Some of The Last Glaciers in The Tropics. They’ll be Gone in About a Decade

One of the most visible signs of Climate Change are the ways in which glaciers and ice sheets have been disappearing all over the world. This trend is not reserved to the Arctic ice cap or the Antarctic Basin, of course. On every part of the planet, scientists have been monitoring glaciers that have been shrinking in the past few decades to determine their rate of loss.

These activities are overseen by NASA’s Earth Observatory, which relies on instruments like the Landsat satellites to monitor seasonal ice losses from orbit. As these satellites demonstrated with a series of recently released images, the Puncak Jaya ice sheets on the south pacific island of Papua/New Guinea have been receding in the past three decades, and are at risk of disappearing in just a decade.

The Papau province of New Guinea has a very rugged landscape that consists of the mountains that make up Sudirman Range. The tallest peaks in this range are Puncak Jaya and Ngga Pulu, which stand 4,884 meters (16,020 feet) and 4,862 meters (15,950 feet) above sea level, respectively. Despite being located in the tropics, the natural elevation of these peaks allows them to sustain small fields of “permanent” ice.

Image of the Puncak Jaya icefields, taken on Nov 3, 1988. Credit: NASA/EO

Given the geography, these ice fields are incredibly rare. In fact, within the tropics, the closest glacial ice is found 11,200 km (6,900 mi) away on Mount Kenya in Africa. Otherwise, one has to venture north for about 4,500 km (2,800 mi) to Mount Tate in central Japan, where glacial ice is more common since it is much farther away from the equator.

Sadly, these rare glaciers are becoming more threatened with every passing year. Like all tropical glaciers in the world today, the glaciers on the slopes around Puncak Jaya have been shrinking at a such a rate that scientists estimate that they could be gone within a decade. This was illustrated by a pair of Landsat images that show how the ice fields have shrunk over the past thirty years.

The first of these images (shown above) was acquired on November 3rd, 1988, by the Thematic Mapper instrument aboard the Landsat 5 satellite. The second image (shown below) was acquired on December 5th, 2017, by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite. These false-color images are a combination of shortwave infrared, infrared, near-infrared, and red light.

The extent of the ice fields are shown in light blue, whereas rocky areas are represented in brown, vegetation in green, and clouds in white. The gray circular area near the center of the 2017 image is the Grasberg mine, the largest gold and second-largest copper mine in the world. This mine expanded considerably between the 1980s and 2000s are a result of a boom in copper prices.

Image of the Puncak Jaya icefields in New Guinea, taken on December 5, 2017. Credit: NASA/EO

As the images show, in 1988, there were five masses of ice resting on the mountain slopes – the Meren, Southwall, Carstensz, East Northwall Firn and West Northwall Firn glaciers. However, by 2017, only the Carstensz and a small portion of the East Northwall Firn glaciers remained. As Christopher Shuman, a research professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained:

“The ice area losses since the 1980s here are quite striking, visible in the contrast of the blue ice with the reddish bedrock. Even though the area still gets snowfalls, it is clearly not sustaining these glacial remnants.”

Similarly, in 2009, images taken by Landsat 5 of these same glaciers (see below) indicated that the Meren and Southwall glaciers had disappeared. Meanwhile, the Carstensz, East Northwall Firn and West Northwall Firn glaciers had retreated dramatically. Based on the rate of loss, scientists estimated at the time that all of Puncak Jaya’s glaciers would be gone within 20 years.

As these latest images demonstrate, their estimates were right on the money. At their current rate, what remains of the Carstensz and East Northwall Firn glaciers will be gone by the late 2020s. The primary cause of the ice loss is rising air temperatures, which leads to rapid sublimation. However, changes in humidity levels, precipitation patterns and cloudiness can also have an impact.

Image of the Puncak Jaya icefields in New Guinea, October 9, 2009. Credit: NASA/EO

Humidity is also important, since it affects how readily glaciers can lose mass directly to the atmosphere. Where the air is more moist, ice is able to make the transition to water more easily, and can be returned to the glacier in the form of precipitation. Where the air is predominately dry, ice makes the transition directly from a solid form to a gaseous form (aka. sublimation).

Temperature and precipitation are also closely linked to ice loss. Where temperatures are low enough, precipitation takes the form of snow, which can sustain glaciers and cause them to grow. Rainfall, on the other hand, will cause ice sheets to melt and recede. And of course, clouds affect how much sunlight reaches the glacier’s surface, which results in warming and sublimation.

