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global warming

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/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: The changing landscape of Patagonia

Imaggeo on Mondays: The changing landscape of Patagonia

Pictured here is a snapshot of an environment in transition. Today’s featured photo was taken at the foot of Monte Fitz Roy, a jagged Patagonia mountain located in Los Glaciares National Park on the border between Argentina and Chile.

The Patagonia region in South America is the second biggest source of glaciers in the southern hemisphere, behind Antarctica, but the region is losing ice at a rapid rate.

Satellite imagery analysis over the last few years has suggested that the Patagonia region is losing ice more than any other part of South America, with some glaciers shedding ice faster than any place in the world.

A recent study reported that the northern and southern Patagonia ice fields in particular are losing roughly 17 billion tons of ice each year. Los Glaciares National Park alone is home to around 50 large glaciers, but because of warming temperatures, almost all of these large ice masses have been shrinking over the last 50 years.

This level of glacial ice loss can be hard to fully imagine, but in 2017, Shauna-Kay Rainford, a PhD student at Pennsylvania State University in the United States and photographer of this featured image, got a first-hand glimpse of Patagonia’s changing landscape.

“Ensconced between the granite boulders I felt like I was at a pivotal moment of continued change,” said Rainford. “While the peaks of Mt. Ritz Roy remain and will likely remain tall and majestic, with each passing year the glacier continues to retreat further towards the peak and the glacial lake continues to expand more and more.”

Rainford had reached this scenic yet tragically ephemeral view after a strenuous hike up the mountain. “It was very emotional to think about what this view will look like in the future if I should ever visit the mountain again,” Rainford recalls. “It is always striking to be confronted with the adverse consequences of human actions.”

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/.

How to forecast the future with climate models

How to forecast the future with climate models

Our climate is constantly changing, and with the help of simulation modelling, scientists are working hard to better understand just how these conditions will change and how it will affect society. Science journalist Conor Paul Purcell has worked on Earth System Models during his time as a PhD student and postdoctoral researcher; today he explains how scientists use these models as tools to forecast the future of our climate.

While we can’t predict everything about our future, climate scientists have a good understanding of how our environment will look and feel like in the coming years. Researchers and climate specialists predict that temperatures will increase dramatically in the 21st century, ranging between 1.5°C and 4°C above pre-industrial levels, depending on your location and the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere in the near future. Forecasts of future drought and flood risk, at both regional and global bases, are also provided by climate experts.

Understanding how such features of Earth’s changing climate may manifest, and ultimately impact on our society, takes considerable international collaboration – a collaboration which is largely based around the results of climate modelling. That’s because climate predictions for the future are made using sophisticated computer models, which are built around mathematical descriptions of the physical and biological processes that govern our planet.

These models have become so complex in recent years that they are now referred to as Earth System Models (ESMs). Using ESMs, climate modellers can create simulations of the planet at different times in the future and the past. ESMs are in fact the only tools we have for simulating the global future in this sense. For instance, if we want to know how our climate may look like one hundred years from now, how ocean acidification levels may change and how this might impact ocean life, or how plants will respond to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, ESMs are the only tool available.

The models are built in components, each representing a separate part of the Earth system: the atmosphere, the ocean, the land surface and its vegetation, and the ice-sheets and sea-ice. These are constructed by coding each component with the mathematics that describes the environmental processes at work.

Climate models are systems of differential equations based on the basic laws of physics, fluid motion, chemistry, and biology. Pictured here is a schematic of a global atmospheric model. (Credit: NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons)

For example, the winds in the atmosphere are described by the mathematics of fluid motion. Model developers translate these mathematical equations into code that computers can understand, like giving them a set of instructions to follow. Supercomputers can then interpret the code to simulate how winds, for example, are expected to develop at each global location through time. The results are usually plotted on world maps.

As scientists have learned more about our Earth’s systems over time, the complexity of these individual models has been ramped up dramatically. For example, the land surface and vegetation model components become more sophisticated as plant biologists understand more and more about how plants transfer water and carbon between the land and atmosphere.

And it’s not just one giant solo project either: there are tens of ESMs and hundreds of subcomponent models developed and used at research centres around the globe. Collaboration between these facilities is a necessary part of progress, and information is shared at international conferences ever year, like the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in the United States and the European Geosciences Union’s General Assembly in Europe.

This means that developments are always been made towards increasing the realism of ESMs. On the horizon such developments will include increasing the resolution of the global models for improving accuracy at regional locations, and also incorporating the results from the latest research in atmospherics, oceanography and ice sheet dynamics. One example is research into plants, specifically how they interact with carbon dioxide and water in the atmosphere. Further understanding of this biological process is expected to increase the realism of models over the coming years and decades. In general, improvements to the accuracy of model simulations can help to help society in the future. For example, models will be able to help predict how climate change may impact, say, water scarcity in South Africa, wildfire risk in the western United States, or crop yields in Asia. Indeed, the ESMs of the future should boast incredibly accurate simulations and prediction capabilities unheard of today.

By Conor Purcell, a Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science

Conor Purcell is a science journalist with a PhD in Earth Science. He is also founding-editor of www.wideorbits.com and is on twitter @ConorPPurcell and some of his other articles at cppurcell.tumblr.com.

February GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from across the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major stories

The biggest story in Europe right now is the bone-chilling cold snap sweeping across the continent. This so-called ‘Beast from the East’ sharply contrasts with the Arctic’s concerningly warm weather. Scientists believe these warming events are related to the Arctic’s winter sea ice decline, which makes the region more vulnerable to warm intrusions from storms.

While a cold front covered most of Europe, warm air invaded the Arctic last week.
Credit: Climate Reanalyzer

However, we also wanted to highlight a couple of big stories from earlier in the month that may be less fresh in your memory.

Falcon Heavy

This month Elon Musk, the founder, CEO and lead designer of SpaceX, captivated a global audience when his company successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA.

The numbers associated with the rocket are staggering. SpaceX reported that the spacecraft’s 27 engines generated enough power to lift off 18 Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo Jets.’ The Falcon Heavy is currently the most powerful launch vehicle in operation and second only to the Saturn V rocket, which dispatched astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 70s. The Guardian reports that the rocket “is designed to deliver a maximum payload to low-Earth orbit of 64 tonnes – the equivalent of putting five London double-decker buses in space.” Despite the rocket’s immense payload capacity, Musk opted to send just one passenger, a spacesuit-donned mannequin aptly named ‘Starman.’ The dummy sits aboard a cherry red Tesla Roadster with David Bowie tunes blasting from the speakers.

While Starman embarked on its celestial journey, two of the rocket’s three boosters successfully returned to the space centre unscathed via controlled burns. The third booster failed to land on its designated drone ship and instead crashed into the Atlantic Ocean at nearly 500 kilometers per hour.

SpaceX currently plans to fine-tune the Falcon Heavy and work on its successor, the Big Falcon Rocket, which Musk hopes could be used to shuttle humans to the Moon, Mars, or across the world in record time.

In a news report, BBC News listed some of the other possibilities that SpaceX could pursue with a rocket this size. Two of which include:

  • “Large batches of satellites, such as those for Musk’s proposed constellation of thousands of spacecraft to deliver broadband across the globe.
  • Bigger, more capable robots to go to the surface of Mars, or to visit the outer planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, and their moons.”

And what’s in store for Starman? Scientists estimate that the Tesla Roadster will orbit around the sun for millions of years, likely making close encounters with Earth, Venus, and Mars. They also report a small chance that the Tesla could face a planetary collision with either Earth (6 percent chance) or Venus (2.5 percent chance) in the next million years. However, even if the Tesla can escape collisions, it won’t be able to avoid radiation damage.

Cape Town’s water crisis

On 13 February South Africa declared Cape Town’s current water crisis a national disaster. Plagued by a three-year drought, the coastal city has been close to running out of water for some time, but this new announcement from government officials comes after reevaluating the “magnitude and severity” of drought. This reclassification means that the national government will now manage the crisis and relief efforts.

The declaration came a few weeks following Cape Town’s new water conservation measures, which limits individual water consumption to 50 litres a day. For comparison, residents from the UK use on average 150 litres of water per person daily. US citizens each consume on average more than 300 litres of water per day.

These new regulations, coupled with recent water use reductions and minor rainfall, will now push ’Day Zero,’ when Cape Town essentially runs out of water, from 12 April to 9 July. Day Zero more specifically marks the date in which the city’s primary water source, six feeder dams, is expected to drop below 13.5 percent capacity. At this level, the dams would be considered unusable and the government would cut off homes and businesses of tap water. Instead, the city’s four million residents would be forced to collect daily 25-litre water rations at one of the 200 designated pick-up points. If the city reaches this day, it would become the first modern city to run out of municipal water.

Scientists believe that Cape Town’s severe drought, considered the worst in over a century, is likely a result of Earth’s changing climate. In 2007 the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry warned that the area would likely experience hotter and drier seasons with more irregular rainfall due to climate change. However, experts note that the drought alone is not to blame for the national disaster. Poor water infrastructure, reluctance from the government to act on drought warnings, and inequality are also substantially responsible for the current crisis.

“What is now certain is that Cape Town will become a test case for what happens when climate change, extreme inequality, and partisan political dysfunction collide,” reports The Atlantic.

A dried up section of the Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa, on January 20, 2018. Credit: The Atlantic

In order to ‘Defeat Day Zero’ Cape Town officials hope to limit city water consumption to 450 million litres per day, but as of now residents use on average 526 million litres of water. In addition to promoting water conservation techniques, the city is also rushing to construct desalination plants, implement wastewater recycling, and drill into aquifers within the region. The latter initiative deeply concerns ecologists, who argue that depleting these groundwater resources would endanger dozens of endemic species and threaten the ecosystems unique diversity.

Other news stories of note

The EGU story

Early this month we issued a press release on research published in one of our open access journals. The new study reveals novel insights into Earth’s ozone layer.

“The ozone layer – which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation – is recovering at the poles, but unexpected decreases in part of the atmosphere may be preventing recovery at lower latitudes, new research has found. The new result, published today in the European Geosciences Union journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, finds that the bottom part of the ozone layer at more populated latitudes is not recovering. The cause is currently unknown.”

This month also saw the online release of the 2018 General Assembly scientific programme, which lists nearly 1000 special scientific and interdisciplinary events as well as over 17,000 oral, PICO and poster sessions taking place at this year’s meeting. The EGU issued a statement stressing that all scientific presentations at the General Assembly have equal importance, independent of format.

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.