers. Whilst all of Greenland’s glacier fjords are unique, we can at least model the processes that underpin the ‘nutrient pump’ leading to such unusual summertime productivity around Greenland.

One thing is particularly clear from the use of these models. The depth at which a glacier sits in the water column is a major factor for the magnitude of the upwelling effect. If a glacier retreats inland, this is generally bad news for downstream marine productivity. As marine-terminating glaciers retreat, the nutrient pump rapidly collapses if the glacier moves into shallower water – irrespective of what happens to the volume of discharged meltwater. For a majority of Greenland’s glaciers for which the topography under the glacier has been characterised, this will be indeed the case under climate change: as the glaciers retreat inland, their grounding lines will get shallower and shallower. The ‘nutrient pump’ associated with each one will therefore also diminish.

Outlook

There are still many things we don’t know about environmental change around Greenland, as our almost complete lack of data outside the meltwater season and very close to marine-terminating glacier termini still hinders our understanding of some critical processes. Only by adopting more inter-disciplinary methods of working and deploying new technology will these data-deficiencies be addressed.

Further reading

 

Edited by Sophie Berger and Clara Burgard


Mark Hopwood is a postdoc at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany. He investigates how environmental changes, such as increasing freshwater discharge in the Arctic or declining oxygen in the tropics, affect the availability of nutrients to biota in the marine environment. By using a combination of fieldwork and targeted process studies the main goal is to identify and quantify biogeochemical feedbacks that act to amplify or dampen the response of marine biota to perturbations. He tweets as @Markinthelab. Contact Email: m.hopwood@geomar.de

Image of the Week – Oh Sheet!

Image of the Week – Oh Sheet!

The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are major players in future sea level rise. Still, there is a lot about these ice sheets we do not understand. Under the umbrella of the World Climate Research Programme, the international scientific community is coming together to improve ice sheet modelling efforts to better grasp the implications of climate change for ice sheet evolution, and consequently, sea level rise…


What are ice sheets?

An ice sheet is a massive chunk of glacier ice that sits on land – covering an area greater than 50,000 square kilometres (or 1.6 times the size of Belgium) by the official definition. Currently, the only two ice sheets on Earth are in Antarctica and Greenland. Ice in ice sheets flows from inland toward the coast under gravity. Due to the geothermal heat flux, ice sheets are usually warmer at the base than on the surface. When basal melting occurs, the melted water lubricates the ice sheet and accelerates the ice flow, forming fast-flowing ice streams. When ice flows down a coastline into the ocean, it may float due to buoyancy. The floating slab of ice is called an ice shelf (see these previous posts for more on ice shelves). The boundary that separates the grounded ice and floating ice is called the grounding line.

 

Why do we care about ice sheets?

The most uncertain potential source of future sea level rise is the contribution from ice sheets. According to observations, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have contributed approximately 7.5 and 4 mm of sea level rise respectively over the 1992-2011 period, and the contribution is accelerating. Knowing how the ice sheets will behave under future emission scenarios is crucial for risk assessment and policy-making (see this previous post for more on Antarctic ice sheets).

In addition to the direct impact on sea level rise, ice sheets interact with other components of the climate system. For example, ice discharge affects ocean circulation and marine biogeochemistry; changes in orography influence the atmosphere condition and circulation. In turn, the ice sheets gain mass primarily from snow fall, and lose mass through surface melting, surface sublimation, basal melting and ice discharge to the ocean, which are influenced by atmospheric and oceanographic processes. In Antarctica, the mass loss due to basal melting and iceberg calving is larger than snowfall accumulation. The Greenland Ice Sheet is also losing mass through iceberg calving and surface water runoff.

 

What’s CMIP?

Global coupled climate models are developed by different groups of scientists around the world to improve our understanding of the climate system. These models are highly complex, representing interactions between the ocean, atmosphere, land surface and cryosphere on global grids. The Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) is a collaborative framework which provides a standard experimental protocol for the different models. The protocol includes a range of greenhouse gas emissions scenarios for future climate projections. Model output is made publicly available and forms the basis for assessments such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. The latest phase (CMIP6) is underway now.

 

What’s ISMIP6?

Ice sheets were considered as passive elements of the climate system previously and were not explicitly included in the CMIP process. However, observations of the rapid mass loss associated with dynamic change in ice sheets highlight the need to couple ice sheets to climate models. New developments in ice sheet modelling allow previously-omitted key processes which affect ice sheet dynamics on decadal timescales, such as grounding-line migration and basal lubrication, to be simulated with higher confidence.