For many tropical glaciers, scientists are still working out the relative importance of these factors and attempting to determine to what extent anthropogenic factors plays a role. In the meantime, tracking how these changes are leading to ice loss in the tropical regions provides scientists with a means of comparison when studying ice loss in other parts of the world.

As Andrew Klein, a geography professor at Texas A & M University who has studied the region, explained:

“Glacier recession continues in the tropics—these happen to be the last glaciers in the eastern tropics. Fortunately, the impact will be limited given their small size and the fact that they do not represent a significant water resource.”

Satellites continue to play an important role in the monitoring process, giving scientist the ability to map glacier ice loss, map seasonal changes, and draw comparisons between different parts on the planet. They also allow scientists to monitor remote and inaccessible areas of the planet to see how they too are being affected. Last, but not least, they allow scientists to estimate the timing of a glacier’s disappearance.

Click on the posted images to enlarge the ice fields, or follow these link to see image comparisons.

Further Reading: NASA Earth Observatory

Here’s an Aerial View of a Massive Iceberg Shearing away from Antarctica

Located along the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula is the Larsen Ice Shelf. Named after the Norwegian Captain who explored the ice front back in 1893, this ice shelf has been monitored for decades due to its close connection with rising global temperatures. Essentially, since the 1990s, the shelf has been breaking apart, causing collapses of considerable intensity.

According to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the section of the ice sheet known as the Larsen C Ice Shelf could be experiencing a collapse of its own soon enough. Based on video footage and satellite evidence of the sizeable rift (which is 457 m or 15oo ft across) in the shelf, it is believed that an ice berg that is roughly 5,000 km² (1930.5 mi²) in size could be breaking off and calving into the ocean in the near future.

An ice shelf is essentially a floating extension of a land-based glacier. In this case, the Larsen Ice Shelf is seaborne section of the larger Larsen Glacier, which flows southeast past Mount Larsen and enters the Ross Sea just south of Victoria Land. These shelves often act as buttresses, holding back glaciers that flow down to the coast, thus preventing them from entering the ocean and contributing to rising sea levels.

In the past twenty-two years, the Larsen A and B ice shelves (which were situated further north along the Antarctic Peninsula) both collapsed into the sea. This resulted in the dramatic acceleration of glaciers behind them, as larger volumes of ice were able to flow down the coast and drop into the ocean. While Larsen C appeared to still be stable, in November of 2016, NASA noted the presence of a large crack in its surface.

This crack was about 110 kilometers (68 mi) long and was more than 91 m (299 ft) wide, reaching a depth of about 500 m (1,600 ft). By December, the rift had extended another 21 km (13 mi), which raised concerns about calving. In February of 2017, satellite observations of the shelf noted that the crack appeared to have grown further, which confirmed what researches from the MIDAS project had previously reported.

This UK-based Antarctic research project – which is based at Swansea University and Aberystwyth University in Wales and supported by the BAS and various international partners – is dedicated to monitoring the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. Through a combination of field work, satellite observations, and computer simulations, they have catalogued how recent warming trends has caused seasonal melts of the ice shelf and affected its structure.

And in recent years, they have been monitoring the large crack, which has been fast-moving, and noted the appearance of several elongations. It was during the current Antarctic field season that members of the project filmed what the crack looked like from the air. In previous surveys, the glaciology research team has conducted research on the ice shelf using seismic techniques to survey the seafloor beneath it.

However, this past season, they did not set up on the ice shelf itself for fear of a calving event. Instead, they made a series of trips to and from the UK’s Rothera Research Station aboard twin otter aircraft. During an outing to retrieve some of their science equipment, the crew noted how the crack looked from above and started filming. As you can see from the footage, the rift is very wide and extremely long.

What’s more, the team estimates that if an iceberg from this shelf breaks off and falls into the ocean, it will likely be over three times the size of cities like London or New York City. And while this sort of thing is common with glaciers, the collapse of a large section of Larsen C could speed the flow of the Larsen Glacier towards the Antarctic Ocean.

