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Cryosphere

September GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

September GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, major geoscience headlines, as well as unique and quirky research, this monthly column aims to bring you the latest Earth and planetary science news from around the web.

Major stories

Latest IPCC report puts the oceans and cryosphere in focus

Last month the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report that details the current status of the oceans and icy regions of the planet, and assesses how these parts of the Earth will fare as the climate changes. The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC for short) also projects how future changes to Earth’s oceans and ice will impact the global population.

“The open sea, the Arctic, the Antarctic and the high mountains may seem far away to many people,” said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC. “But we depend on them and are influenced by them directly and indirectly in many ways – for weather and climate, for food and water, for energy, trade, transport, recreation and tourism, for health and wellbeing, for culture and identity.”

The 1,170-page report is packed with scientific details that illustrate how the environment is responding to climate change and what our world may likely look like under different carbon emission scenarios. We’ve listed just a few of the report’s findings here:

  • “Small glaciers found in high mountain environments are projected to lose more than 80% of their current ice mass by 2100 under high emission scenarios.”
  • “Even if global warming is limited to well below 2°C, around 25% of the near-surface (3-4 meter depth) permafrost will thaw by 2100.”
  • “While sea level has risen globally by around 15 cm during the 20th century, it is currently rising more than twice as fast – 3.6 mm per year – and accelerating.”
  • “Sea level rise will increase the frequency of extreme sea level events, which occur for example during high tides and intense storms. Some island nations are likely to become uninhabitable due to climate-related ocean and cryosphere change.”
  • “Marine heatwaves have doubled in frequency since 1982 and are increasing in intensity.”

The key message of SROCC is that the world’s oceans are becoming warmer, more acidic and less productive, while melting glaciers and ice sheets are causing the sea level to rise. While we are already experiencing the consequences of these environmental changes, their future severity and impact on society is dependent on how much we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, protect and restore ecosystems, manage our natural resource use, and plan for related risks.

Want to learn more about SROCC? You can check out Carbon Brief’s explainer piece that delves further into the details.

Hurricane-heavy September

The Atlantic hurricane season is usually the most active during the month of September, and this year several powerful cyclones have inflicted heavy damage on a number of coastal communities.

Hurricane Dorian destruction in Bahamas on September 2, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater)

Last month, Hurricane Dorian broke records as the strongest cyclone of the season so far, and the second strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, with sustained winds reaching 300 km an hour. In its early stages, Dorian hit the Windward Islands and the US Virgin Islands, but it made the biggest impact on the Bahamas as a Category 5 hurricane. For more than 36 hours, the storm slowly dragged across the Great Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, unleashing severe wind, rain and storm surge. The American Red Cross reported that more than 13,000 houses (nearly half of the islands’ residences) were destroyed as a result. The official death toll across the country is 56, and at least 600 people are still reported missing as of 27 September.

Another notable September storm includes Tropical Storm Imelda. While Imelda’s winds were relatively slow (65 km an hour), the storm was the seventh-wettest storm on record in the United States, releasing more than a metre of rain onto southeast Texas. At least two people died from the event, and more than 1,000 high-water rescues and evacuations were made.

Hurricane Lorenzo is the latest storm to catch media attention. The storm reached Category 5 status in the central Atlantic on 28 September and was listed as the strongest hurricane on record this far north and east in the Atlantic basin. The US National Hurricane Center has reported that the storm, now a Category 1 hurricane, is passing through Portugal’s Azores Islands and is projected to make its way north to Ireland and the UK by the end of the week. While the storm’s intensity has weakened, the hurricane is still very dangerous. In the Azores Islands, Ireland and the UK, local authorities and residents have been preparing for severe weather conditions, including heavy rain and strong wind.

This graphic shows an approximate representation of coastal areas under a hurricane warning (red), hurricane watch (pink), tropical storm warning (blue) and tropical storm watch (yellow). The orange circle indicates the current position of the center of the tropical cyclone. The black line, when selected, and dots show the National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast track of the center at the times indicated. (Credit: NOAA National Hurricane Center)

Many scientists estimate that, as the climate changes, hurricanes and storms will likely be slower, wetter and more intense.

What you might have missed 

Is ‘The Blob’ back? 

Last month news outlets have reported that a large expanse of the northeast Pacific Ocean has been experiencing unusually warm temperatures, in some places as much as 3°C higher than average records. Stretching from the Gulf of Alaska to the Hawaiian Islands, the marine heatwave is currently the second largest on record in this region in the last 40 years.

The US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration noted that the current heatwave resembles the early stages of ‘The Blob,’ a massive heatwave that first formed in 2014 and persisted for three years. This earlier heatwave was connected to several ecological disturbances, including large harmful algal blooms, whale entanglements, coral bleaching, sea lion malnourishment, and many fishery disasters. Scientists fear that if this new heatwave does not dissipate soon, the event could lead to similar consequences.

Sea surface temperature anomaly maps show temperatures above normal in orange and red. (Credit: NOAA)

An icy expedition

Also last month, an international team of polar scientists have launched the largest Arctic research expedition in history. On 20 September, the German research vessel Polarstern set off on a journey to the Arctic, where it will spend an entire year trapped in sea ice, allowing researchers to observe the region’s climate system. The project, known as MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate), will involve more than 300 scientists from 19 countries.

The vessel is expected to move with the natural ice drift towards the Atlantic as the year progresses, collecting valuable information on the Arctic atmosphere, sea ice, ocean, ecosystems and biogeochemistry. “We will go and do science wherever the ice might carry us,” said chief scientist Markus Rex, an atmospheric scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, to Nature News & Comment. Researchers hope that the data will give an updated comprehensive look into the current state of the Arctic, allowing climate models to make better estimations of the region’s future.