ISMIP6 is an international effort designed to ensure that projections from ice sheet models are compatible with the CMIP6 process, bringing together scientists from over twenty institutions (Fig. 2). It aims to improve sea level projections, exploring sea level contribution from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets in a changing climate and investigating interactions between ice sheets and the climate system.

 

ISMIP6 Experiments

As shown in Figure 1, the objectives of ISMIP6 rely on three distinct modeling efforts:

  1. CMIP atmosphere-ocean general circulation models (AOGCM) without an ice sheet component
  2. standalone dynamic ice sheet models (ISMs) that are driven by forcing provided by CMIP
  3. fully coupled atmosphere-ocean-ice sheet models (AOGCM-ISMs).

 

In the first phase, ISMIP6 will compare output from different ice sheet models run in ‘standalone’ or ‘offline coupled’ mode. This means that they receive forcings from the climate model components like the ocean and atmosphere without feeding back. These experiments will be used to explore the uncertainty associated with ice sheets physics, dynamics and numerical implementation. In particular, ISMIP6 is currently focused on gaining insight into the uncertainty in ice sheet evolution resulting from the choice of initialization methods (the initMIP efforts for the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets) and understanding the response of the Antarctic ice sheet to a total loss of the ice shelves (ABUMIP).

The model output of the initMIP simulations for Greenland is now publicly available.

Fig. 2: Participants of ISMIP6 standalone ice sheet modeling.

 

ISMIP6 workshop

Regular meetings are organised to update and facilitate communication between the participants. The most recent workshop was hosted in the Netherlands during 11 – 13 September 2018. The topic of the workshop was “Developing process-based projections of the ice sheets’ contribution to future sea level.” Participants aimed to evaluate the output of the CMIP6 climate models and obtain forcing for standalone ice sheet model experiments. During the workshop, scientists made progress on establishing the experimental protocols for the ice sheet model simulations that will be discussed in the IPCC sixth assessment report.

Fig.3: Participants in the ISMIP6 workshop in Leiden, Netherlands [Credit: Heiko Goelzer]

Further reading

Edited by Lettie Roach and Clara Burgard


Sainan Sun does her postdoctoral research with Frank Pattyn at Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). She achieved her doctoral degree in 2014, majoring in ice sheet modeling at Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China. In her PhD study, she applied the BISICLES ice sheet model to Pine island glacier, Aurora drainage basin and Lambert-Amery drainage basin to describe the dynamical response of the Antarctic ice sheet to perturbations in boundary conditions. For the project at ULB, she aims to investigate the ice shelf features based on data acquired in Roi Baudouin ice shelf, Antarctica, and to estimate the potential instability of the Antarctic ice sheet using the f.ETISh ice sheet model. Contact Email: sainsun@ulb.ac.be

Image of the Week – The future of Antarctic ice shelves

Percent change in ice shelf melting, caused by the ocean, during the four future projections. The values are shown for all of Antarctica (written on the centre of the continent) as well as split up into eight sectors (colour-coded, written inside the circles). Figure 3 of Naughten et al., 2018 ). ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.

Climate change will increase ice shelf melting around Antarctica. That’s the not-very-surprising conclusion of a recent modelling study, resulting from a collaboration between Australian and German researchers. Here’s the less intuitive result: much of the projected melting is actually linked to a decrease in sea ice formation. Learn why in our Image of the Week…


Different types of Antarctic ice

Sea ice is just frozen seawater. But ice shelves (as well as ice sheets and icebergs) are originally formed of snow. Snow falls on the Antarctic continent, and over many years compacts into a system of interconnected glaciers that we call an ice sheet. These glaciers flow downhill towards the coast. If they hit the coast and keep going, floating on the ocean surface, the floating bits are called ice shelves. Sometimes the edges of ice shelves will break off and form icebergs, but they don’t really come into this story (have a look at this and this previous post if you want to read about icebergs nevertheless!).

Climate models don’t typically include ice sheets, or ice shelves, or icebergs. This is due to a combination of insufficient resolution and software engineering challenges, and is one reason why future projections of sea level rise are so uncertain. However, some standalone ocean models, i.e. ocean models without a coupled atmosphere, do include ice shelves. At least, they include the little pockets of ocean beneath the ice shelves – we call them ice shelf cavities – and can simulate the melting and refreezing that happens on the undersides of ice shelves.