As Dr Paul Holland, an ice and ocean modeller at the British Antarctic Survey, said in a recent press release:

“Iceberg calving is a normal part of the glacier life cycle, and there is every chance that Larsen C will remain stable and this ice will regrow.  However, it is also possible that this iceberg calving will leave Larsen C in an unstable configuration.  If that happens, further iceberg calving could cause a retreat of Larsen C. We won’t be able to tell whether Larsen C is unstable until the iceberg has calved and we are able to understand the behavior of the remaining ice. The stability of ice shelves is important because they resist the flow of the grounded ice inland.  After the collapse of Larsen B, its tributary glaciers accelerated, contributing to sea-level rise.”

One of the greatest concerns about climate change is the feedback mechanisms it creates. In addition to increased warming trends caused by rising levels of CO² in the atmosphere, the melting of glaciers and the breakup of ice shelves can have a pronounced effect on sea levels. In the end, the depletion of glaciers in Antarctica could have dramatic consequences for the rest of the planet.

Further Reading: British Antarctic Survey

The Hidden Glaciers Of Mars

In the northern hemisphere of Mars, between the planet’s southern highlands and the northern lowlands, is a hilly region known as Colles Nilli. This boundary-marker is a very prominent feature on Mars, as it is several kilometers in height and surrounded by the remains of ancient glaciers.

And thanks to the Mars Express mission, it now looks like this region is also home to some buried glaciers. Such was the conclusion after the orbiting spacecraft took images that revealed a series of eroded blocks along this boundary, which scientists have deduced are chunks of ice that became buried over time.

The Mars Express images show a plethora of these features along the north-south boundary. They also reveal several features that hint at the presence of buried ice and erosion – such as layered deposits as well as ridges and troughs. Similar features are also found in nearby impact craters. All of these are believed to have been caused by an ancient glacier as it retreated several hundred million years ago.

Artist's impression of the Mars Express spacecraft in orbit. Image Credit: ESA/Medialab
Artist’s impression of the Mars Express spacecraft in orbit. Credit: ESA/Medialab

It is further reasoned that these remaining ice deposits were covered by debris that was deposited from the plateau as it eroded. Wind-borne dust was also deposited over time, which is believed to be the result of volcanic activity. This latter source is evidenced by steaks of dark material deposited around the blocks, as well as dark sand dunes spotted within the impact craters.

Similar features are believed to exist within many boundary regions on Mars, and are believed to represent periods of glaciation that took place over the course of eons. And this is not the first time buried glaciers have been spotted on Mars.

For instance, back in 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) used its ground-penetrating radar to locate water ice under blankets or rocky debris, and at latitudes far lower than any that had been previously identified. At the time, this information shed light on a long-standing mystery about Mars, which was the presence of what are called “aprons”.

These gently-sloping rocky deposit, which are found at the bases of taller features, were first noticed by NASA’s Viking orbiters during the 1970s. A prevailing theory has been that these aprons are the result of rocky debris lubricated by small amounts of ice.

Artist's impression visualising the separation of the ExoMars entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of the separation of the ExoMars entry, descent and landing demonstrator module (Schiaparelli) from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Combined with this latest info taken from the northern hemisphere, it would appear that there is plenty of ice deposits all across the surface of Mars. The presence (and prevalence) of these icy remnants offer insight into Mars’ geological past, which – like Earth – involved some “ice ages”.

The Mars Express mission has been actively surveying the surface of Mars since 2003. On October 19th, it will be playing a vital role as the Exomars mission inserts itself into Martian orbit and the Schiaparelli lander makes its descent and landing on the Martian surface.

Alongside the MRO and the ExoMars Orbiter, it will be monitoring signals from the lander to confirm its safe arrival, and will relay information sent from the surface during the course of its mission.

The ESA will be broadcasting this event live. And given that this mission will be the ESA’s first robotic lander to reach Mars, it should prove to be an exciting event!

Further Reading: ESA

Mountains: How Are They Formed?

When beholding the sheer size and majesty of mountains, ancient humans could not help but feel that they were standing in the presence of something… godlike. And within the belief systems of many ancient cultures, it was generally felt that mountains were something spiritual – either serving as the home of the Gods, a result of their activity, or a place to get closer to God.

Thanks to modern geology, we now know the true story of how mountains are formed. Simply put, they are the result of tectonic forces or volcanism. But knowing this has not diminished their impressive and awe-inspiring nature. When a geological formation is created through forces that can only be described as titanic, this is to be expected. But just how are mountains formed?

In truth, there are three ways in which mountains are formed, which correspond to the types of mountains in question. These are known as volcanic, fold and block mountains. All of these are the result of plate tectonics, where compressional forces, isostatic uplift and intrusion of igneous matter forces surface rock upward, creating a landform higher than the surrounding features.

