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Climate Ranger update: Into the cryosphere

The realm of ice and snow

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A huge summer snowcave persists into late August in some years, nurturing the highest headwaters with small trickles that feed wetlands, creeks and ponds. A big shift in the timing of snowmelt or the total amount of annual snowfall will have big impacts on the high alpine Rocky Mountain ecosystems.

Some flowers literally grow straight through the ice

Some flowers literally grow straight through the ice.

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By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — It would be hard to do a climate change journey without visiting the cryosphere, that part of the Earth which is in a frozen state at any given time. The biggest slices, of course, are at the poles, but the rest is in the high mountains of the world, where glaciers linger for now, and snow coats the ground for half the year.

Most of the world’s population lives far removed from the realm of ice and snow, but it’s the part of the planet that’s showing the most wear and tear from global warming. The steep decades-long decline in sea ice extent, the potential collapse of massive Antarctic ice shelves and the continued worldwide glacial meltdown are all clear signs of our planet’s fever. Continue reading

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Environment: Deep permafrost melt, continued mountain glacier loss highlighted in NOAA 2013 climate check-up

Greenhouse gas levels again reach record highs, wtih CO2 crossing 400 ppm threshold for the first time in the anthropocene — last tine CO2 was this high, Earth was a much warmer place, with sea levels 20 feet higher than now …

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This graph of global glacier loss is a mirror image to graphs that show the rise in global temperatures. Graphic courtesy NOAA.

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Staff Report

FRISCO — Last year brought more sobering signs of continued global warming, including record-warm temperatures 20 meters below the ground on Alaska’s North Slope, federal scientists said today, releasing the 2013 State of the Climate report (Blunden, J., and D. S. Arndt, Eds., 2014: State of the Climate in 2013. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 95 (7), S1-S238).

With heat-trapping greenhouse gases reaching record levels in 2013, “the state of the climate is changing more rapidly than at any time in … in the known record,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration director Thomas Karl, outlining the findings in the agency’s annual climate check-up. Read the full report here: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/bams-state-of-the-climate/2013.php.

The deep permafrost melt in the Arctic is probably linked with declining spring snow cover in the region, scientists said, highlighting a steady decline in the northern hemisphere’s reflective blanket of high latitude snow — think of the sunshade you use in a car windshield. Continue reading

Climate: Permafrost thaw doubles carbon losses

Study says greening tundra won’t offset permafrost meltdown

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Study says new plant growth won’t compensate for carbon emissions from melting tundra in the Arctic. bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Permafrost could dwindle by 30 to 70 percent by the end of the century, and more vegetation in the Arctic won’t be enough to offset the carbon emissions from thawing organic soils.

Scientists with the Woods Hole Research Center reached their conclusions after a series of field tests designed to measure net gains or losses in carbon emissions. The study is published in the journal Ecology.

“Our results show that while permafrost degradation increased carbon uptake during the growing season, in line with decadal trends of ‘greening’ tundra, warming and permafrost thaw also enhanced winter respiration, which doubled annual carbon losses,” said WHRC assistant scientist Sue Natali. Continue reading

Despite global warming, new permafrost forming

New permafrost is forming around Alaska's Twelvemile Lake.

A USGS study finds new permafrost forming near Alaska’s Twelvemile Lake.

Small local variations in temperatures eyed as factor

Staff Report

FRISCO — Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey say they’ve found new patches of permafrost forming in the margins a retreating lake in the interior of Alaska. The findings run counter the conventional wisdom that permafrost will shrink and disappear as the Earth’s climate warms — but don’t jump on the happy train just yet.

The new permafrost patches are small and suggest that the areas of frozen soil are sensitive to small temperature variations and other local factors, the USGS-led study suggests. Especially important is emerging vegetation around the edge of the lake. Thick willows shade the ground to the point that the soil can freeze, the scientists said. Continue reading

Climate models underestimating Arctic permafrost methane emissions

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Methane from melt ponds in the Canadian Arctic are a significant source of greenhouse gases. bberwyn photo.

Study targets small melt ponds in Canadian Arctic

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — When it comes to global warming, size can matter — in unexpected ways — according to scientists who studied methane emissions from thawing permafrost in the Canadian Arctic.

