sea level rise

GeoTalk: To understand how ice sheets flow, look at the bedrock below

GeoTalk: To understand how ice sheets flow, look at the bedrock below

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Mathieu Morlighem, an associate professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine who uses models to better understand ongoing changes in the Cryosphere. At the General Assembly he was the recipient of a 2018 Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists.  

Could you start by introducing yourself and telling us a little more about your career path so far?

Mathieu Morlighem (Credit: Mathieu Morlighem)

I am an associate professor at the University of California Irvine (UCI), in the department of Earth System Science. My current research focuses on better understanding and explaining ongoing changes in Greenland and Antarctica using numerical modelling.

I actually started glaciology by accident… I was trained as an engineer, at Ecole Centrale Paris in France, and was interested in aeronautics and space research. I contacted someone at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the US to do a six-month internship at the end of my master’s degree, thinking that I would be designing spacecrafts. This person was actually a famous glaciologist (Eric Rignot), which I did not know. He explained that I was knocking on the wrong door, but that he was looking for students to build a new generation ice sheet model. I decided to accept this offer and worked on developing a new ice sheet model (ISSM) from scratch.

Even though this was not what I was anticipating as a career path, I truly loved this experience. My initial six-month internship became a PhD, and I then moved to UCI as a project scientist, before getting a faculty position two years later. Looking back, I feel incredibly lucky to have seized that opportunity. I came to the right place, at the right time, surrounded by wonderful people.

This year you received an Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists for your innovative research in ice-sheet modelling. Could you give us a quick summary of your work in this area?

The Earth’s ice sheets are losing mass at an increasing rate, causing sea levels to rise, and we still don’t know how quickly they could change over the coming centuries. It is a big uncertainty in sea level rise projections and the only way to reduce this uncertainty is to improve ice flow models, which would help policy makers in terms of coastal planning or choosing mitigation strategies.

I am interested in understanding the interactions of ice and climate by combining state-of-the-art numerical modelling with data collected by satellite and airplanes (remote sensing) or directly on-site (in situ).  Modelling ice sheet flow at the scale of Greenland and Antarctica remains scientifically and technically challenging. Important processes are still poorly understood or missing in models so we have a lot to do.

I have been developing the UCI/JPL Ice Sheet System Model, a new generation, open source, high-resolution, higher-order physics ice sheet model with two colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory over the past 10 years. I am still actively developing ISSM and it is the primary tool of my research.

More specifically, I am working on improving our understanding of ice sheet dynamics and the interactions between the ice and the other components of the Earth system, as well as improving current data assimilation capability to correctly initialize ice sheet models and capture current trends. My work also involves improving our knowledge of the topography of Greenland and Antarctica’s bedrock (through the development of new algorithms and datasets). Knowing the shape of the ground beneath the two ice sheets is key for understanding how an ice sheet’s grounding line (the point where floating ice meets bedrock) changes and how quickly chunks of ice will break from the sheet, also known as calving.

Steensby Glacier flows around a sharp bend in a deep canyon. (Credit: NASA/ Michael Studinger)

At the General Assembly, you presented a new, comprehensive map of Greenland’s bedrock topography beneath its ice and the surrounding ocean’s depths. What is the importance of this kind of information for scientists?

I ended up working on developing this new map because we could not make any reliable simulations with the bedrock maps that were available a few years ago: they were missing key features, such as deep fjords that extend 10s of km under the ice sheet, ridges that stabilize the retreat, underwater sills (that act as sea floor barriers) that may block warm ocean waters at depth from interacting with the ice, etc.

Subglacial bed topography is probably the most important input parameter in an ice sheet model and remains challenging to measure. The bed controls the flow of ice and its discharge into the ocean through a set of narrow valleys occupied by outlet glaciers. I am hoping that the new product that I developed, called BedMachine, will help reduce the uncertainty in numerical models, and help explain current trends.

3D view of the bed topography and ocean bathymetry of the Greenland Ice Sheet from BedMachine v3 (Credit: Peter Fretwell, BAS)

How did you and your colleagues create this map, and how does it compare to previous models?

The key ingredient in this map, is that a lot of it is based on physics instead of a simple “blind” interpolation. Bedrock elevation is measured by airborne radars, which send electromagnetic pulses into the Earth’s immediate sub-surface and collect information on how this energy is reflected back. By analyzing the echo of the electromagnetic wave, we can determine the ice thickness along the radar’s flight lines. Unfortunately, we cannot determine the topography away from these lines and the bed needs to be interpolated between these flight lines in order to provide complete maps.