Modelling future ice shelf melting

We took one of these ocean/ice-shelf models and forced it with the atmospheric output of regular climate models, which periodically make projections of climate change from now until the end of this century. As forcing, we used the atmospheric output of the Australian model ACCESS 1.0 in two experiments, and the mean of the atmospheric output from 19 other climate models taking part in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5  (Multi-Model Mean or “MMM”) in another two experiments. Each set of experiments considered two different scenarios for future greenhouse gas emissions (“Representative Concentration Pathways” or RCPs), for a total of four simulations. Each simulation required 896 processors on the supercomputer in Canberra. By comparison, your laptop or desktop computer probably has about 4 processors. These are pretty sizable models!

In every simulation, and in every region of Antarctica, ice shelf melting increases over the 21st century. The total increase ranges from 41% to 129% depending on the emissions scenario and choice of climate model. The largest increases occur in the Amundsen Sea region, marked with red circles in our Image of the Week, which also happens to be the region exhibiting the most severe melting in recent observations. In the most extreme scenario, i.e. with the highest future greenhouse gas emissions and the more sensitive climate model, ice shelf melting in this region nearly quadruples.

Understanding the drivers of melting

So what processes are causing this melting? This is where the sea ice comes in. When sea ice forms, it spits out most of the salt from the seawater (brine rejection), leaving the remaining water saltier than before. Salty water is denser than fresh water, so it sinks. This drives a lot of vertical mixing, and the heat from warmer, deeper water is lost to the atmosphere. The ocean surrounding Antarctica is unusual in that the deep water is generally warmer than the surface water. We call this warm, deep water Circumpolar Deep Water, and it’s currently the biggest threat to the Antarctic Ice Sheet. (I say “warm” – it’s only about 1°C, so you wouldn’t want to go swimming in it, but it’s plenty warm enough to melt ice.)

In our simulations, warming winters cause a decrease in sea ice formation. This leads to less brine rejection, causing fresher surface waters, causing less vertical mixing, and the warmth of Circumpolar Deep Water is no longer lost to the atmosphere. As a result of reduced vertical mixing, ocean temperatures near the bottom of the Amundsen Sea increase and this better-preserved Circumpolar Deep Water
finds its way into ice shelf cavities, causing large increases in melting.

 

Slices through the Amundsen Sea – you’re looking at the ocean sideways, like a slice of birthday cake, so you can see the vertical structure. Temperature is shown on the top row (blue is cold, red is warm); salinity is shown on the bottom row (blue is fresh, red is salty). Conditions at the beginning of the simulation are shown in the left 2 panels, and conditions at the end of the simulation are shown in the right 2 panels. At the beginning of the simulation, notice how the warm, salty Circumpolar Deep Water rises onto the continental shelf from the north (right side of each panel), but it gets cooler and fresher as it travels south (towards the left) due to vertical mixing. At the end of the simulation, the surface water has freshened and the vertical mixing has weakened, so the warmth of the Circumpolar Deep Water is preserved. Figure 8 of Naughten et al., 2018, ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.

 

Going to the next level

This link between weakened sea ice formation and increased ice shelf melting has troubling implications for sea level rise. The next step is to simulate the sea level rise itself, which requires some model development. Ocean models like the one we used for this study have to assume that ice shelf geometry stays constant, so no matter how much ice shelf melting the model simulates, the ice shelves aren’t allowed to thin or collapse. Basically, this design assumes that any ocean-driven melting is exactly compensated by the flow of the upstream glacier such that ice shelf geometry remains constant.

Of course this is not a good assumption, because we’re observing ice shelves thinning all over the place, and a few have even collapsed. But removing this assumption would necessitate coupling with an ice sheet model, which presents major engineering challenges. We’re working on it – at least ten different research groups around the world – and over the next few years, fully coupled ice-sheet/ocean models should be ready to use for the most reliable sea level rise projections yet.

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard


Kaitlin Naughten is a postdoc at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK. She is an ocean modeller focusing on interactions between Antarctic ice shelves, sea ice, and the Southern Ocean. Tweets as @kaitlinnaughten Website: climatesight.org

Image of the Week – Climate feedbacks demystified in polar regions

Figure 1: Major climate feedbacks operating in polar regions. Plus / minus signs mean that the feedbacks are positive / negative. Yellow and red arrows show solar shortwave and infrared radiation fluxes, respectively. Orange arrows show the flux exchanges between the different components of the climate system (ocean, atmosphere, ice) for several feedbacks. TOA refers to ‘top of the atmosphere’ [Credit: Fig 1 from Goosse et al. (2018)].