Over the course of many million years, these uplifted sections are eroded by the elements – wind, rain, ice and gravity. These gradually wear the surface of the mountains down, cause the surface to be younger than the rocks that form them, and lead to the types of formations and distributions we are familiar with today.

 Matterhorn (4,478 m, Walliser Alps, East side) mirrored in Riffelsee, photograph taken from shore of lake Riffelsee.
The East side of the Matterhorn, a fold mountain that measures 4,478 meters in height, mirrored in lake Riffelsee. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Dirk Beyer

Volcanic Mountains:

Volcanic mountains are formed when a tectonic plate is pushed beneath another (or above a mid-ocean ridge or hotspot) where magma is forced to the surface. When the magma reaches the surface, it often builds a volcanic mountain, such as s shield volcano or a stratovolcano. Examples of this sort of mountains include Mount Fuji in Japan, Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Nyamuragira in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Skjaldbreiður in Iceland  and Mount Etna in Sicily.

At other times, the rising magma solidifies below the surface and forms dome mountains, where material is pushed up from the force of the build-up beneath it. Examples of this formation include Navajo Mountain in San Juan County, Utah; the Chaitén lava dome of Chile, Torfajökull in Iceland, and Mount St. Helens in Washington State.

Fold Mountains:

As the name suggests, fold mountains occur when two tectonic plates collide at a convergent plate boundary, causing the crust to overthicken. This process forces the less dense crust to float on top of the denser mantle rocks – with material being forced upwards to form hills, plateaus or mountains – while a greater volume of material is forced downward into the mantle.

Satellite image of the Himalayan mountain chain, as imaged by NASA'sLandsat-7 imagery of Himalayas. Credit: NASA
Satellite image of the Himalayan mountain chain, as imaged by NASA’s Landsat-7 satellite. Credit: NASA

The Jura Mountains, a series of sub-parallel mountain ridges located in the Alps, are an example of fold mountains. Other examples include the “Simply Folded Belt” of the Zagros mountains, which extends from northern Syria and southern Turkey to eastern Iran and the Persian Gulf. There is also the Akwapim-Togo ranges in Ghana and the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians in the Eastern United States.

But perhaps most famous is the Himalayan mountain chain, located between northern India and Nepal. This chain formed as a result of the collision between the Indian subcontinent and Asia some 25 million years ago, and has given rise to the tallest mountain in the world – Mt. Everest.

Block Mountains:

Block mountains are caused by faults in the crust, a seam where rocks can move past each other. Also known as rifting, this process occurs when rocks on one side of a fault rise relative to the other. The uplifted blocks become block mountains (also known as horsts) while  the intervening dropped blocks are known as graben (i.e. depressed regions).

Examples of this type of terrain can be found in the Upper Rhine valley, the Vosges mountains in France, the Black Forest in Germany, and the Vindhya and Satpura horsts in India. There is also the East African Rift, an active continental rift zone with several active volcanoes that extends from Eritrea to Mozambique.

Satellite image of the East African Rift, December 18, 2002. Credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/Japan Space Systems, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team
Satellite image of the East African Rift, taken on December 18th, 2002. Credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/Japan Space Systems/U.S.-Japan ASTER Science Team

Mountain Erosion:

As noted, the final way in which mountains are formed is through erosion. This occurs during and after an uplift, where a newly formed mountainous region is subjected to the effects of wind, water, ice, and gravity. These forces actively shape the surface of mountain ranges, wearing down the exposed surfaces, depositing sediment in alluvial flows, and leading to the formation of characteristic landforms.

These include pyramidal peaks, knife-edge arêtes, and bowl-shaped cirques that can contain lakes. Plateau mountains, such as the Catskills, are formed from the erosion of an uplifted plateau. And after millions of years of erosion, mountains may cease to exist entirely.

Given the size and scale of a mountain, the immense forces involved in their creation, and the immense amount of time it takes to shape and form them, it is little wonder why they are considered such a big deal. Between their religious significance (i.e. Mount Zion, Mount Olympus, Mount Ararat, and Mauna Kea, to name a few), their scenic value, the challenge they present, and their importance to the Earth sciences, these geological formations continue to enjoy a special place in our hearts, minds and culture.

