Climate – Science News
INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM SINCE 1921
Thu, 21 Dec 2023 20:55:32 +0000
Speed bumps under Thwaites Glacier could help slow its flow to the sea
Tue, 19 Dec 2023 13:00:00 +0000
SAN FRANCISCO — Most of the news regarding the Thwaites Glacier, a Florida-sized slab of ice that is melting and currently contributing about 4 percent of global sea level rise, is bad. But a bit of good news may have emerged.
A seismic survey of the bed beneath an upstream section of Thwaites has revealed rough high-rises of earth under the Antarctic glacier, which are comparable in height to the Manhattan skyline, glaciologist Coen Hofstede reported December 12 at a news conference during the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. These rugged rises may be snagging the glacier’s underbelly, slowing its flow toward the ocean and mitigating global sea level rise.
Glaciers flow somewhat like rivers, but much slower. Where Thwaites outlets into the ocean, it connects to a floating shelf of ice that braces and partially restrains the glacier. That ice shelf was once pinned upon an underwater mountain, which helped stabilize it (SN: 12/13/21). But now the shelf is so deteriorated that it’s basically unhitched, Erin Pettit, a glaciologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, said at the news event.
Fortunately, though, the glacier “is not going to suddenly flow off land,” thanks partly to what’s been discovered upstream, said Pettit, who was not involved in the discovery.
To image Thwaites’ underbelly, researchers used a tractorlike vehicle (background, center) to haul a seismic vibrator truck on a sled, as well as a 1.5-kilometer-long chain of seismometers (foreground), across the glacier’s surface. A caboose-train (left) used for cooking, eating and repairs accompanied the vibrator truck across the ice. Coen Hofstede
More than 70 kilometers inland from Thwaites’ ice shelf, Hofstede and his colleagues conducted a seismic survey to probe the glacier’s underbelly. The team attached a 1.5-kilometer-long daisy-chain of seismometers to a vehicle equipped with a vibrating plate. Then they drove a roughly 200-kilometer-long stretch of the glacier, using the plate to generate seismic waves and the seismometers to record the waves’ reflectance off layers of ice and earth below. “It’s almost like radar,” said Hofstede, of the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany.
A Pisten Bully (center left), a tracked vehicle able to maneuver on the ice, tows seismic equipment (red) across Thwaites Glacier. A second Pisten Bully (right) hauls the
accommodation train with the crew’s sleeping tents.Ole Zeising
The seismic waves revealed rises under Thwaites that are 10 to 20 kilometers long and toothed with blocks of sediment. These blocks stood up to 100 meters tall above the rises and stretched for up to several kilometers horizontally.
The data showed that the upstream faces of these blocks appear to be under greater pressure than their downstream sides, and that there might be layers of deformed ice within the glacier above the rises. Hofstede hypothesizes that the rises and blocks are slowing Thwaites’ flow as its ice presses against them.
Using computers to simulate the flow of Thwaites glacier shows that “it gets hung up on tall features,” said glaciologist Ben Smith of the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the work.
The rises are probably related to a rift system, an area where tectonic forces have pulled the ground apart, Hofstede said. Under Thwaites, these rifts run roughly perpendicular to the glacier’s ice flow, sort of like speed bumps on a street.
The findings will allow for more nuanced simulations of the glacier’s evolution, Hofstede said, which are crucial for understanding rates of sea level rise.
Invisible comet tails of mucus slow sinking flakes of ‘marine snow’
Mon, 18 Dec 2023 18:00:00 +0000
WASHINGTON — Tiny, sinking flakes of detritus in the ocean fall more slowly thanks to the goop that surrounds each flake, new observations reveal.
The invisible mucus makes “comet tails” that surround each flake, physicist Rahul Chajwa of Stanford University reported November 19 at the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting. Those mucus tails slow the speed at which the flakes fall. That could affect the rate at which carbon gets sequestered deep in the oceans, making the physics of this sticky goo important for understanding Earth’s climate.
Although scientists knew the goo was a component of the “marine snow” that falls in the ocean, they hadn’t previously measured its impact on sinking speed.