Over the recent decades, the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the whole globe. This stronger warming, called “Arctic Amplification“, especially occurs in the Arctic because ice, ocean and atmosphere interact strongly, sometimes amplifying the warming, sometimes reducing it. These interactions are called “feedbacks” and are illustrated in our Image of the Week. Let’s see why these feedbacks are important, how we can measure them and what their implications are.


Climate feedbacks in polar regions

When it comes to climate science, feedback loops are very common. A climate feedback is a process that will either reinforce or diminish the effect of an initial perturbation in the climate system.

If the initial perturbation, for instance the warming of a region, is amplified by this process, we talk about a “positive feedback”. A positive feedback can be seen as a “vicious circle” as it will lead to an ever-ongoing amplification of the perturbation. The most prominent positive feedback in the Arctic is the “ice-albedo feedback“: as the surface warms, ice melts away, exposing darker surfaces to sunlight, which absorb more heat, leading to even more melting of the ice around.

On the contrary, if the initial perturbation is dampened by the process, we talk about a “negative feedback”. An example for a negative feedback is the “ice production-entrainment feedback”. In winter, when sea ice forms, it rejects salt into the ocean. As a result, the top ocean layer becomes denser and starts to sink. As the surface water sinks, it leaves room for warmer water below to rise to the surface. This warmer ocean surface then inhibits the formation of new sea ice.

The main climate feedbacks at play in polar regions involve the atmosphere, ocean and sea ice. They are represented in our Image of the Week. Plus and minus signs in this figure mean that the feedbacks are positive and negative, respectively.

 

How can we measure these feedbacks?

All the climate feedbacks depicted in our Image of the Week are far from being totally understood and are usually measured using different methods. That is why a new study (from which our Image of the Week is taken) proposes a common framework to quantify them.

In this framework, the feedback factor is the ratio between the changes due to the feedback only and the response of the full system including all feedbacks. It is positive for a positive feedback and negative for a negative feedback. In order to compute this feedback factor, we need to identify:

  1. the perturbation
  2. the reference variable involved in the feedback loop
  3. the full system, which includes all feedbacks
  4. the reference system in which the feedback under consideration does not operate.

 

If we take the example of the “ice production-entrainment feedback” (explained above):

  1. the perturbation is a given amount of sea-ice production
  2. the reference variable is sea-ice thickness
  3. the full system is sea ice and the ocean column with the entrainment process
  4. the reference system is sea ice and the ocean column without entrainment.

 

The feedback factor related to the “ice production-entrainment feedback” is then the ratio between the changes in ice thickness due to the feedback only and the total changes in ice thickness following a given amount of ice production. As it is a negative feedback, the related feedback factor is negative. As illustrated in Fig. 2, this feedback factor becomes even more negative, i.e. the strength of the feedback increases, with higher ice production. Therefore, this feedback is highly nonlinear, which is typical of feedbacks in polar regions.

Figure 2: Feedback factor related to the ice production-entrainment feedback as a function of ice production. It is computed from mean temperature and salinity profiles in the Weddel Sea for January-February 1990-2005 [Credit: Fig. 5 from Goosse et al. (2018)].

The advantage of this framework is that you can apply it to all feedbacks present in our Image of the Week. Therefore, it is possible to compute their effects in a similar way, making the comparison easier.

 

Reducing uncertainties in model projections

Accounting for all those climate feedbacks is difficult, as they involve several components of the climate system and interactions between them. Therefore, their misrepresentation (or lack of representation) is one of the sources of error in model projections, i.e. climate model runs going up to 2100 and beyond. Climate feedbacks are therefore one explanation why models largely disagree when it comes to projecting global temperature and sea-ice evolution.

This means that, if we want to better predict what is going to happen in the polar regions, we must better measure what the feedbacks do in reality and better represent them in climate models.

On the modelling side, the main problem is that feedbacks are often described qualitatively to understand climate processes, and many models cannot evaluate these feedbacks quantitatively. There is therefore a clear motivation to use the common framework presented in this study to compute climate feedbacks in models.

However, additionally to improving model projections, identifying the critical climate feedbacks at play in polar regions is also a way to better target observational campaigns, such as the Year of Polar Prediction (YOPP) and the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC).

 

References

Edited by Sophie Berger and Clara Burgard


David Docquier is a post-doctoral researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. He works on the development of processed-based sea-ice metrics in order to improve the evaluation of global climate models (GCMs). His study is embedded within the EU Horizon 2020 PRIMAVERA project, which aims at developing a new generation of high-resolution GCMs to better represent the climate.