As we explore other planets, we have also found new and impressive mountain formations that have taught us much about the geological activity and composition of other worlds. For example, there the volcanic mountain on Mars known as Olympus Mons, which just happens to be the largest mountain in the Solar System. And this is merely a drop in the bucket. Wherever there’s a geologically active planet, there’s mountains to be found!

We have written many articles about mountains here at Universe Today. Here’s one on Fault-Block Mountains, one on Volcanic Mountains, one on Fold Mountains, and one on Dome Mountains. And here’s an article about The Clearest Skies On Earth.

For more information, check out NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

Astronomy Cast also has a great episode on the subject – Episode 51: Earth.

Pluto Spectacular! Glaciers, Hazes, Majestic Peaks Revealed in New Photos

As the hazy, lazy days of summer come to a close, the New Horizons team released a brand new set of incredible images of a very atmospheric Pluto.

Can you believe the detail in these photos? Back-lit by the Sun, we see icy plains, rugged mountains, glacier-cut terrain and multiple layers of haze just like those on a steamy August afternoon.

Closer Look: Majestic Mountains and Frozen Plains: Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Just look at those pyramidal mountain peaks right next to those relatively smooth, icy plains. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 km) across.

The scene measures 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) across and was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km) on July 15 just after closest approach. Because backlighting highlights fine aerosols suspended in the atmosphere (think of seeing your breath on a cold winter day against the Sun), these photos show the amazing complexity of Pluto’s atmosphere with more than a dozen thin haze layers extending from near the ground to at least 60 miles (100 km) above the surface.

Near-Surface Haze or Fog on Pluto: In this small section of the larger crescent image of Pluto, taken by NASA’s New Horizons just 15 minutes after the spacecraft’s closest approach on July 14, 2015, the setting sun illuminates a fog or near-surface haze, which is cut by the parallel shadows of many local hills and small mountains. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers), and the width of the image is 115 miles (185 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
 In this small section of the larger crescent image of Pluto, the setting sun illuminates a bank of fog or low-lying near-surface haze sliced by the parallel shadows of many local hills and small mountains. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km), and the width of the image is 115 miles (185 km).

“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern in a press release today. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”

Sputnik Planum is the informal name of the smooth, light-bulb shaped region on the left of this composite of several New Horizons images of Pluto. The brilliantly white upland region to the right may be coated by nitrogen ice that has been transported through the atmosphere from the surface of Sputnik Planum, and deposited on these uplands. The box shows the location of the glacier detail images below. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Sputnik Planum is the informal name of the smooth, light-bulb shaped region on the left of this composite of several New Horizons images of Pluto. The brilliantly white upland region to the right may be coated by nitrogen ice that has been transported through the atmosphere from the surface of Sputnik Planum, and deposited on these uplands. The box shows the location of the glacier detail images below.

I find the hazes the most amazing aspect of the photos. They remind me of crepuscular rays, those beams of sunshine that shine between breaks in the clouds near sunset and sunrise. It chills and thrills me to the bone to see such earthly sights on a bitterly cold orb more than 3 billion miles from home.

Ice, probably frozen nitrogen, appears to have accumulated on the uplands on the right side of this 390-mile (630-km) wide image is draining from Pluto’s mountains onto the informally named Sputnik Planum through the 2- to 5-mile (3- to 8-km) wide valleys indicated by the red arrows. On Earth this would be considered a valley glacier. The flow front of the ice moving into Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. The origin of the ridges and pits on the right side of the image remains uncertain. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Ice, probably frozen nitrogen, appears to have accumulated on the uplands on the right side of this 390-mile (630-km) wide image is draining from Pluto’s mountains onto the informally named Sputnik Planum through the 2- to 5-mile (3- to 8-km) wide valleys indicated by the red arrows. On Earth this would be considered a valley glacier. The flow front of the ice moving into Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. The origin of the ridges and pits on the right side of the image remains uncertain.

But that’s not all that’s close to our hearts on Pluto. The photos reveal nitrogen ice apparently flowing downhill from mountainous highlands into a broad, smooth basin. Combined with other recently downloaded pictures, this new image (above) provides evidence for a remarkably Earth-like “hydrological” cycle on Pluto – but involving soft and exotic ices, including nitrogen, rather than water ice.

