Climate Ranger update: Into the cryosphere

The realm of ice and snow

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.

Support the Rocky Mountain Climate Ranger project to learn more about how global warming is affecting the Rocky Mountains.

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.

But few people get to see those changes, so we’re going to take you there with stops at a University of Colorado research station in the high elevation tundra to see what’s happening with Alpine permafrost. We’ll trek to visit some of the quickly vanishing glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park, visit with scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and try to sneak a peak at the National Ice Core lab, also in Boulder, to tell you how changes in the Arctic will play out in the Rocky Mountains.

What we already know is that melting permafrost in the Arctic will release vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere, intensifying global warming.

We don’t know, but it’s quite possible, that we’ve already warmed the Earth to the point that a meltdown of Arctic permafrost is inevitable. And it appears that many common climate models are underestimating the amount of methane being released from permafrost areas.

A recent climate report released by federal officials highlighted record-deep permafrost melt in Alaska during 2014, another worrying sign that we are near an Arctic climate tipping point.

In the Rockies, some scientists suspect that melting permafrost may be worsening water quality in mountain streams by exposing more mineralized rocks and mine waste to weathering.




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