During my PhD, I developed a new method to infer the bed topography beneath the ice sheets at high resolution based on the conservation of mass and optimization algorithms. Instead of relying solely on bedrock measurements, I combine them with data on ice flow speed that we get from satellite observations, how much snow falls onto the ice sheet and how much melts, as well as how quickly the ice is thinning or thickening. I then use the principle of conservation of mass to map the bed between flight lines. This method is not free of error, of course! But it does capture features that could not be detected with other existing mapping techniques.

3D view of the ocean bathymetry and ice sheet speed (yellow/red) of Greenland’s Northwest coast (Credit: Mathieu Morlighem, UCI)

What are some of the largest discoveries that have been made with this model? 

Looking at the bed topography alone, we found that many fjords beneath the ice, all around Greenland, extend for 10s and 100s of kilometers in some cases and remain below sea level. Scientists had previously thought some years ago that the glaciers would not have to retreat much to reach higher ground, subsequently avoiding additional ice melt from exposure to warmer ocean currents. However, with this new description of the bed under the ice sheet, we see that this is not true. Many glaciers will not detach from the ocean any time soon, and so the ice sheet is more vulnerable to ice melt than we thought.

More recently, a team of geologists in Denmark discovered a meteorite impact crater hidden underneath the ice sheet! I initially thought that it was an artifact of the map, but it is actually a very real feature.

More importantly maybe, this map has been developed by an ice sheet modeller, for ice sheet modellers, in order to improve the reliability of numerical simulations. There are still many places where it has to be improved, but the models are now really starting to look promising: we not only understand the variability in changes in ice dynamics and retreat all around the ice sheet thanks to this map, we are now able to model it! We still have a long way to go, but it is an exciting time to be in this field.

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

Imaggeo on Mondays: Ice forming on Chesapeake Bay

Imaggeo on Mondays: Ice forming on Chesapeake Bay

Sandwiched between the U.S states of Mayland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York State, the District of Columbia and Virginia, lies Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in North America. It is of huge ecological importance: “the bay, its rivers, wetlands and forests provide homes, food and protection for countless animals and plants”, says the Chesapeake Bay Program. Up to 150 major rivers and streams feed into the bay’s watershed.

Geologically speaking, Chesapeake Bay isn’t very old. As recently as 18,000 years ago the bay was covered by dry land. Global sea levels were up to 200m lower than they are at present and the last of the great ice sheets to cover America was at its peak. The rivers which flowed along the east of the continent had to cut valleys in what is now the bay bottom, to reach the continental shelf, and drain out to sea.

Fast forward 8,000 years and rising global temperatures caused the ice sheets to melt rapidly. Global sea levels started to rise, flooding the continental shelf and coastal areas, which now make up the modern-day estuary.

The process was helped along by a remarkable, much older geological feature. During the late Eocene, 35 million years ago, the Atlantic margin of the U.S was struck by a 3.5 km bolide (an asteroid or meteorite). The impact crater is located about 200 km south of Washington D.C., buried below 300 -500 m of sediments in Chesapeake Bay. Though the crater didn’t form the estuary, it did create a long-lasting depression in the area which helped determine the location of the bay.

Landsat satellite picture of Chesapeake Bay (centre) and Delaware Bay (upper right) – and Atlantic coast of the central-eastern United States. Credit: Landsat/NASA. Distributed by Wikimedia Commons.

Further reading

The Chesapeake Bay Bolide Impact: A New View of Coastal Plain Evolution: USGS Fact Sheet 049-98.

Chesapeake Bay Program

Landsat Images Offer Clearer Picture of Changes in Chesapeake Watershed (Nasa Landsat Science)

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Geosciences Column: How El Niño triggered Indonesia corals die-off

Geosciences Column: How El Niño triggered Indonesia corals die-off

In the glistening waters of Indonesia, shallow corals – the rain forests of the sea – teem with life.  Or at least they did once. Towards the end of 2015 the corals started to die, leaving a bleak landscape behind. An international team of researchers investigated the causes of the die-off. Their findings, published recently in the EGU’s open access journal, Biogeosciences, are rather surprising.

Globally, corals face tough times. Increasing ocean-water temperatures (driven by a warming climate) are disrupting the symbiotic relationship between corals and the algae that live on (and in) them.

The algae, known as zooxanthellae, provide a food source for corals and give them their colour. Changing water temperatures and/or levels, the presence of contaminants or overexposure to sunlight, put corals under stress, forcing the algae to leave. If that happens, the corals turn white – they become bleached – and are highly susceptible to disease and death.

Triggered by the 2015-2016 El Niño, water temperatures in many coral reef regions across the globe have risen, causing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to declare the longest and most widespread coral bleaching event in recorded history. Now into its third year, the mass bleaching event is anticipated to cause major coral die-off in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for the second consecutive year.

The team of researchers studying the Indonesian corals found that, unlike most corals globally, it’s not rising water temperatures which caused the recent die-off, but rather decreasing sea level.

