Tag Archives: climate

Polar Night and Science in Tromso, Norway

Crossing the Arctic Circle for the first time in winter, I was stunned last Sunday by the amount of light that still reaches Tromso, Norway located Continue reading

Land-Fast Ice Cover off North Greenland: Will NASA bite?

When a large outlet glacier of North Greenland (Petermann Gletscher) discharged an ice island four times the size of Manhattan in August of 2010, the United States’ Congress held formal inquiries on its cause within days of the event. Congressmen, scientists, and the global media speculated that this event and concurrent severe droughts in Russia and floods in Asia were tied to record-breaking air temperatures and global warming. Reviewing available data, Johnson et al. (2011) cautioned that most melting of floating ice shelves such as Petermann Gletscher is dominated by physical ocean processes below, not above the ice (Reeh, 2001, Rignot and Steffen, 2008). The National Journal asked me to write an essay to answer the question: “Is Climate Change Causing Wild Weather?” which I answered with a nerdy No, but …. Motivated by questions asked during the congressional hearing, I showed that waters in Petermann Fjord (a) originate from the Arctic Ocean to the north, (b) contain heat of Atlantic origin, and (c) have warmed significantly since 2003 (Muenchow et al., 2011).

Petermann Gletscher from MODIS Terra. Repeat NASA along-glacier flight tracks are shown in the left and middle panels. White line across the glacier are ICESat tracks. Thick black line across the glacier near y = 0 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008). Dark areas within 2 km off the western wall are mountain shadows.

Petermann Gletscher from MODIS Terra. Repeat NASA along-glacier flight tracks are shown in the left and middle panels. White line across the glacier are ICESat tracks. Thick black line across the glacier near y = 0 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008). Dark areas within 2 km off the western wall are mountain shadows.

When I reported here that the same glacier discharged yet another ice island in July 2012, this one “only” twice the size of Manhattan, I was not so sure anymore, that this was merely another extreme event caused by natural processes. Continue reading

Cockpit’s View of Greenland’s Glaciers, Ice-Sheets, and Sea-Ice

The glaciers and ice-sheets of Greenland retreat and melt in a warming world. Towering almost 3000 meters above sea level the ice-sheet is so thick and heavy that it depresses the bedrock underneath below current sea-level. Monitoring the ice-sheet, outlet glaciers, and sea ice of Greenland, NASA’s Operation IceBridge flies aircraft packed with radars, lasers, and optical sensors each spring and summer all over Greenland. There are exciting blogs written by the scientists aboard as they live and work out of Greenland. And today I discovered that they also provide video feeds as their plane conducts measurements. Here is an example from yesterday:

I am not entirely sure on the exact location off south-east Greenland, perhaps this is the area near Helheim Glacier, e.g.,

Greenland's bed-rock elevation from Bamber et al. (2003) digital elevation model based on remotely sensed surveys of the 1970ies and 1990ies gridded at 5 km resolution.

Greenland’s bed-rock elevation from Bamber et al. (2003) digital elevation model based on remotely sensed surveys of the 1970ies and 1990ies gridded at 5 km resolution.

but this will become clear as soon as the data are released to the public. This usually happens within a few months. The wide and open data distribution and access is one of the greatest things about this mission. If you want to see where the plane is now, this is the screenshot I took just now (site)

Locations of NASA's P3 air plane near Jacobshavn Isbrae on April-10, 2013.

Locations of NASA’s P3 air plane near Jacobshavn Isbrae on April-10, 2013.

The evolution of Jacobshavn Isbrae retreat from 1851 through present. [From NASA's Earth Observatory]

The evolution of Jacobshavn Isbrae retreat from 1851 through present. [From NASA’s Earth Observatory]

Jacobshavn lost its buttressing ice-shelf during the last decade and now rapidly discharges ice from the Greenland ice-sheet directly into the ocean at a rapid rate. Most likely, the ice-shelf was melted by the ocean from below (Holland et al., 2008). This type of accelerated discharge raises global sea-level, because ice previously sitting on Greenland’s bedrock moves into the ocean where it eventually will melt. In response to the ice removed, the bed-rock rises as there is less mass above it to hold it down (Khan et al, 2010). All this has actually been measured by satellites (mass-loss) and ground-based GPS (bed-rock response). We live in a dynamic and rapidly changing world where our sensors and software show new patterns of physics that have never been seen before. There is so much more to discover …

