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Greenhouse Rock: Stone-Cold Data from Ancient Glacial Deposits May Help Reveal Future Climate Change

Scientists are developing sophisticated tools to trace the paths of glaciers, unearthing previously unknown pieces of the climate record



ISTOCKPHOTO/CASCOLY

Aptly named for its location behind a ball field in New York City's Central Park, Umpire Rock may offer a useful vantage point for calling balls and strikes. For scientists, however, it has served as a speed gun for calculating the trajectory and timing of an ancient glacier that once played an active role in global climate change.

"The Laurentide coughs and the climate will change," says Joerg Schaefer, a geochemist at Columbia University's Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory.

Schaefer refers to the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered the island of Manhattan, along with the northern third of the U.S. and most of Canada, until about 18,000 years ago when the great glacier finally retreated. It had spent more than 70,000 years affecting and reflecting the world's weather through periods of melting and growth. Today, only carved terrain and rocky remnants remain, including the popular leftover that lies a short walk east of West 62nd Street.

Umpire Rock is just one of many enormous boulders—from Antarctica to New Zealand—created under the weight and movement of glacial ice. With increasingly sophisticated techniques, Schaefer and other scientists are more closely studying the chemical footprints on these rocks, thereby gaining valuable insights into climate change.

"Glaciers are great climate indicators," says Richard Alley, a glaciologist at The Pennsylvania State University, in an e-mail. "Although they respond to many things (such as increased snowfall, for example), they are controlled primarily by changes in summer temperatures. Warming melts ice—and it is almost that simple."

A glacier's response to climate can be very sensitive to even the slightest temperature fluctuations: "Just one degree [Celsius] has forced glaciers to move back and forth," Schaefer says. As researchers determine precisely when and where glaciers have advanced and retreated, they can add to a global map of summer temperatures during the Holocene epoch, which spans from 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age, to today. Schaefer thinks a better understanding of variations in this era could fill in missing key predictors for Earth's future climate. "We can only evaluate how dramatic changes will be if we know this natural variability," Schaefer says. "Everything humans do to the climate now is on top of this."

Shedding new light on the climate

Schaefer and other scientists are using a combination of old stonemason tools and cutting-edge machinery, along with some basic geochemistry, to decipher and date this distribution of ancient temperatures.

When a glacier starts its retreat, it exposes the surface it had entombed to daylight. This accumulation of debris, known as a moraine, is often identified when geologists see large boulders that were formed as a result of sediment compacted over thousands of years under a glacier's weight. Cosmic rays zipping through Earth's atmosphere begin bombarding these previously protected rocks at the moment they are coughed out from under the receding ice sheet. The collisions trigger chemical reactions that form a unique radioactive element, beryllium 10. Scientists can then count these newborn nuclides, or isotopes (an element whose atoms have a different number of neutrons, giving it slightly different properties from the common variety), using a technique known as cosmogenic dating, to determine exactly when the glacier pulled back and the bombardment began. "The glory of cosmogenic dating is that you can ask a rock how long it has been sitting there being zapped by cosmic rays," Alley notes.

To get an answer from the rock, the nuclide is isolated from a chiseled sample—about the top centimeter on its surface—and then analyzed via mass spectrometry. With chemists' ability to isolate pure beryllium 10 and spectrometric sophistication growing over the last decade, Schaefer says, "tiny, tiny amounts of these nuclides can now be measured with very high precision."

The total count is then compared with the background rate at which the beryllium 10 is naturally produced in the atmosphere, and a precise age is derived. In the best cases, Schaefer says, a date can now be stamped with an error of plus or minus 10 years. (Only one mass spectrometer accelerator, located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, is currently powerful enough to provide these kinds of estimates.)

Cosmogenic dating has been around since the 1980s, but this improved sensitivity is allowing the possibility of dating much younger rocks that have had less time to accumulate beryllium 10. "The isotope records now overlap our historic record," Schaefer says. "This opens up a climate record that we couldn't read out before."

Tree rings, ice cores and marine life also offer glimpses into climate's past, yet they are not always available, nor always precise. "You could get lucky and run into a tree stump, but most glaciers leave deposits that are always traceable by this technique," says John Stone, a geochemist at the University of Washington in Seattle who uses cosmogenic methods for glaciers in Antarctica. "This allows a wide variety of glacial records to be obtained."

