Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Helheim Glacier Lands NY Times Front Page

This map of Greenland shows the location of earthquakes, the boundaries between Greenland's ice drainage basins and the speed of ice (2005-2006). Graphic by Jonathan Corum and Xaquin G.V. / The New York Times.

At Polar Field Services, we are fortunate to assist in important scientific research that takes place in some of the world’s most beautiful places, and we aim to report on much of that research here in our blog. And while we know we have some dedicated readers, we’d hazard to guess the New York Times has a more robust readership. So we were glad to see some of the scientists we support on the front page of last Sunday’s issue in Reading Earth’s Future in Glacial Ice. Situated above the fold, this thoroughly-reported article on National Science Foundation-funded research outlined ongoing studies that aim to understand glacial dynamics.

The article, written by Justin Gillis and with a Tasilaq, Greenland, dateline, transports the reader immediately to the Greenland ice fields in a helicopter where two scientists drop a measuring device deep into water in an ice-choked fjord. The temperature registers at 40 degrees, a “troubling measurement showing that the water was warm enough to belt glaciers rapidly from below.” This information, says Gillis, will be used to help answer “one of the most urgent—and most widely debated—questions facing humanity: How fast is the world’s ice going to melt?”
The article continues to state that glaciology and ice dynamic studies are still in their infancy, and as scientists better understand the relationship between warming sea temperatures and earthquakes and glacial melt, it appears that sea levels will likely rise to a higher level more quickly than previously thought.

For decades, common scientific wisdom believed it would take thousands of years for Arctic and Antarctic ice to melt. Sea levels were predicted to rise possibly seven inches in this century. According to the article, sea level could rise as much as three feet by 2100, and glacial dynamics are much more complex than previously thought.

The article includes information about the Helheim Glacier, located in southeastern Greenland. This glacier has rapidly lost ice in previous years and is the subject of myriad research projects. Sea water flowing underneath the glacier could be contributing to rapid melting and scientists want to understand the impacts of that accelerated melting.

The issue of increased melting extends to many of Greenland’s glaciers. According to the article, “satellite and other measurements suggest that through the 1990s, Greenland was gaining about as much ice through snowfall as it lost to the sea every year. But since then, warmer water has invaded the fjords, and air temperatures in Greenland have increased markedly. The overall loss of ice seems to be accelerating, an ominous sign given that the island contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by more than 20 feet.”

Gillis’s article poses tough questions about the cause of the melting increase. Most scientists concur it is, in part, due to warmer temperatures. He writes, “to a majority of climate scientists, the question is not whether the earth’s land ice will melt in response to the greenhouse gases those people are generating, but whether it will happen too fast for society to adjust.”

He writes about budget issues that have hampered climate research and says a shortage of satellites has decreased the amount of data scientists can collect data about the ice sheets.

Finally, much remains unknown about the earth’s land ice, he writes. Although ongoing studies are critical, scientists need more resources to gather more data. The article quotes Harvard geochemist Daniel Schrag as praising scientists who study ice but commenting, “The scale of what they can do, given the resources available, is just completely out of whack with what is required.”

At Polar Field Services, we’ll continue to assist scientists with polar research and look forward to sharing that with you. –Rachel Walker

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