This might be the most remarkable image of all. Intricate Valley Glaciers on Pluto: This image covers the same region as the image above, but is re-projected from the oblique, backlit view shown in the new crescent image of Pluto. The backlighting highlights the intricate flow lines on the glaciers. The flow front of the ice moving into the informally named Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. The origin of the ridges and pits on the right side of the image remains uncertain. This image is 390 miles (630 kilometers) across. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This might be the most remarkable image of all. It covers the same region as the image above, but is re-projected from the oblique, backlit view shown in the new crescent image of Pluto. The backlighting highlights the intricate flow lines on the valley glaciers. The flow front of the ice moving into the informally named Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. We’re looking at a scene 390 miles (630 km) across.

Nitrogen ice in the vast, relatively smooth Sputnik Planum may have vaporized in sunlight and then redeposited as ice in the bright, rugged region to its east. The new Ralph imager panorama also reveals glaciers flowing back from the blanketed mountain region into Sputnik Planum; these features are similar to the frozen streams on the margins of ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.

Who knew that by going to Pluto we’d see such familiarity? But there you have it.

Scientists Now Suspect More Sea Level Rise from Greenland’s Glaciers

Greenland’s glaciers may contribute more to future sea level rise than once thought, despite earlier reports that their steady seaward advance is a bit slower than expected. This is just more sobering news on the current state of Earth’s ice from the same researchers that recently announced the “unstoppable” retreat of West Antarctic glaciers.

Using data collected by several international radar-mapping satellites and NASA’s airborne Operation IceBridge surveys, scientists at NASA and the University of California, Irvine have discovered deep canyons below the ice sheet along Greenland’s western coast. These canyons cut far inland, and are likely to drive ocean-feeding glaciers into the sea faster and for longer periods of time as Earth’s climate continues to warm.

Some previous models of Greenland’s glaciers expected their retreat to slow once they receded to higher altitudes, making their overall contribution to sea level increase uncertain. But with this new map of the terrain far below the ice, modeled with radar soundings and high-resolution ice motion data, it doesn’t seem that the ice sheets’ recession will halt any time soon.

According to the team’s paper, the findings “imply that the outlet glaciers of Greenland, and the ice sheet as a whole, are probably more vulnerable to ocean thermal forcing and peripheral thinning than inferred previously from existing numerical ice-sheet models.”

Read more: Scientists Set Their Sights on Arctic Ice Loss

Watch a video of the new topography map below:

“The glaciers of Greenland are likely to retreat faster and farther inland than anticipated, and for much longer, according to this very different topography we have discovered. This has major implications, because the glacier melt will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe.

– Mathieu Morlighem, project scientist, University of California, Irving

Many of the newly-discovered canyons descend below sea level and extend over 65 miles (100 kilometers) inland, making them vulnerable — like the glaciers in West Antarctica — to undercutting by warmer ocean currents.

The team’s findings were published on May 18 in a report titled Deeply Incised Submarine Glacial Valleys Beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Source: NASA/JPL press release & University of California,Irvine News


What would happen if all the ice on land melted into the ocean? Find out what the world would look like here.

Meet GROVER the Rover, Set For Greenland Exploration

How fast is Greenland’s ice sheet melting in response to climate change, and how is it recovering? A new NASA rover with the friendly name of GROVER (Greeland Rover and Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research) is going to try to figure that out.

GROVER will rove across a small area of the massive ice sheet at a location called Summit Camp, which is a National Science Foundation outpost. On board it has ground-penetrating radar that is intended to figure out how the snow builds up in layers through time.

“Robots like GROVER will give us a new tool for glaciology studies,” stated Lora Koenig, a glaciologist at Goddard and science advisor on the project.

A prototype of GROVER during testing in January 2012. The rover does not have its solar panels attached here. The laptop was used as part of that specific test only. Credit: Gabriel Trisca, Boise State University
A prototype of GROVER during testing in January 2012. The rover does not have its solar panels attached here. The laptop was used as part of that specific test only. Credit: Gabriel Trisca, Boise State University

The student-designed project came to be during development phases in 2010 and 2011, principally at Boise State University in Idaho. At six feet tall, it’s way more massive than its Sesame Street namesake: it tips the scale at 800 pounds, including solar panels, and has two snowmobile tracks built in to move around.

“GROVER is just like a spacecraft but it has to operate on the ground,” stated Michael Comberiate, a retired NASA engineer and manager of Goddard’s Engineering Boot Camp.

“It has to survive unattended for months in a hostile environment, with just a few commands to interrogate it and find out its status and give it some directions for how to accommodate situations it finds itself in.”

Studies began on May 3 and will continue through June 8.