Other noteworthy stories

The EGU story

This month, we have launched a short survey for EGU members to provide input on what they value from EGU, the results of which will help ensure that we remain responsive to what our members want. This is particularly important in a member-led organisation like the EGU. If you are an EGU member, we’d ask you to take 5-10 minutes to give feedback on EGU and its activities.

In General Assembly related news, we have opened applications for the third edition of our Artists in Residence programme. The programme is most attractive for scientist-artists, especially those already familiar with, and interested in, the EGU General Assembly. Applications are accepted until 1 December.

Finally, a note from the EGU Executive Secretary Philippe Courtial: “After 8 successful years at the EGU office, EGU Media and Communications Manager Bárbara Ferreira has decided to give a new orientation to her career. We would like to thank her for her tireless efforts and we wish her all the best for her future career.”

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sand and snow on the Tibetan Plateau

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sand and snow on the Tibetan Plateau

Roughly 50 million years ago, the Eurasian and Indian continental plates began to crash into each other, dramatically changing the landscape of modern-day Asia. The force of the collision caused the Earth to scrunch together at the zone of impact, subsequently forming the Himalayan mountain range. However, to the north of the crash, a stretch of the Earth uplifted without bunching up or wrinkling; instead the clash formed an elevated flat surface five times as large as France, now known as the Tibetan Plateau.

The Tibetan Plateau is often called the ‘Roof of the World,’ as the region’s average elevation exceeds 4,500 metres and is home to the Earth’s highest peaks, including Mount Everest and K2. The plateau is also a crossroad for many different kinds of ecosystems and geologic features, including deep canyons, winding rivers, massive glaciers, boundless grasslands and alpine deserts.

This week’s featured image, taken by Monica Cardarilli, a risk and safety engineer at the Sapienza University of Rome in Italy, gives a snapshot into the plateau’s dynamic and diverse environment, where snow, water, soil and organic matter all make their mark on the landscape. “In this picture natural elements are expressed by the colors, like a painting where the whole exceeds the single parts in a mix of perceptions,” says Cardarilli.

The landscape of the plateau and the surrounding mountainous regions is also as fragile as it is diverse, and many scientists fear that climate change and other human activities are rapidly altering this corner of the Earth. For example, research suggests that the Tibetan Plateau is experiencing higher rates of warming compared to the global average, which has already caused concerning levels of glacier melt, flooding, desertification and grassland degradation in the area.

A recent report suggests that, due to climate change, at least one third of the glaciers situated within the plateau and the surrounding Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region will be lost from ice melt by the end of the century. This level of melting would have major consequences for the surrounding population, as more than 1.5 billion people rely on freshwater that stems from the region and many local communities would be threatened by severe flooding and lake bursts.

The report, undertaken by more than 200 researchers, warns that climate action is necessary to prevent even further melting in this region and avoid worse disasters.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

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

Imaggeo on Mondays: High above the top of Europe

Imaggeo on Mondays: High above the top of Europe

Sentinel-2B imaged the highest mountains of western Europe, just the moment an airplane was about to fly over the granite peaks of Grandes Jorasses and cross the border from France to Italy. The passengers on the right side of the plane must have enjoyed a spectacular view on Mont Blanc, just nine kilometers away to the south-west, and Mer de Glace, the longest glacier in France flowing down from its peak.

Note the shadow of the granite “aiguilles” on fresh early winter snow in the upper part of the glacier. The famous Aiguille de Midi is casting its shadow on the village of Chamonix on the top-left, as late autumn colours are still visible on the larch in Val Ferret in the bottom-right corner of the image. Contains Copernicus Sentinel data (2018). Processed with Sentinelflow (v0.1.3).

Description by Julien Seguinot, as it first appeared on imaggeo.egu.eu.

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

Imaggeo on Mondays: Exploring the underground cryosphere

Imaggeo on Mondays: Exploring the underground cryosphere

The winter season is a good time to take advantage of cold weather activities, whether that’s hitting the ski slopes or warming up by a fire, but for Renato R. Colucci, it’s also one of the best time’s to study the Earth’s underground cryosphere.

Colucci, who took this featured photograph, is a researcher at Italian Institute for Marine Sciences (ISMAR) of the National Research Council (CNR) and is a scientific lead partner for the Cave’s Cryosphere and Climate project, C3 for short. The C3 project aims to monitor, study, date, and model alpine ice cave environments.

This photo was taken by Colucci while he and the C3 project team were surveying a large ice deposit in the Vasto cave, situated within the Southeastern Alps of Italy. Speleologists of the E. Boegan Cave Commission began documenting the caves in this region in the 1960s, making it a great site for studying underground cryosphere today. For the past few years the C3 team has been monitoring the microclimates of these caves as well as analysing how the ice masses within are melting and accumulating ice.

There are many different kinds of ice deposits in caves, but the main difference is how these types accumulate their frozen mass. For some cave ice deposits, like the one featured in this photo, the snowfall that reaches the cave interior amasses over time into solid layers of ice, as is typical for many glaciers. However, other deposits take form when water from melting snow or rain percolates through rock’s voids and fractures, then freezes and accumulates into permanent ice bodies in caves.

These high-altitude underground sources of ice are a lesser-known faction of the cryosphere since they are not very common or reachable to scientists, but still an important one. Often the permanent ice deposits in caves contain pivotal information on how Earth’s climate has evolved over time during the Holocene.

However, if the Earth’s global temperatures keep increasing, this data might not be available in the future. While ice masses in caves are more resilient to climate change compared to their aboveground counterparts, many of these deposits, and the vital data they store, are melting away at an accelerating rate. “Global warming is rapidly destroying such important archives,” said Colucci.

Through this project, the researchers involved hope to better understand the palaeoclimate information stored in these deposits and how the ice will respond to future climate change.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

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