Marine snow is made of dead and living phytoplankton, decaying organic matter, feces, bacteria and other aquatic sundries, all wrapped up in mucus that’s produced by the organisms. Like the gunk known for clogging airways during respiratory virus season, the mucus is what’s called a viscoelastic fluid (SN: 3/17/16). That’s something that flows like a liquid but exhibits elastic behavior as well, springing back after being stretched.
This underwater blizzard is not easy to study. When observed in the ocean, the particles sink swiftly out of view. In the laboratory, the particles can be viewed for longer periods, but the trek ashore degrades the delicate marine snow and kills the living organisms within it.
Tiny particles (white dots) within a seawater-filled chamber were used to measure the rate at which fluid flows around this flake of marine snow as it falls. The chamber is designed to keep the sinking snowflake in view of the camera.
So Chajwa and colleagues built a physics lab at sea. Aboard a research vessel in the Gulf of Maine, the team collected marine snow particles in traps 80 meters below the water’s surface. Then they loaded their catch into a device onboard, designed to observe the particles falling.
Nicknamed “the gravity machine,” it’s a fluid-filled wheel that rotates in order to keep an individual flake in view of a camera. It’s a bit like a hamster wheel for falling debris. As the flake sinks, the wheel turns so as to move the snow in the opposite direction, allowing the snowfall to be observed indefinitely. The gravity machine was itself mounted on a gimbal designed to stave off sloshing from the rocking of the ship.
“It’s a very nice compromise between the real marine snow that you get in the ocean versus what you can do practically in the lab,” says biophysicist Anupam Sengupta of the University of Luxembourg, who was not involved with the research.
To observe how the fluid flowed around the particles, the researchers added tiny beads within the fluid in the gravity machine. That revealed the rate of fluid flow around the particles. The speed of fluid flow was slowed in a comet tail–shaped region around the particle, revealing the invisible mucus that sinks along with the particle.
Marine snow particles (one shown) are surrounded with invisible mucus. Drag the slider to see how fluid flows around the flake as it falls. Slower speeds (yellow) reveal mucus that trails the flake in a comet tail–shape (red dotted line). Left: Rahul Chajwa and Manu Prakash/PrakashLab/Stanford UniversityRight: Rahul Chajwa and Manu Prakash/PrakashLab/Stanford University
The particles sank at speeds up to 200 meters per day. The mucus played a big role in sinking speed. “The more the mucus, the slower the particles sink,” Chajwa says. On average, the mucus causes the marine snow particles to linger twice as long in the upper 100 meters of the ocean as they otherwise would, Chajwa and colleagues determined.
If it falls deep enough, marine snow can sequester carbon away from the atmosphere. That’s because living phytoplankton, like plants, take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. When phytoplankton form marine snow, they take that carbon along with them as they sink. If a flake reaches the ocean floor, it can settle into a scum at the bottom that caches that carbon over long time periods. The faster the particles sink, the more likely they are to make it to the abyss before being eaten by critters (SN: 6/23/22).
Knowing how fast the particles sink is important for calculating the ocean’s impact on Earth’s climate, and how that might change as the climate warms, the researchers say. The oceans are major players in the planet’s carbon cycle (SN: 12/2/21), and scientists estimate that oceans have taken up roughly 30 percent of the carbon dioxide released by humans since industrialization. Chajwa and colleagues hope that their results can be used to refine climate models, which currently do not take the mucus into account.
So this mucus is nothing to sneeze at. “We’re talking about microscopic physics,” says Stanford physicist Manu Prakash, a coauthor of the work, which is also reported in a paper submitted October 3 at arXiv.org. “But multiply that by the volume of the ocean … that’s what gives you the scale of the problem.”
3 Antarctic glaciers show rapidly accelerated ice loss from ocean warming
Mon, 18 Dec 2023 12:00:00 +0000
SAN FRANCISCO — Several Antarctic glaciers are undergoing dramatic acceleration and ice loss. Hektoria Glacier, the worst affected, has quadrupled its sliding speed and lost 25 kilometers of ice off its front in just 16 months, scientists say.