The findings suggest that most climate models are underestimating those emissions, and that including greenhouse gases coming from small thaw ponds could have a significant impact on climate. Continue reading

Study shows rapid retreat of Antarctic permafrost

‘It’s melting faster each time we measure’

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Antarctic permafrost is melting at an accelerating rate. bberwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — While the massive ice cap covering much of Antarctica isn’t likely to melt down anytime soon, the fringes of the frozen continent are showing signs of wear and tear as the planet heats up.

Scientists making long-term measurements of permafrost in the McMurdo Dry Valleys region say permafrost is melting at an accelerating rate. Between 2001 and 2012, the rate rose to about 10 times the valley’s average during the present geologic epoch.

“The big tell here is that the ice is vanishing — it’s melting faster each time we measure,” said Joseph Levy, a research associate at The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics. “This is a dramatic shift from recent history,” Levy said, explaining there are no signs in the geologic record that the valley’s ground ice has retreated similarly in the past. Continue reading

What’s the climate tipping point for permafrost?

Cave study offers clues on temperature threshold

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Global permafrost is a significant factor in the climate-change equation. Map courtesy United Nations Environmental Program.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Climate scientists have long been warning that a meltdown of Arctic permafrost will trigger a spike in greenhouse gas emissions as long-frozen organic soils give up their carbon to the atmosphere. What’s not yet clear is how fast and how much of the permafrost will melt, but a new study helps identify a temperature threshold that could lead to widespread melting.

A team led by Oxford University scientists studied stalactites and stalagmites in caves along Siberia’s permafrost frontier, where the ground begins to be permanently frozen in a layer tens to hundreds of meters thick.

The stalactites and stalagmites only grow when liquid rainwater and snow melt drips into the caves. The formations record 500,000 years of changing permafrost conditions, including warmer climate periods. After studying the paleoclimate clues in the caves, the researchers concluded that another 1.5 degrees of warming would be enough to cause substantial thawing of permafrost far north from its present-day southern limit. Continue reading

Climate: Study IDs new permafrost threat

Study suggests direct sunlight can trigger CO2 emissions from disturbed permafrost soils

USGS researchers make ground-based permafrost measurements in Alaska.

USGS researchers make ground-based permafrost measurements in Alaska.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Along with melting ice — one of the more obvious signs of global warming in the Arctic — the region is changing in other ways.

In some areas, long-frozen soils are melting and collapsing, forming potholes and other new landscape features, and the ancient carbon locked into those soils is extremely sensitive to sunlight. When it’s exposed, it releases heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere much faster than previously thought, according to University of Michigan ecologist and aquatic biogeochemist George Kling.

Climate scientists have long known that melting permafrost will release huge amounts of CO2, but the new findings suggest that exposure to sunlight will speed the process. Continue reading

Global warming: USGS researchers quantify potential greenhouse gas releases from melting Arctic permafrost

Staggering amounts of nitrogen and carbon could lead to runaway warming in coming decades

Permafrost melting is expected to increase in coming decades.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey say they’ve quantified the amount of greenhouse gases that could be released into the atmosphere as Arctic permafrost starts to melt.

“This study quantifies the impact on Earth’s two most important chemical cycles, carbon and nitrogen, from thawing of permafrost under future climate warming scenarios,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “While the permafrost of the polar latitudes may seem distant and disconnected from the daily activities of most of us, its potential to alter the planet’s habitability when destabilized is very real.”

As much as 44 billion tons of nitrogen and 850 billion tons of carbon could be released into the environment as the region begins to thaw over the next century. This nitrogen and carbon are likely to impact ecosystems, the atmosphere, and water resources including rivers and lakes. For context, this is roughly the amount of carbon stored in the atmosphere today. Continue reading

Global warming: Pinpointing permafrost methane emissions

USGS researchers make ground-based permafrost measurements in Alaska.

New study will generate important data on Arctic carbon cycle

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Methane emissions from Arctic landscapes remain one of the big wild cards in the global warming deck, with some dire predictions that methane from melting permafrost could significantly increase warming.

There has been relatively little sampling in the area, but a research mission led by scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association (AWI) and the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences has recently completed airborne measurements that will help establish a baseline for methane and calculate future increases. Continue reading

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