Global data set in stone
Schaefer wants to see the improved dating method taken around the world, and has been chiseling rocks himself from New York to New Zealand. He is the lead author of a study published in the May 7, 2009, issue of Science that investigated the ebbs and flows of glaciers in New Zealand's Southern Alps.

Unlike the majority of the world's glaciers, some in this region are advancing, rather than retreating. But hope that this glacial behavior means a less dire global climate predicament is arrested by Schaefer's findings: Glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere seem to behave independently from those in the south, and these "growing glaciers" have been expanding at an increasingly slower rate over the last several thousand years.

Conventional wisdom has held that climate fluctuations during the Holocene have been fairly stable and consistent around the globe. Previous work by Schaefer, published in Science in 2006, showed that before the end of the last ice age, about 17,000 years ago, most of the world began warming more or less simultaneously, with the exception of the North Atlantic.* His research nearly three years later, however, paints a much more complicated picture: The rates at which the glaciers were retreating in each hemisphere fell out of synch in the past 7,000 years, and underwent rapid periods of growth and decline. Ice sheets in New Zealand appeared to reach their maximum post–ice age advance some 6,500 years ago, whereas in the Swiss Alps glaciers didn't peak until sometime between 700 years and 150 years ago—during the Little Ice Age.

This surprising difference didn't fit with either of the prevailing theories for planetary or hemispheric climate drivers. Cyclical variations in Earth's axial tilt and orbit relative to the sun are thought to control global climate changes, including the advance and retreat of major ice ages. And inverse climatic patterns between the hemispheres are thought to be triggered by ocean currents: As more fresh water is deposited in the north with melting glaciers, the "great ocean conveyor belt" slows down its delivery of warm water to the Southern Ocean. But neither this phasing nor anti-phasing fit the data. "In New Zealand, the influence is from neither an orbit nor the ocean, so we have to come up with something else," Schaefer says. One new theory points to the influence of regional shifts in wind patterns, like those that blow in with the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation.

After scientists chiseled into moraines in the northern and southern latitudes, the next obvious site was around Earth's equator. The question there: Do tropical glaciers act like those in northern or southern regions? According to a new study in the tropics led by a team at the University of New Hampshire, past fluctuations of tropical glaciers near Machu Picchu in Peru match up very closely with behavior in the Northern Hemisphere. The Little Ice Age, which was known to have expanded glaciers in North America as well as Europe, appeared to chill the climate at least as far south as Peru. Schaefer is a co-author on this cosmogenic dating paper published in the September 25 issue of Science.

This finding sparks even more questions: What are the mechanisms for this link? Where, between Peru and New Zealand, is the link lost? The research does at least offer hope for finding answers: "These two studies [from New Zealand and Peru] primarily prove that we now have the tools in hand to decipher an almost untapped climate record: glacier moraines," Schaefer says.

Implications from the ice
Penn State's Alley, too, is optimistic that scientists can use these perfected tools to fill in this global puzzle, glacier by glacier. "With enough of this work, we should get a full understanding of the times of warming that forced glacier retreat from the moraines. The pattern of this across the planet will tell us a lot about the mechanisms that caused the warmings of the past," Alley says. "By sorting out the causes of climate changes in the past, we should gain a better understanding of what has happened, a better ability to test our models, and ultimately better and more confident projections of what future climate might hold for us."

Back in Central Park, Schaefer has been working with his team to finish sorting data from remnants of the Laurentide Ice Sheet as well as take more measurements on far-reaching continents; he also continues to think about the consequences for humanity: "This is more than an academic problem, it's a society problem," Schaefer says, highlighting many regions' dependencies on glaciers for agriculture, water and energy.

He would like to see a greater focus on adaptations that prepare societies for the impacts of glacier fluctuations—especially as the growing global map of cosmogenic chronologies more confidently projects severe impacts. "Climate drivers are tiny, tiny, tiny," Schaefer says, also pointing out that even the most conservative warming estimate from the United Nations's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of leading climate scientists, is bigger than anything the Holocene has ever seen. "There's no reason to believe that glaciers aren't going to do the same thing they always do: If you make it warm they are gone."

But with a growing lineup of hard-hitting players in this field, he'll let the rocks make the final call.


*Correction (9/25/09): This sentence has been changed since posting. It originally stated that the warming began about 14,000 years ago.

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