Source: NASA

Ancient Antarctic Ice Sampled In Lake Vostok Drill


Sealed off for millions of years beneath an almost impenetrable layer of ice, Lake Vostok has kept a vast archive of ancient history waiting for just the right moment to reveal itself. Here is a unique closed ecosystem captured in time below four kilometers of ice. Saved from environmental contamination, its water has been isolated from Earth’s atmosphere, and the outside world, long before man existed. Only one burning question remains… Could this pristine pocket of Lake Vostok show signs of early life?

“According to our research, the quantity of oxygen there exceeds that on other parts of our planet by 10 to 20 times. Any life forms that we find are likely to be unique on Earth,” says Sergey Bulat, the Chief Scientist of Russia’s Antarctic Expedition to Russian Reporter magazine.

So why be so excited over finding a few organisms? The reason is clear as the hidden waters. If a life form could exist here, it could also exist on a similar world…. Jupiter’s satellite, Europa.

“The discovery of microorganisms in Lake Vostok may mean that, perhaps, the first meeting with extra-terrestrial life could happen on Europa,” said Dr Vladimir Kotlyakov, Director of the Geography Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences to Vzglyad newspaper.

Image from
However, drilling through over 3,700 meters of pure ice hasn’t been an easy process – especially when you’re working in temperatures as low as minus 80 centigrade. The chill thrill drill began in 1970, but it was over 25 years later before Russian specialists discovered the hidden lake beneath the ice sheet. Along with British support, they then began sonar and satellite imagining to reveal one of the world’s largest undisclosed fresh water reservoirs. Now, speculation began in earnest. What might these waters contain? Could it be tiny microbes? Or perhaps even a dangerous organism… There was only one way to find out. Drill and sample.

“Everything but the samples themselves will be carefully decontaminated using radiation. There is no need to worry,” Valeriy Lukin, Head of the Antarctic Expedition told Russian Reporter Magazine. According to researchers at the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, they surmise the findings as “the only giant super-clean water system on the planet.” and pristine water will be “twice cleaner than double-distilled water.”

Over the last few decades, there had been a lot of discord over anti-freeze drilling methods – each with its pros and cons. From kerosene to Freon – even hot water – the end result needed to be the same. No chance of contamination… either to the samples or the native environment. As it ended up, the Russian method of using the former turned out to be fine when 40 liters of frozen, pure water came to light on February 4. Just a day later, 1,500 liters of kerosene and Freon poured into special containers with no problems and the sample proved to be immaculate. The clear waters are now safely tucked away in sterile containers and are heading back home.

“I can say that everyone at Bellingshausen on the Antarctic Peninsula could probably tell you down to the meter what the daily progress of the drilling was at the Vostok Station in the center of the continent.” says reporter, Sean Thomas. ” After all, the work at Lake Vostok was a Russian project, at a Russian base with Russian scientists, so there is a lot of pride in the work that is being done there.”

Original Story Source: RT News.

New Study Reveals Little Ice Age Triggered By Volcanism


In a study led by the University of Colorado Boulder with co-authors at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and other organizations, researchers may have possibly found evidence the “Little Ice Age” may have had ties to an unusual era of volcanic activity… one that lasted for about 50 years. In just five decades, four massive tropical volcanic eruptions managed to take Earth’s entire environment and put it on ice. Somewhere near the years between 1275 and 1300 A.D., these eruptions caused some very cool summer weather in the northern hemisphere which triggered an expansion of sea ice that – in turn – weakened Atlantic currents. However, it didn’t weaken the already cool climate. It strengthened it.

The international study was done in layers – like a good cake – but instead of sweet frosting, it was a composite look at dead vegetation, ice and sediment core data. By engaging highly detailed computer climate modeling, scientists are now able to have a strong theory of what triggered the Little Ice Age.. a theory which begins with decreased summer solar radiation and progresses through erupting volcanoes. Here planet-wide cooling could have been started by sulfates and other aerosols being ejected into our atmosphere and reflecting sunlight back into space. Simulations have shown it could have even been a combination of both scenarios.

“This is the first time anyone has clearly identified the specific onset of the cold times marking the start of the Little Ice Age,” says lead author Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado Boulder. “We also have provided an understandable climate feedback system that explains how this cold period could be sustained for a long period of time. If the climate system is hit again and again by cold conditions over a relatively short period—in this case, from volcanic eruptions—there appears to be a cumulative cooling effect.”