While conducting a census of coral biodiversity in the Bunaken National Park, located in the northwest tip of Sulawesi (Indonesia), in late February 2016, the researchers noticed widespread occurrences of dead massive corals. Similar surveys, carried out in the springs of 2014 and 2015 revealed the corals to be alive and thriving.

In 2016, all the dying corals were found to have a sharp horizontal limit above which dead tissue was present and below which the coral was, seemingly, healthy. Up to 30% of the reef was affected by some degree of die-off.

Bunaken reef flats. (a)Close-up of one Heliopora coerula colony with clear tissue mortality on the upper part of the colonies; (b)same for a Porites lutea colony; (c) reef flat Porites colonies observed at low spring tide in May 2014. Even partially above water a few hours per month in similar conditions, the entire colonies were alive. (d) A living Heliopora coerula (blue coral) community in 2015 in a keep-up position relative to mean low sea level, with almost all the space occupied by corals. In that case, a 15 cm sea level fall will impact most of the reef flat. (e–h) Before–after comparison of coral status for colonies visible in (c). In (e), healthy Poritea lutea (yellow and pink massive corals) reef flat colonies in May 2014, observed at low spring tide. The upper part of colonies is above water, yet healthy; (f) same colonies in February 2016. The white lines visualize tissue mortality limit. Large Porites colonies (P1, P2) at low tide levels in 2014 are affected, while lower colonies (P3) are not. (g) P1 colony in 2014. (h) Viewed from another angle, the P1 colony in February 2016. (i) Reef flat community with scattered Heliopora colonies in February 2016, with tissue mortality and algal turf overgrowth. Taken from E. E. Ampou et al. 2016.

The confinement of the dead tissue to the tops and flanks of the corals, lead the scientists to think that the deaths must be linked to variations in sea level rather than temperature, which would affect the organisms ubiquitously. To confirm the theory the researchers had to establish that there had indeed been fluctuations in sea level across the region between the springs of 2015 and 2016.

To do so they consulted data from regional tide-gauges. Though not located exactly on Bunaken, they provided a good first-order measure of sea levels over the period of time in question. To bolster their results, the team also used sea level height data acquired by satellites, known as altimetry data, which had sampling points just off Bunaken Island. When compared, the sea level data acquired by the tidal gauges and satellites correlated well.

Sea-level data from the Bitung (east North Sulawesi) tide-gauge, referenced against Bako GPS station. On top, sea level anomalies measured by the Bitung tide-gauge station (low-quality data), and overlaid on altimetry ADT anomaly data for the 1993– 2016 period. Note the gaps in the tide-gauge time series. Middle: Bitung tide-gauge sea level variations (high-quality data, shown here from 1986 till early 2015) with daily mean and daily lowest values. Bottom, a close-up for the 2008–2015 period. Taken from E. E. Ampou et al. 2016.

The data showed that prior to the 2015-2016 El Niño, fluctuations in sea levels could be attributed to the normal ebb and flow of the tides. Crucially, between August and September 2015, they also showed a sharp decrease in sea level: in the region of 15cm (compared to the 1993-2016 mean). Though short-lived (probably a few weeks only), the period was long enough that the corals sustain tissue damage due to exposure to excessive UV light and air.

NOAA provides real-time Sea Surface Temperatures which identify areas at risk for coral bleaching. The Bunaken region was only put on alert in June 2016, long after the coral die-off started, therefore supporting the crucial role sea level fall played in coral mortality in Indonesia.

The link between falling sea level and El Niño events is not limited to Indonesia and the 2015-2016 event. When the researchers studied Absolute Dynamic Topography (ADT) data, which provides a measure of how sea level has change from 1992 to 2016, they found sea level falls matched with El Niño years.

The results of the study highlight that while all eyes are focused on the consequences of rising ocean temperatures and levels triggered by El Niño events, falling sea levels (also triggered by El Niño) could be having a, largely unquantified, harmful effect on corals globally.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and resources

Ampou, E. E., Johan, O., Menkes, C. E., Niño, F., Birol, F., Ouillon, S., and Andréfouët, S.: Coral mortality induced by the 2015–2016 El-Niño in Indonesia: the effect of rapid sea level fall, Biogeosciences, 14, 817-826, doi:10.5194/bg-14-817-2017, 2017

Varotsos, C. A., Tzanis, C. G., and Sarlis, N. V.: On the progress of the 2015–2016 El Niño event, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 16, 2007-2011, doi:10.5194/acp-16-2007-2016, 2016.