The rapid retreat “is really unheard of,” says Mathieu Morlighem, a glaciologist at Dartmouth College who was not part of the team reporting these findings.
The collapse was triggered by unusually warm ocean temperatures, which caused sea ice to retreat. This allowed a series of large waves to hit a section of coastline that is normally shielded from them. “What we’re seeing here is an indication of what could happen elsewhere” in Antarctica, says Naomi Ochwat, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who presented the findings December 11 at the American Geophysical Union meeting.
Hektoria Glacier, Green Glacier, and Crane Glacier sit near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which reaches up toward South America. The crescent moon–shaped bay, called the Larsen B Embayment, once seemed stable. As these glaciers oozed off the coastline, their ice used to merge into a floating slab around 200 meters thick. This slab, called the Larsen B Ice Shelf, was about the size of Rhode Island and filled the entire bay.
Having existed for over 10,000 years, this ice shelf buttressed and stabilized the glaciers flowing into it. But during a warm summer in 2002, it suddenly fragmented into thousands of skinny icebergs (SN: 3/27/02).
Hektoria, Green, and Crane glaciers — no longer contained by the ice shelf — began to flow into the ocean several times faster than they had before, shedding billions of tons of ice over the next decade.
Then starting in 2011, the hemorrhaging slowed down. The thin veneer of sea ice that forms over the bay each winter began to persist year round, preserved by a series of cold summers. This “landfast ice,” attached firmly to the coastline, grew five to 10 meters thick, stabilizing the glaciers. Their floating tongues gradually advanced back into the bay. But things changed abruptly in early 2022. On January 19 and 20, the landfast ice disintegrated into fragments, which drifted away.
Satellite images taken just 10 days apart reveal the dramatic breakup of sea ice in Antarctica’s Larsen B Embayment. On January 16, 2022, sea ice filled the bay (left). By January 26 (right), the ice had fractured and was drifting away following a series of powerful waves that struck the bay several days earlier. Left: Joshua Stevens, MODIS/LANCE/EOSDIS/NASA, WORLDVIEW/GIBS/NASARight: Joshua Stevens, MODIS/LANCE/EOSDIS/NASA, WORLDVIEW/GIBS/NASA
Using data from ocean buoys farther north, Ochwat and colleagues determined that a series of powerful waves, higher than 1.5 meters, had swept in from the northeast — cracking apart the landfast ice. Those waves were highly unusual for this area.
The Southern Ocean, which encircles Antarctica, holds some of the world’s roughest waters. The Antarctic Peninsula extends up into this turbulent region, but its east side, where the Larsen B Embayment sits, rarely feels the waves. It is normally protected by several hundred kilometers of pack ice — floes of sea ice, pressed together by ocean currents — that dampen the waves, leaving the waters near Larsen as flat as a mirror.
In 2022, water temperatures near the surface of the Southern Ocean rose several tenths of a degree Celsius higher than normal, causing pack ice to shrink and peel away from the peninsula. This exposed the area to waves, which then broke up the landfast sea ice.
The glaciers accelerated as their floating tongues, no longer held in place, fragmented into bergs. Crane Glacier lost 11 kilometers of ice, nearly erasing its floating tongue; Green Glacier lost 18 kilometers, encompassing all of its floating ice.
Hektoria lost all 15 kilometers of its floating ice — followed by another 10 kilometers of ice that is normally more stable, because it rests on the seafloor. That “is faster than any tidewater glacier retreat that we know of,” Ochwat says.
The previous standout, Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, had lost 20 kilometers of ice in 30 years, records show. But Hektoria lost its 10 kilometers of nonfloating ice in just five months — including 2.5 kilometers that crumbled in a 3-day period.
All of this suggests that people trying to predict sea level rise need to consider sea ice, Morlighem says. Up until now, “its role in [glacier] dynamics has been completely ignored.”
Ochwat is waiting to see what will happen as the current Antarctic summer heats up between December and March. Hektoria and the other glaciers have been retreating only during summer months, when sea ice is absent; they pause during winter, when the surface of the bay freezes for a few months.
