Greenland’s Glaciers, Science, Sea-Level, and Teachers

Science Magazine hit climate change hard today. They cover how Greenland’s glaciers and ice sheets change as they interact with the ocean and contribute to sea-level rise feature in 3 related stories. The reality check of these three stories puts a damper on the usual doomsday scenarios of those whose skill is limited to grabbing public attention to move a political agenda. Real science works differently:

May-4, 2012 Science Magazine Cover: A jumble of icebergs forms in front of the heavily crevassed calving front of Jakobshavn Isbræ, one of the fastest outlet glaciers draining the Greenland Ice Sheet. The ~5-kilometer-wide ice front rises ~80 meters out of the water and extends more than 600 meters underwater. Recent research shows that the speeds of Greenland glaciers are increasing. See page 576. [Photo Credit: Ian Joughin, APL/UW]

The solid new research is that of Twila Moon, a graduate student at the University of Washington whose dissertation work relates to the evolution of Greenland’s outlet glaciers over the last 10 years. She uses data from Canadian, German, and Japanese radars flown on satellites. She applies fancy mathematics to the data and feds data and mathematics into modern computer codes. And with all that, she cracks the puzzle on how fast more than 200 of Greenland’s largest glaciers go to town, eh, I mean, to sea. Furthermore, she shows how this flow has changed over the last 10 years.

Twila Moon, graduate student and scientist at the University of Washington and first author of “21st-Century Evolution of Greenland Outlet Glacier velocities” that appeared in Science Magazine on May-4, 2012. [Photo Credit: APL/UW website]

Back in the days of 2008, crude, but simple back-on-the-envelope calculation suggested that Greenland contributes 0.8-2.0 meters to global sea-level rise by 2100. In stark contrast, the 2000-2010 data now reveals, that even the low-end estimate is too high by a factor of 10. A glacier here or there may accelerate at a large rate to give the 0.8-2.0 m, but these rates do not occur at the same time at all glaciers. Ms. Moon’s more comprehensive and careful analyses of accelerating glaciers bring down Greenland’s contributions to sea-level rise to below 0.1 m by 2100, that comes to about 1 mm/year or an inch in 30 years.

A commentary written by Professor Richard Alley relates to the ice-sheets that feed these glaciers. Dr. Alley is famous for his work on Greenland’s ice sheet as he participated in 2-Mile Time Machine, a project that revolutionized the way that we view climate and its variability the last 100,000 years. The title refers to the 2-mile long ice-core from Greenland’s ice-sheet that trapped and stored air and stuff from the last 100,000 years. Dr. Alley is also featured in Andrew Revkin’s dot-earth blog of the New York Times as the Singing Climatologist. His comment on “Modeling Ice-Sheet Flow” references Ms. Moon’s observations as evidence that ice sheets change quickly. It also contains the sentence that “The lack of a firm understanding of ice-sheet-ocean interaction, constrained by reliable ocean data, remains a critical obstacle to understanding future changes.” I could not agree more with this sentiment, these data are darn hard to come by … not as hard as getting to the bottom of the 2-mile time machine, though.

While Ms. Moon addressed changes in Greenland’s glaciers, Dr. Alley addressed the ice-sheets feeding those glaciers, another comment by physical oceanographer Dr. Josh Willis of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory relates to the sea-level changes caused by accelerating glaciers to make “Regional Sea-Level Projections.” He works mostly on massive computer models which devour massive amounts of data to get climate right. Sometimes this works, sometimes is does not, but he does comment that these earth system models give sea-level projections that are a factor 2 smaller than those derived from statistical relations and semi-empirical models using surface temperature and radiative forcing to extrapolate past trends into the future. The difference probably relates to smaller and more regional processes that involve the physics of ocean circulation and its interaction with ice-shelves off Antarctic and Greenland.

Dr. Josh Willis conducting an oceanographic experiment studying sea temperatures between New Zealand and Hawaii. [Credit: JPL/NASA]

My great oceanography hero, Henry Stommel of Woods Hole oceanographic Institution once wrote in his “View of the Sea,” that “Science is both an individual and a social activity.” I am sure that graduate student Ms. Moon, NASA researcher Dr. Willis, and veteran professor and science communicator Prof. Alley all work hard and lonely at night some nights … and party hard while discussing science and adventures over a beer, dinner, coffee in some city, remote field, or on a ship. The one group of people missing in this picture are … the science teachers, that is, those dedicated, over-worked, and under-paid professionals who encourage, motivate, and helped us to become scientists before we went to college.

The editorial of this week’s Science Magazine is entitled “Empowering Science Teachers.” It compares the social and professional status of pre-college science teachers in Finland and the USA. I will only say in the words of Anne Baffert, chemistry teacher at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona, that too many science “… teachers work in a command-and-control environment, managed by those who lack any real understanding of how to improve the system.” The editorial suggests on how scientists can improve science teaching, such as “… active involvement in science through structured collaborations with scientists …” Apparently, Finland succeeds while we in the USA are challenged to get our graduate students into a pre-college class room teaching. More stuff for me to munch on here …

One response to “Greenland’s Glaciers, Science, Sea-Level, and Teachers

  1. Pingback: Greenland’s Warming, Melting, and Sliding to Sea | Icy Seas

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