“Our simulations showed that the volcanic eruptions may have had a profound cooling effect,” says NCAR scientist Bette Otto-Bliesner, a co-author of the study. “The eruptions could have triggered a chain reaction, affecting sea ice and ocean currents in a way that lowered temperatures for centuries.” The team’s research papers will be published this week in Geophysical Research Letters. Members of the group include co-authors from the University of Iceland, the University of California Irvine, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, NCAR’s sponsor, and the Icelandic Science Foundation.

“Scientific estimates regarding the onset of the Little Ice Age range from the 13th century to the 16th century, but there is little consensus,” Miller says. It’s fairly clear these lower temperatures had an impact on more southerly regions such as South American and China, but the effect was far more clear in areas such as northern Europe. Glacial movement eradicated populated regions and historical images show people ice skating in places known to be too warm for such solid freezing activities before the Little Ice Age.

“The dominant way scientists have defined the Little Ice Age is by the expansion of big valley glaciers in the Alps and in Norway,” says Miller, a fellow at CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “But the time in which European glaciers advanced far enough to demolish villages would have been long after the onset of the cold period.”

By employing the technique of radiocarbon dating, approximately 150 plant specimens, complete with roots, were gathered from the receding edges of ice caps located on Baffin Island in the Canadian Artic. In these samples they found evidence of a “kill date” which ranged between 1275 and 1300 A.D. This information led the team to surmise the plants were quickly frozen and then just as quickly encased in solid ice. A second documented kill date occurred about 1450 A.D. showing another major event. To further flesh out their findings, the research team took sediment sample cores from a glacial lake which is linked to the mile-high Langikull ice cap. These important samples from Iceland can be reliably dated back as far as 1,000 years and the results showed a sudden increase in ice during the late 13th century and again in the 15th. Thanks to these techniques which rely on the presence tephra deposits, we know these climate cooling events occurred as a result of volcanic eruptions.

“That showed us the signal we got from Baffin Island was not just a local signal, it was a North Atlantic signal,” Miller says. “This gave us a great deal more confidence that there was a major perturbation to the Northern Hemisphere climate near the end of the 13th century.”

What brought the team to their final conclusions? Through the use of the Community Climate System Model developed by scientists at NCAR and the Department of Energy with colleagues at other organizations, they were able to simulate the impact of volcanic cooling on the extent and mass of Artic sea ice. The model painted a portrait of what could have occurred from about 1150 to 1700 A.D. and showed that some large scale eruptions could have impacted the northern hemisphere if they happened within a close time frame. In this scenario, the long term cooling effect could have expanded the Artic Sea ice to the point where it eventually met – and melted – in the North Atlantic. During the modeling, the solar radiation was set at a constant to show ” the Little Ice Age likely would have occurred without decreased summer solar radiation at the time.” concluded Miller.

Original Story Source: Univsersity Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

Mars Was Recently Blanketed By Glaciers

Mars is a dead world, unchanging for billions of years. Right? Maybe not. Researchers from Brown University have found evidence for thick, recurring glaciers on the surface of Mars. This means that the climate on Mars might be much more dynamic than previously believed. Perhaps the climate could change again. And liquid water underneath these glaciers might have given life a refuge over the eons.

Around 3.5 billion years ago, Mars was a completely different world, with liquid water right there on its surface. And then something happened that made it cold, dry, and quiet – too quiet. Apart from the occasional meteorite impact, planetary geologists thought that very little has happened on Mars since then.

In an article published in the journal Geology, scientists from Brown University released images showing how dynamic Mars might be. They found evidence that thick ice packs, at least 1 km (0.6 miles) thick and maybe 2.5 km (1.6 miles) thick coated Mars’ mid-latitude regions.

These ice sheets weren’t there last year, but they were there 100 million years ago, and maybe localized glaciers were flowing as recently as 10 million years ago. That’s yesterday, geologically speaking.

With activity this recent on Mars, that could mean that its climate might change often, and it could happen again. Maybe Mars wasn’t so dead for the last 3.5 billion years.

The images captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed a box canyon in a low-lying plain. The canyon clearly has moraines – deposits of rock that mark the end of the glacier, or the path of its retreat.

This discovery increases the possibility of life on the surface of Mars. At the bottom of the glaciers, crushed under kilometres of ice, liquid water would have formed into vast reservoirs. These could have served as sanctuaries for life.

Original Source: Brown University News Release