Scientific American collections editor Andrea Gawrylewski talks to managing editor Curtis Brainard about how warming in the Arctic affects us all. And glaciologist Elizabeth Case takes us out near Juneau to study and live on the shifting ice.
Warming Arctic on Thin Ice
Welcome to Scientific American’s Science Talk, posted on January 31, 2019. I’m Steve Mirsky.
So it’s been pretty cold in parts of the country. And some self-styled comedians have joked that we sure could use some of that good old-fashioned global warming. Of course, they weren’t in Australia, where it was so hot a few days ago that car tires were melting onto the roads.
On December 11, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the past five years have been the warmest on record in the Arctic and that the region is warming at twice the rate as the global average. Those were just two of the worrisome trends in NOAA’s annual Arctic Report Card. Back in our April issue, Rutgers University climatologist Jennifer Francis talked about some of these issues, and explained why climate change is so deadly serious.
Her article also appeared in our recent special issue, the Top Science Stories of 2018. Collections editor Andrea Gawrylewski chatted briefly with managing editor Curtis Brainard about the piece.
Andrea Gawrylewski: Curtis, thanks for joining us.
So, there were a lot of concerning reports about the climate, this year, and you're the managing editor of Scientific American. Why was it so important for us to include the story "Meltdown," by Jennifer Francis?
Curtis Brainard: Well, you're right, there have been a lot of concerning reports this year, but these kinds of reports have been coming out for more than a quarter of a century now, and, you know, none of them are reassuring. We see retreats in Arctic sea ice in the summertime; we see retreats in wintertime sea ice. We see air that's getting wetter and warmer. We see the amplification of certain geophysical feedback loops that exacerbate climate change and warming. We see disruptions to ecosystems.
I think, really, what's changed in the last couple years is that sort of growing realization that, everywhere we look, this all adds up, records are being broken left and right. I mean, it's, cumulatively, the Arctic appears to be kind of spinning out of control.
Gawrylewski: And, as Dr. Francis writes, the Arctic has broken more than a dozen records, in the past few years. Why is this so concerning? What's so important about the Arctic?
Brainard: Well, you know, I think a lot of people have the mistaken impression that the Arctic doesn't really matter to us, that it's a far-away location and largely irrelevant to our lives. When, in fact, that's really not true. You know, in particular, I think we all need to be concerned about sea level rise, and I think that's what a lot of researchers working in this area, a lot of policymakers, those who are, you know, aware of this problem are concerned about. You know, if we see the kinds of the continuation of melt along the Greenland ice cap – or for that matter, down in Antarctica; this isn't just the northern pole – we really worry about inundation of coastal cities worldwide, you know, from San Francisco to Jakarta.
In addition to that, you know, we see changes in extreme weather that really affect us, all around the world. The warming that we see in the Arctic really kind of messes with the jet stream, it creates odd blocking patterns, it makes the jet stream sluggish, and kind of creates these, you know, large wild swings north to south, in what's otherwise a pretty steady stream of winds going around the midlatitudes. And what that creates are certain peaks and troughs, where you get, on the one hand, either really extreme rainfall or snowfall and cold, and then on the other hand, really extreme drought, fires – so, this really matters. And then, you know, finally, again, I mentioned ecological disruption, you know, we really worry about disruption to the marine food web, and what that means for global food supply.
You might have noticed how Brainard quickly covered how our current record cold temperatures in the Lower 48 can actually be related to the warming Arctic. And yes, this morning at 9:35 Eastern time it was minus 15 in Chicago. And in Juneau, Alaska, it was…38 above. Juneau was outside the jet stream dip. And was pretty toasty for January 31. Here in NYC it was 6 degrees, having climbed from 2 when I first checked at about 7 A.M. So it might be easy to dismiss climate change while living through this very temporary deep freeze and forgetting that things are very different elsewhere. But also keep in mind that the forecast high by Sunday February 3rd is 46. And then 52 on Monday and 56 on Tuesday. And you can bet that the folks laughing about how cold it is in our warming world aren’t gonna have much to say when it’s 56 degrees on February 5th.
Speaking of Juneau. Elizabeth Case is a graduate student studying glaciology at the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory, part of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. In the summer of 2018 she headed out onto the ice fields near Juneau, along with her mentor Columbia Earth scientists Jonny Kingslake, as part of the Juneau Icefield Research Program, or JIRP. She brought her trusty recorder and sent back audio. She mentions Seth Campbell, he’s at the University of Maine and is the director of JIRP. She also brings up Bradley Markle, who’s a postdoc at Caltech. And Wilson Clayton, formerly an environmental engineer and visiting faculty member at JIRP. Here’s part 1 of her story of doing science on the ice…on the ice.
Elizabeth Case: The helicopter takes off from the granite helipad, swaying slightly. In a flash of yellow, it spins around camp and dives, nose first, down the Vaughan Lewis Icefall, a kilometer-wide expanse of ice shattered into blue-edged blocks by a precipitous 1,500-foot drop to the Gilkey Trench. Ogives, these bands of chevron-like embroidery, recede down the trench, tracing the route back to Juneau. The mountains quickly absorb the helicopter's roar, leaving the three of us – me, my advisor, Jonny Kingslake –
Male: Good example of a day in the life of _____ scientists.
Case: —and the program director, Seth Campbell—in the bright heat of the subarctic sun, on a _____ tech, in the middle of the Juneau Icefield. Tucked into southernmost Alaska, the icefield is the size of Rhode Island. Its glaziers and coastline were famously chronicled by John Muir, in Travels in Alaska.