Image of the Week — Quantifying Antarctica’s ice loss

Fig. 1 Cumulative Antarctic Ice Sheet mass change since 1992. [Credit: Fig 2. from The IMBIE team (2018), reprinted with permission from Nature]

It is this time of the year, where any news outlet is full of tips on how to lose weight rapidly to  become beach-body ready. According to the media avalanche following the publication of the ice sheet mass balance inter-comparison exercise (IMBIE) team’s Nature paper, Antarctica is the biggest loser out there. In this Image of the Week, we explain how the international team managed to weight Antarctica’s ice sheet and what they found.


Estimating the Antarctic ice sheet’s mass change

There are many ways to quantify Antarctica’s mass and mass change and most of them rely on satellites. In fact, the IMBIE team notes that there are more than 150 papers published on the topic. Their paper that we highlight this week is remarkable in that it combines all the methods in order to produce just one, easy to follow, time series of Antarctica’s mass change. But what are these methods? The IMBIE team  used estimates from three types of methods:

  •  altimetry: tracking changes in elevation of the ice sheet, e.g. to detect a thinning;
  •  gravimetry: tracking changes in the gravitational pull caused by a change in mass;
  •  input-output: comparing changes in snow accumulation and solid ice discharge.

To simplify, let’s imagine that you’re trying to keep track of how much weight you’re losing/gaining. Then  altimetry would be like looking at yourself in a mirror, gravimetry would be stepping on a scale, and input-output would be counting all the calories you’re taking in and  burning out. None of these methods will tell you directly whether you have lost belly fat, but combining them will.

The actual details of each methods are rather complex and cover more pages than the core of the paper, so I invite you to read them by yourself (from page 5 onwards). But long story short, all estimates were turned into one unique time series of ice sheet mass balance (purple line on Fig. 1). Furthermore, to understand how each region of Antarctica contributed to the time series, the scientists also produced one time series per main  Antarctic region (Fig. 2): the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (green line), the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (yellow line), and the Antarctic Peninsula (red line) .

Antarctica overview map. [Credit: NASA]

Antarctica is losing ice

The results are clear: the Antarctic ice sheet as a whole is losing mass, and this mass loss is accelerating. Nearly 3000 Giga tonnes since 1992. That is 400 billion elephants in 25 years, or on average 500 elephants per second.

Most of this signal originates from West Antarctica, with a current trend of 159 Gt (22 billion elephants) per year. And most of this West Antarctic signal comes from the Amundsen Sea sector, host notably to the infamous  Pine Island  and Thwaites Glaciers.

The Antarctic ice sheet has lost “400 billion elephants in 25 years”

But how is the ice disappearing? Rather, is the ice really disappearing, or is there simply less ice added to Antarctica than ice naturally removed, i.e. a change in surface mass balance? The IMBIE team studied this as well. And they found that there is no Antarctic ice sheet wide trend in surface mass balance; in other words Antarctica is shrinking because more and more ice is discharged into the ocean, not because it receives less snow from the atmosphere.

Floating ice shelf in the Halley embayment, East Antarctica [Credit: Céline Heuzé]

What is happening in East Antarctica?

Yet another issue with determining Antarctica’s weight loss is Glacial Isostatic Adjustment. In a nutshell, ice is heavy, and its weight pushes the ground down. When the ice disappears, the ground goes back up, but much more slowly than the rate of ice melting . This process has been ongoing in Scandinavia notably since the end of the last ice age 21 000 years ago, but it is also happening in East Antarctica by about 5 to 7 mm per year (more information here). Except that there are very few on site GPS measurements in Antarctica to determine how much land is rising, and the many estimations of this uplifting disagree.

So as summarised by the IMBIE team, we do not know yet what the change in ice thickness is where glacial isostatic adjustment is strong, because we are unsure how strong this adjustment is there. As a result in East Antarctica, we do not know whether there is ice loss or not, because it is unclear what the ground is doing.

What do we do now?

The IMBIE team concludes their paper with a list of required actions to improve the ice loss time series: more in-situ observations using airborne radars and GPS, and uninterrupted satellite observations (which we already insisted on earlier).

What about sea level rise, you may think. Or worse, looking at our image of the week, you see the tiny +6mm trend in 10 years and think that it is not much. No, it is not. But note that the trend is far from linear and has been actually accelerating in the last decades…

 

Reference/Further reading

The IMBIE Team, 2018. Mass balance of the Antarctic Ice Sheet from 1992-2017. Nature 558, 219–222.

