COMMENTARY: HOW MY GLACIER DISAPPEARED

Today, Associate Editor Erico Guizzo offers us a special blog on what has happened to the Norwegian glacier he reported on a year ago.


Erico Guizzo


You might have heard that Earth's warming climate is disturbing the lives of a wide range of animals, from Arctic polar bears to Scottish seabirds to tiny zooplankton organisms called pteropods. Now, a new species can be added to that list: British researchers.

The specialists in question are a group of engineers and scientists from the University of Southampton that for several years have been studying a glacier in southwestern Norway. Just recently, the group was forced to abandon the glacier, because it's rapidly disappearing—the crumbling ice gulping with it the monitoring equipment the researchers had set up there.

In the summer of 2005, I accompanied the group on one of their trips to the Norwegian glacier called Briksdalsbreen, part of the largest ice field in continental Europe (and reported on it in "Into Deep Ice"). The group, led by Kirk Martinez, a professor of computer science, and Jane K. Hart, a professor of geography, uses custom-built sensors that, embedded deep within the ice, send temperature, pressure, and other measurements to a base station at the surface of the glacier.

Photo: ERICO GUIZZO

ICE STATION ZEROED: Here's the Briksdalsbreen glacier in the summer of 2005 and the location (red arrow) where the Southampton researchers had set up their data-gathering base station. That part of the glacier is now mostly gone, and the group was forced to abandon their work there.

Late last year, the group was contacted by a person who visited Briksdalsbreen and had some bad news: the group's base station had fallen down a deep crack that had opened in the glacier.

The researchers knew the glacier was shrinking, but the pace of its melting surprised them. In one year, it retreated nearly 100 meters. To see a 2001-2006 sequence of photos showing how the glacier has changed, see this example.

"The glacier is gone," Martinez told me in an email. "Lost a lot of gear in the lake. And the crash and splash [of the base station] killed the hardware before we could get any new data from the summer's new probes. So quite sad, really." He added that working on Briksdalsbreen is now too dangerous, and so the project will have to move to another glacier.

It won't be easy.

This week, the World Glacier Monitoring Service, in Zurich, released a preliminary report that says that mountain glaciers around the world are melting at an accelerated pace, confirming a trend already observed in previous studies.

According to the United Nations-backed report, from 2000 to 2005, the average ice loss rate was 1.6 times that of the 1990s and three times that of the 1980s. "The recent increase in rates of ice loss over reducing glacier surface areas leaves no doubt about the accelerated change in climatic conditions," Michael Zemp, a research associate at the World Glacier Monitoring Service, said in a statement.

Photo: ERICO GUIZZO

DOWN THE DRAIN: Southampton team members Kirk Martinez (left) and Alistair Riddoch work on the base station in the summer of 2005. With the ice rapidly melting since then, their equipment ended up in the icy lake at the bottom of the glacier.

This past November, the Southampton group set out on a "rescue mission" of their glacier-swallowed equipment. They found their base station half submerged in the icy lake at the bottom of the glacier. The good news was that the compact flash card that stores the glacial measurements was intact, and the group will try to recover the data.

But even if that information is lost, they believe they have gathered enough evidence to probe into the dramatic melting of the Briksdalsbreen, and they're confident their findings will help understand what may happen to other rapidly melting glaciers worldwide.

Of particular concern are: the outlet glaciers of Greenland, which play an important role in controlling ocean circulation patterns affecting the climate of Northwest Europe; and also the massive West Antarctica ice sheet, which holds a volume of water equivalent to a sea-level rise of 6 meters and, if it collapsed, as some scientists speculate, would have catastrophic consequences.

The Southampton group's study is important because, despite decades of glacial research, scientists still don't know much about what takes place at the bottom of a glacier, where the ice meets a slope of bedrock or water-soaked sediment. As one researcher puts it, "Sub-glacial dynamics is an area with a gaping hole in knowledge."

So while researchers understand some of the basic glacier-shrinking processes, they still can't create accurate computer simulations, which in turn are key to know what the future holds for Earth's ice masses. It's this piece of the puzzle that the British team hopes to supply—if they find another glacier to continue their work.

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