The capital city runs up the edge of sharply-angled, lushly-vegetated mountains, which hold back the icefield even as it spills out through valleys and over ridges, in searching tongues of white, blue, and grey, the Taku, the Mendenhall, and Lemon Creek, to name a few of them. Our last morning in Juneau, I woke before 7:00, which, in Alaska in the summer, is well after dawn. We packed our gear into the back of a blue 15-passenger van, in went 3 clanking canvas bags with coring equipment, 1 minifridge-size box with a sidewinder drill, a flat blue case with our antennas, 3 stocky _____ boxes with tools and radar equipment, 1 generator, 1 drone, 2 large duffel bags and 2 backpacks, and 1 small black box for Seth. A little while later, we walked out of the hangar and climbed into a yellow helicopter, already packed full with our gear and some food. Then we were off, flying over Juneau, floating over the Mendenhall's corrugated surface, and out of the horizon, the icefield grew, unfurling magnificently in front of us.
We chose this icefield because of its accessibility. The Juneau Icefield Research Program has run an 8-week ice traverse for high school, college, and postgraduate students, for the last 70 years. So, some 30 camps, in varying condition, dot the icefield from the Alaskan coast to Atlin, Canada.
Male: Juneau Icefield, Camp 18, mountain peaks poking out through the glaciers. We're looking down on _____ glacier with these black, these dark and white bands called ogives.
Case: Camp 18 was the closest to our research site, with 5 main buildings, a woodshed, a fuel shed, and two outhouses. These were built by past staff and students; 2 by 4’s thin wooden planks form the structure inside. Anywhere that isn't otherwise used is a bed – above the garage, inside the work shed, wedged over the lecture room. Anything that is more expensive to fly off the ice than to store here has been left behind. So the place is a time capsule of generations, of emergent adventurers.
With the helicopter gone, Seth, Jonny, and I unlock the buildings, air out the dorms, and set up a water supply where the snow naturally melts and pools. On occasion, we can hear the ice fall as it shifts under its own weight, moving a meter or two a day. Other than that, it is silent. Not an oppressive silence, but an expansive one; one that, in fact, reminds you of the hugeness of the earth, of its permanence and wildness. Though we're surrounded by ice, the day is unexpectedly hot, and we change into shorts and shirts while we work.
The next two weeks will be one of the longest stretches of sunny weather in JIRP's living memory. There are wildfires burning in Canada, and a haze washes into the sky. Every so often, while opening camp, I'm caught dead: there is no sense of scale up here, the ice fall looks just a football field across, but everything is bigger than I can imagine. We're not alone up there for long. The students arrive that afternoon, and more ski in the next day. They are effusive, energetic, loud, dressed in Patagonia pullovers and Hawaiian shirts and Crocs, and the camp breathes into life.
Jonny and I are busy getting everything ready. Like many endeavors, most of science is preparation. We've been testing equipment, purchasing equipment, prepping and packing equipment, skyping, calling, e-mailing, texting, routing, and scheming for months. Sunday, we spend the morning taking inventory of our gear, shipping it off on sleds pulled by Ski-Doos to the field camp location, and sawing 160 bamboo sticks in half to mark the 108 points of a GPS grid, and 91 points of our radar grid. Our survey is trying to capture the ice flow of the ice divide at the top of the icefield – that's a lot of ice.
Like it sounds, an ideal ice divide splits the flow of the ice, it has an imperceptibly narrow ridge, and the snow that falls either flows out one side or the other, except at the very center where, in theory, it becomes infinitely old as it is compressed towards the bed.
Male: These places are ideal for ice cores. One thing: if the ice divide has stayed stationary for long enough, you know that that ice, any ice you extract in an ice core, you're trying to get a climate history from, it hasn't – it's been laid down in the same spot. So there's ice cores drilled all over the place; a lot of them are _____ ice divides or near them.
Case: Of course, the world is complex and it's far from ideal, and the location we're working on isn't actually a divide, it's a saddle. So we have some ice flowing in from the accumulation on the surrounding valley walls, and this ice and the snow that falls directly on top of the divide slowly pours out three outlet glaciers. We have an array of tools with us to try to understand the icefield. A GPS survey run by Scott McGee, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, will measure the location of the stakes before and after the short field season, to get a surface velocity, which is how much the ice is moving and in what direction. Bradley Markle is collecting snow isotope samples, Wilson Clayton will measure the meltwater percolation through the snow, as well as the surface energy balance – that's how much energy is coming in, say, from the sun, and how much is leaving.
Seth, a professor at the University of Maine, will drive a deep-looking radar over the grid, to get an idea of how thick the ice is, and a shallow radar to look just at the top 20 or 30 meters. Jonny and I are there to use a third type of radar, called an autonomous phase-sensitive radio-echo sounder. It measures the difference in location of ice stratigraphy over time, and it can look at both shallow and deep ice processes. The stratigraphy comes from the annual weather cycle: each year, a new layer of snow is laid down in winter storms, and melted out in the summer. Additionally, snow that's melted may pool and refreeze in distinct layers called ice lenses.
Both of these processes create layers in the snowpack, with unique dielectric signatures, which is what we see using our radar. We're interested in how much these vertical layers move downward towards the bed over time, because it tells us something about how the ice is flowing and deforming. We'll collect this information by precisely measuring the change in the depth of these layers, between our first grid run and our second. So, as you can see, there's a lot of science to do, and we have just ten days. On Monday, we have what Jonny calls the typical "day of a scientist:" lecture in the morning, learn to ski in the afternoon.
The ski out is gentle, slightly uphill, past the storm range and onto the divide. After two or three hours of sliding along the wet snow, a black dot appears on a plane of white: our gear stash – it's just a kilometer away or so. And then we've arrived.
More with Elizabeth Case out on the ice soon on Science Talk.
That’s it for this episode. Get your science news at our Web site, www.scientificamerican.com. Where you can read all about the polar vortex in Mark Fischetti’s archived article.
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