Csatho, B., Schenk, T., Van Der Veen, C., & Krabill, W. (2008). Intermittent thinning of Jakobshavn Isbræ, West Greenland, since the Little Ice Age Journal of Glaciology, 54 (184), 131-144 DOI: 10.3189/002214308784409035

Holland, D., Thomas, R., de Young, B., Ribergaard, M., & Lyberth, B. (2008). Acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbræ triggered by warm subsurface ocean waters Nature Geoscience, 1 (10), 659-664 DOI: 10.1038/ngeo316

Khan, S., Wahr, J., Bevis, M., Velicogna, I., & Kendrick, E. (2010). Spread of ice mass loss into northwest Greenland observed by GRACE and GPS Geophysical Research Letters, 37 (6) DOI: 10.1029/2010GL042460

Melting Mountain Glaciers: Changing Planet Video

A short video clip explains in stunning clarity how mountain glaciers change. The example is Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. The video is produced professionally by NBC and NSF and contains actor Gregory Peck, writer Ernest Hemingway, as well glaciologists Lonnie Thompson and Douglas Hardy.

Lonnie Thompson has perhaps traveled the world for ice cores and published its science implications more extensively than anyone else. At a recent meeting in San Francisco I heart him deliver an engaging and fun presentation. His writing is most accessible in terms of clarity and context.

Thompson, L. (2002). Kilimanjaro Ice Core Records: Evidence of Holocene Climate Change in Tropical Africa Science, 298 (5593), 589-593 DOI: 10.1126/science.1073198

Rising Seas, Storms, and Flooding

Ocean waters are rising and flooding inland waters in Delaware and elsewhere. Some of this is perfectly regular and normal such as the up and down of the tides. Some of it is irregular and normal such as caused by storms, river discharges, waves, and weather. And some is caused by global warming as we continue to burn coal and oil to power our economies. Lets have a quick look at what all this looks like and try to put this into some perspective, but Sandy’s 5.3 feet surge last monday was second to the 5.5 feet surge that hit Lewes in 1962.

Cedar Street in Lewes flooded on Monday, October 29. (Photo by: Don Bland), as published by Cape Gazette.

The up and down of the tides each day is about 3 feet in Lewes, Delaware. This large change in sea level is so regular, normal, and predictable, that I remove it from all further discussion, because I want to know how extreme an event this week’s storm Sandy was. For this purpose I downloaded all the hourly tide gauge data from Lewes, Delaware from NOAA. The record starts in 1957 and is ongoing. Here is how the record looks for the last 4 weeks including the surge caused by Sandy last monday:

Sandy’s storm surge added 5.3 feet to the regular tide which is second-largest surge in the historical record. The largest surge at Lewes, DE was caused by the 1962 Ash Wednesday Storm that added 5.5 feet to the regular sea level:

So while Sandy was a very large surge, it was neither unprecedented nor a once in a century event. Furthermore, and this is where I come back to global warming, the 5.3 feet 2012 surge of Sandy includes the last 50 years of steady sea level rise which comes to about an inch every 10-15 years or about half a foot in the ~50 years between 1962 and 2012. So, a repeat of the 1962 storm system would cause a 6.0 feet and not the 5.5 feet surge that took place in 1962.

Furthermore, while the real size of the surge depends on where the center of the storm makes land-fall or where you are relative to the storm, the rising seas caused by global warming are much more uniform, that is, they are little different in Boston, New York, Lewes, Norfolk, or even San Francisco:

So, global warming and the rising seas it causes are both real and here to stay. Global warming provides the upward creeping background sea level to which larger tides, waves, and surges add. The combined effect of all these cause the coastal flooding. So 50 years from now, a rare, but perhaps perfectly natural freak storm like Sandy will cause a storm surge of 5.8 instead 5.3 feet on account of global warming. About 1/3 of this added sea level is caused by the oceans expanding as they warm, another 1/3 is caused by melting glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, and the last 1/3 is caused by other processes. So, what happens on Greenland or China does not stay there, it impacts present and future sea level in Lewes, DE.