If Antarctic sea ice continues to shrink, as it has since 2022, it could spell trouble, says study coauthor Ted Scambos, a glaciologist also at UC Boulder. “You’re going to have a longer section of coastline where wave action can act on the front of ice shelves and glaciers,” potentially accelerating glacial retreat.
COP28 nations agreed to ‘transition’ from fossil fuels. That’s too slow, experts say
Fri, 15 Dec 2023 15:30:00 +0000
Days of contentious wrangling in Dubai at the United Nations’ 28th annual climate summit ended December 13 with a historic agreement to “transition away” from fossil fuels and accelerate climate action over the next decade. The organization touted the agreement as a moment of global solidarity, marking “the beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era.
But the final agreement reached at COP28, signed by nearly 200 nations, did not include language that explicitly mandated phasing out fossil fuel energy, deeply frustrating many nations as well as climate scientists and activists.
The agreement is considered the world’s first “global stocktake,” an inventory of climate actions and progress made since the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average (SN: 12/12/15).
It acknowledges the conclusions of scientific research that greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut by 43 percent by 2030 compared with 2019 levels, in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. It then calls on nations to speed up climate actions before 2030 so as to reach global net zero by 2050 — in which greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere are balanced by their removal from the atmosphere. Among the actions called for are increasing global renewable energy generation, phasing down coal power and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.
But among many scientists gathered in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting to discuss climate change’s impacts to Earth’s atmosphere, polar regions, oceans and biosphere, the reaction to the language in the agreement was more frustrated than celebratory.
“The beginning of the end? I wish it was the middle of the end,” says climate scientist Luke Parsons of the Nature Conservancy, who is based in Durham, N.C. “But you have to start somewhere, I guess.”
It is a step forward, says Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Saying it out loud, that we are aiming to phase out fossil fuels, is huge.”
It’s not a moment too soon: The globe is already experiencing many climate change–linked extreme weather events, including the hottest 12 months ever recorded (SN: 11/9/23). Still, Scambos says, “it’s a tribute to the science and the negotiators that we can take this step now, before the disastrous global impacts truly get underway.” But, he added, “I fear that the pace [of future climate action] will … still be driven by impacts arriving at our collective doors.”
Other researchers had a grimmer take.
“It was weak sauce,” says climate scientist Michael Mann of the University of Pennsylvania. “What we really need is a commitment to phase out fossil fuels, on a very specific timeline: We’re going to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent this decade, bring them down to zero mid-century. Instead, they agreed to transition away from fossil fuels — the analogy that I use is, you’re diagnosed with diabetes, and you tell your doctor you’re going to transition away from doughnuts. That’s not going to cut it. It didn’t meet the moment.”
Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the University of California, Irvine, called the agreement “deeply disappointing and misleading,” noting that it didn’t include any language specifically calling for phasing out fossil fuels. Furthermore, he says, “COP28 keeps entertaining the idea that 1.5 degrees Celsius may be achievable, but everyone is offtrack to meet that goal. [And] for ice sheets and glaciers, even 1.5 degrees is not sustainable.” There already are fears, for instance, that the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet can’t be stopped (SN: 8/9/21).
Even if the world stays close to that average temperature, “the ice sheets are going to be retreating,” says Rob DeConto, a glaciologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “But you start getting out toward the end of the century, and all hell is going to break loose if we go much above 1.5. You’re talking about actually exceeding the limits of adaptation around so much of our coastlines.”
On December 12, the eighth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service noted that the world has, in effect, “lost” 19 years by delaying action to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Back in 2015, climate projections suggested that Earth’s average temperature would reach the 1.5 degrees C threshold by the year 2045 — then 30 years away. Now, projections show that the planet may reach that benchmark by 2034, just 11 years in the future.
“We’ve got a shrinking window of opportunity,” Mann says. “And that window of opportunity will close if we don’t make dramatic and immediate reductions to our carbon emissions.”
Ocean heat waves often lurk out of sight
Thu, 14 Dec 2023 19:30:00 +0000