Edited by Sophie Berger

Image of the Week — Seasonal and regional considerations for Arctic sea ice changes

Monthly trends in sea ice extent for the Northern Hemisphere’s regional seas, 1979–2016. [Credit: adapted from Onarheim et al (2018), Fig. 7]

The Arctic sea ice is disappearing. There is no debate anymore. The problem is, we have so far been unable to model this disappearance correctly. And without correct simulations, we cannot project when the Arctic will become ice free. In this blog post, we explain why we want to know this in the first place, and present a fresh early-online release paper by Ingrid Onarheim and colleagues in Bergen, Norway, which highlights (one of) the reason(s) why our modelling attempts have failed so far… 


Why do we want to know when the Arctic will become ice free anyway? 

As we already mentioned on this blog, whether you see the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice as an opportunity or a catastrophe honestly depends on your scientific and economic interests.  

It is an opportunity because the Arctic Ocean will finally be accessible to, for example: 

  • tourism; 
  • fisheries; 
  • fast and safe transport of goods between Europe and Asia; 
  • scientific exploration. 

All those activities would no longer need to rely on heavy ice breakers, hence becoming more economically viable. In fact, the Arctic industry has already started: in summer 2016, the 1700-passenger Crystal Serenity became the first large cruise ship to safely navigate the North-West passage, from Alaska to New York. Then in summer 2017, the Christophe de Margerie became the first tanker to sail through the North-East passage, carrying liquefied gas from Norway to South Korea without an ice breaker escort, while the Eduard Toll became the first tanker to do so in winter just two months ago. 

On the other hand, the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice could be catastrophic as having more ships in the area increases the risk of an accident. But not only. The loss of Arctic sea ice has societal and ecological impacts, causing coastal erosion, disappearance of a traditional way of life, and threatening the whole Arctic food chain that we do not fully understand yet. Not to mention all of the risks on the other components of the climate system. (See our list of further readings at the end of this post for excellent reviews on this topic). 

Either way, we need to plan for the disappearance of the sea ice, and hence need to know when it will disappear. 

Arctic sea ice decrease varies with region and season 

In a nutshell, the new paper published by Onarheim and colleagues says that talking about “the Arctic sea ice extent” is an over simplification. They instead separated the Arctic into its 13 distinct basins, and calculated the trends in sea ice extent for each basin and each month of the year. They found a totally different behaviour between the peripheral seas (in blue on this image of the week) and the Arctic proper, i.e. north of Fram and Bering Straits (in red). As is shown by all the little boxes on the image, the peripheral seas have experienced their largest long term sea ice loss in winter, whereas those in the Arctic proper have been losing their ice in summer only. In practice, what is happening to the Arctic proper is that the melt season starts earlier (note how the distribution is not symmetric, with largest values on the top half of the image).  

Talking about Arctic sea ice extent is an over simplification

Moreover, Onarheim and colleagues performed a simple linear extrapolation of the observed trends shown on this image, and found that the Arctic proper may become ice-free in summer from the 2020s. As they point out, some seas of the Arctic proper have in fact already been ice free in recent summers. The trends are less strong in the peripheral seas, and the authors write that they will probably have sea ice in winter until at least the 2050s. 

So, although Arctic navigation should become possible fairly soon, in summer, you may need to choose a different holiday destination for the next 30 winters. 

Melting summer ice. [Credit: Mikhail Varentsov (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)]

But why should WE consider the regions separately? 

The same way that you would not plan for the risk of winter flood in New York based on yearly average of the whole US, you should not base your plan for winter navigation from Arkhangelsk to South Korea on the yearly Arctic-wide average of sea-ice behaviour. 

Scientifically, this paper is exciting because different trends at different locations and seasons will also have different consequences on the rest of the climate system. If you have less sea ice in autumn or winter, you will lose more heat from the ocean to the atmosphere, and hence impact both components’ heat and humidity budget. If you have less sea ice in spring, you may trigger an earlier algae bloom. 

As often, this paper highlights that the Earth system behaves in a more complex fashion that it first appears. Just like global warming does not prevent the occurrence of unpleasantly cold days, the disappearance of Arctic sea ice is not as simple as ice cubes melting in your beverage on a sunny day.  

Reference/Further reading

Bhatt, U. S., et al. (2014), Implications of Arctic sea ice decline for the Earth system. Ann. Rev. Environ. Res., 39, 57-89 

Meier, W. N., et al. (2014), Arctic sea ice in transformation: A review of recent observed changes and impacts on biology and human activity. Reviews of Geophysics, 52(3), 185-217. 

Onarheim, I., et al. (2018), Seasonal and regional manifestation of Arctic sea ice loss. Journal of Climate, EOR.  