What are El Niño and La Niña? – a video explainer by NOAA

Coral Reef Watch Satellite Monitoring by NOAA

Global sea level time series – global estimates of sea level rise based on measurements from satellite radar altimeters (NOAA/NESDIS/STAR, Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry)

El Niño prolongs longest global coral bleaching event – a NOAA News item

NOAA declares third ever global coral bleaching event – a NOAA active weather alert (Oct. 2015)

The 3rd Global Coral Bleaching Event – 2014/2017 – free resources for media and educators

What is coral bleaching? – an infographic by NOAA
The ENSO (El Niño–Southern Oscillation) Blog by (a NOAA resource)

IPCC report ‘unprecedented changes’ in climate, urging policymakers to take action

“Human influence on the climate system is clear” was the key message from the report on the physical science of climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“We have come a long way since the first IPCC report was published in 1990,” a statement reiterated throughout the press conference for the release of the report. The IPCC were keen to register the significance of the work and progress made in this report – an “assessment of a string of assessments from 1990,” according to Thomas Stocker, Co-Chair for Working Group I, reporting on the physical science basis of climate change. The fourth IPCC assessment published in 2007 was the first report to state that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

In the fifth report, this message is heightened. Since the 1950’s many of the changes observed and analysed in this report have been unprecedented including warming of the atmosphere and ocean, diminishing amounts of snow and ice, rising sea levels, and increases in the concentrations of greenhouse gases. With 259 lead authors citing 9200 papers in the report, two thirds of which have been published since 2007, the fifth assessment presents a strong message to policymakers across the world. Incredibly, this feat of scientific work has been approved and agreed upon by 110 governments across the world, with 1089 reviewers consisting of scientists, the public and governments from 55 of those countries offering a staggering 54,677 comments on the physical science basis report. Almost every word was commented on, disputed and discussed to come up with 18 headline messages – a first for the IPCC reports – that stated in simple language the report’s key outcomes.

“If you look at temperature, it is red” stated Stocker in a press conference, describing one of several key images from the IPCC policymaker summary.

Observed change in average surface temperature 1901-2012 from IPCC Working Group I summary for policymakers (SPM 28).

Observed change in average surface temperature 1901-2012 from IPCC Working Group I summary for policymakers (SPM 28).

This simple statement with clever wordplay not only elicits a global increase in surface temperature but also danger. Our planet is warming, and humans are the culprit. He goes on to say “…each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850…Global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850 to 1900 for all RCP scenarios.” RCP stands for representative concentration pathways, four greenhouse gas concentration trajectory models used by the IPCC in its fifth report.

“In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years.” For the fifth assessment the IPCC have gone to great lengths not only to ensure consistency and reliability in scientific data and consensus, but also to outline the key points from their summary for policymakers: the use of simple language to describe the data that does not include hype or headlines but instead simple scientific language.

The report also highlights the increase in global mean sea level rise, with a key headline stating “…the rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence). Over the period 1901–2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m”.

In each of the IPCC’s four RCPs it was clear that the higher the cumulative carbon emissions, the warmer it gets.

Cumulative total anthropogenic CO2 emissions from 1870 (GtCO2 ) from IPCC Working Group I summary for policymakers (SPM 36).

Cumulative total anthropogenic CO2 emissions from 1870 (GtCO2 ) from IPCC Working Group I summary for policymakers (SPM 36).

The summary for policymakers states “…cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond”, (above), “Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.”

Dominique Raynaud, review editor of chapter five (on palaeoclimatology) of the report and officer on the EGU Climate: Past, Present and Future Division in an interview with the EGU Educational Fellow commented on the most important aspect of this report: “For the first time the scientific community has defined a set of 4 [RCP] scenarios which represent a range of 21st century climate policies. Only one scenario suggests that the global mean temperature change for the end of the 21st century will not exceed 2°C.”

Global average surface temperature change estimated from present to 2100 (°C), from IPCC Working Group I summary for policymakers (SPM 33).

Global average surface temperature change estimated from present to 2100 (°C), from IPCC Working Group I summary for policymakers (SPM 33).

Raynaud went on to say “With this scenario, we still have a hope to keep [to the] reasonable expected warming for this century…policymakers should obviously consider such a possibly.”

In some ways, the outcomes of this report are a repetition of what the public have already been hearing: humans are influencing climate change. But what is crucial to note about this 5th assessment report is the huge consensus among scientists, public and governments about this statement.

“This is not about ideology, this is not about self-interest” was a quote from Achim Steiner, the head of the UN’s environment programme, UNEP – a comment that will resonate with many through the ‘unequivocal’ status of the report’s conclusions – and a statement that Stocker echoed later “it threatens our planet, our only home,” clearly urging policymakers across the globe to take combined action on climate change.

By Jane Robb, EGU Educational Fellow


IPCC Working Group I session report for 5th Assessment Report (summary for policymakers)

IPCC 5th Assessment Report (full)

IPCC 4th Assessment Report (full)