Post, E., et al. (2013), Ecological consequences of sea-ice decline. Science, 341, 519-524 

Edited by Sophie Berger

Image of the Week – ROVing in the deep…

Aggregates of sea ice algae seen from the ocean below by the ROV [Credit: Katlein et al. (2017)].

Robotics has revolutionised ocean observation, allowing for regular high resolution measurements even in remote locations or harsh conditions. But the ice-covered regions remain undersampled, especially the ice-ocean interface, as it is still too risky and complex to pilot instruments in this area. This is why it is exactly the area of interest of the paper from which our Image of the week is taken from!


This is sea ice… seen from the ocean

Traditionally, only divers (and maybe seals, fish, krill, belugas, etc.) have been able to see what is happening just under the sea ice, in the ocean. That is no routine activity – I personally have not been in a fieldwork campaign involving a diver. It is extremely dangerous to dive in such cold waters, and the diver is limited to a small area around the entry hole, which might refreeze really fast. The most common method is to drill small holes from the top of the sea ice to the ice-ocean interface at specific locations instead, and collect the bottom of the resulting ice core. There are obvious problems with this method:

  • drilling takes a lot of time and effort;
  • you cannot drill everywhere, since it becomes unsafe if the ice is too thin (you still have to be standing on the ice to do the drilling);
  • the location of your core has to be representative of what you are sampling.

This is why researchers are trying to more often use sea robots, which can take measurements over a large area while the researchers are safe somewhere else. But most robots that are now used to monitor the ocean are not adapted to ice-covered regions, and the few that are require a lot of specifically trained technicians to operate them and/or can only perform very specific tasks.

Our Image of the Week was taken by a new robot, “The Beast”, whose specificities are described in the recently published Katlein et al. (2017). In brief, it is ice-resistant, small, very manoeuvrable, can be operated by only one or two people from a cosy hut on the ice, and contains any possible sensor you can think of (even a small water bottle for sampling, and a net). It belongs to the family of Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV), which means that it is connected to the operator by a cable – if anything goes wrong under the ice, just pull on the leash!

And thanks to ROVs, we can see (e.g. on this Image of the Week) that the thickness of the sea ice, hence the amount of light that goes through it and the whole sympagic communities vary a lot over small regions.

What the pilot sees when driving the ROV by a sea ice pressure ridge [Credit: Katlein et al. (2017)].

Why do we need such observations?

  1. Robustness: it will not totally replace the traditional ice coring, for some studies still need to get the actual ice. But it will ensure that the choice of locations make sense, or help extrapolate the localised coring results to a larger region.
  2. Validation: for basin-wide studies, we need satellites. But satellite retrievals, especially those for sea ice thickness, still need in-situ measurements for validation. ROVs can provide more validation points than traditional point-coring for the same mission duration, hence ultimately improving algorithms.
  3. Seeing is believing: for anything from outreach to future fieldwork preparation, videos captured by an ROV are an unvaluable tool. Ecologists can even see which species live there (or discover new ones).

 

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard

Image of the Week – A new way to compute ice dynamic changes

Fig. 1: Map of ice velocity from the NASA MEaSUREs Program showing the region of Enderby Land in East Antarctica [Credit: Fig. 1 from Kallenberg et al. (2017) ].

Up to now, ice sheet mass changes due to ice dynamics have been computed from satellite observations that suffer from sparse coverage in time and space. A new method allows us to compute these changes on much wider temporal and spatial scales. But how does this method work? Let us discover the different steps by having a look at Enderby Land in East Antarctica, for which ice velocities are shown in our Image of the Week…


Mass balance of ice sheets

The mass balance of an ice sheet is the difference between the mass gain of ice, primarily through snowfall, and the mass loss of ice, primarily via meltwater runoff and ice dynamic processes (e.g. iceberg calving, melting below ice shelves). When the mass gain is equal to the mass loss, the ice sheet is in balance. However, if one exceeds the other, the ice sheet either gains or loses mass.

Measuring mass balance changes of ice sheets is crucial due to their potential contribution to sea level rise (see previous post). You can have a look at this nice review for further details about the recent changes in the mass balance of the two biggest ice sheets on Earth, i.e. Antarctica and Greenland.

Ice mass changes from snowfall and meltwater runoff (what we call ‘surface mass balance’ changes) are reasonably well simulated by regional climate models, which give good agreement with observations (see this study for Antarctica and this one for Greenland). Mass changes from ice dynamics are more complex to obtain. They are commonly estimated by combining ice velocity and ice thickness. Ice velocity is measured via satellite radar interferometry, while ice thickness is obtained thanks to airborne radar. Unfortunately, these measurements have sparse temporal and spatial coverage, especially in Antarctica, which makes the computation of mass changes from ice dynamics challenging.

A new method to estimate ice dynamic changes

Kallenberg et al. (2017) conducted a study focussing on Enderby Land in East Antarctica (see our Image of the Week) in which they use a novel approach to estimate ice dynamic changes. This region of Antarctica has experienced a slightly positive mass balance in past years, meaning that the ice sheet has slightly thickened in this region.

Kallenberg et al. (2017) first used satellite observations to compute the total changes in ice sheet mass. They took advantage of two high-technology datasets. The first one, “Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment” (GRACE), measures changes in the Earth’s gravity field, from which ice mass changes can be derived. A summary explaining how GRACE works can be found in this previous post. The second satellite dataset, “Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite” (ICESat), measures changes in ice surface elevation, from which changes in ice mass can be computed by using ice density.

However, Kallenberg et al. (2017) were not interested in the total ice mass changes, as obtained from GRACE and ICESat satellites, but rather in ice dynamic changes. They subtracted two quantities from the total mass changes in order to obtain the remaining dynamic changes:

  1. Surface mass balance changes: changes from processes happening at the surface of the ice sheet (e.g. snow accumulation, meltwater runoff). These changes were obtained from model simulations using the Regional Atmospheric Climate Model (RACMO2), for which details can be found in this previous post.
  2. Glacial Isostatic Adjustment: changes in land topography due to ice loading and unloading. These changes were computed from Glacial Isostatic Adjustment models.

What does this study tell us?

The results of this study show that it is possible to compute changes in ice mass resulting from ice dynamics with higher spatial and temporal coverage than before, using a combination of satellite observations and models.

Also, the use of two different satellite datasets (GRACE and ICESat) shows that they agree quite well with each other in the region of Enderby Land (see Fig. 2). This means that using one or the other dataset does not make a big difference.

Finally, this new method also shows that differences between GRACE and ICESat reduce when using the newer version of RACMO2 for computing surface mass balance changes. This tells us that comparing results of ice dynamics from both satellites with different models is a good way to identify which models correctly simulate surface processes and which models do not.

Fig. 2: Ice dynamic changes (dH/dt, where H is ice thickness and t is time) computed from (a) GRACE and (b) ICESat and expressed in meters per year [Credit: Fig. 5 from Kallenberg et al. (2017) ].

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard and Emma Smith


David Docquier is a post-doctoral researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. He works on the development of processed-based sea-ice metrics in order to improve the evaluation of global climate models (GCMs). His study is embedded within the EU Horizon 2020 PRIMAVERA project, which aims at developing a new generation of high-resolution GCMs to better represent the climate.

Image of the Week — High altitudes slow down Antarctica’s warming

Elevations in Antarctica. The average altitude is about 2,500m. [Credit: subset of Fig 5 from Helm et al (2014)]

When it comes to climate change, the Arctic and the Antarctic are poles apart. At the north of the planet, temperatures are increasing twice as fast as in the rest of the globe, while warming in Antarctica has been milder. A recent study published in Earth System Dynamics shows that the high elevation of Antarctica might help explain why the two poles are warming at different speeds.


The Arctic vs the Antarctic

At and around the North Pole, in the Arctic, the ice is mostly frozen ocean water, also known as sea ice, which is only a few meters thick. In the Antarctic, however, the situation is very different: the ice forms not just over sea, but over a continental land mass with rugged terrain and high mountains. The average height in Antarctica is about 2,500 metres, with some mountains rising as high as 4,900 metres.

A flat Antarctica would warm faster

Mount Jackson in the Antarctic Peninsula reaches an altitude of 3,184 m  [Credit: euphro via Flickr]

Marc Salzmann, a scientist working at the University of Leipzig in Germany, decided to use a computer model to find out what would happen if the elevation in Antarctica was more like in the Arctic. He discovered that, if Antarctica were flat, there would be more warm air flowing from the equator to the poles, which would make the Antarctic warm faster.

As Antarctica warms and ice melts, it is actually getting flatter as time goes by, even if very slowly. As such, over the next few centuries or thousands of years, we could expect warming in the region to speed up.

Reference/further reading

planet_pressThis is modified version of a “planet press” article written by Bárbara Ferreira and originally published on 18 May 2017 on the EGU website
(a Serbian version is also available, why not considering adding a new language to the list? 🙂 )