Report: Little doubt that global warming will eradicate the world’s glaciers and ice sheets

‘The big picture across the world and over the long run is clear — carbon dioxide is making the ice melt’

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A Greenland glacier shows signs of wear and tear during the peak of the summer melt season. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Just like today, there were regional nuances in the Earth’s climate at the end of the last ice age — like solar radiation and ocean currents — that were factors in the meltdown of ice sheets and glaciers.

But the single biggest overriding cause was a global rise in temperatures caused by an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, a team of researchers said in a new study that measured isotopes in boulders that were uncovered during the global meltdown 11,000 years ago.The research resulted in a more accurate timetable for the retreat of global ice and pinpoints the rise in carbon dioxide – then naturally occurring – as the primary driving factor in the simultaneous global retreat of glaciers, the researchers report in the journal Nature Communications.

“Glaciers are very sensitive to temperature. When you get the world’s glaciers retreating all at the same time, you need a broad, global reason for why the world’s thermostat is going up,” said Boston College assistant professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Jeremy Shakun. “The only factor that explains glaciers melting all around the world in unison during the end of the Ice Age is the rise in greenhouse gases,” Shakun said.

“This is a lot like today,” said Shakun. “In any given decade you can always find some areas where glaciers are holding steady or even advancing, but the big picture across the world and over the long run is clear – carbon dioxide is making the ice melt.”

The team’s findings make it clear that that the dramatic increase in manmade greenhouse gases will eradicate many of the world’s glaciers by the end of this century.

“This has relevance to today since we’ve already raised CO2 by more than it increased at the end of the Ice Age, and we’re on track to go up much higher this century … which adds credence to the view that most of the world’s glaciers will be largely gone within the next few centuries, with negative consequences such as rising sea level and depleted water resources,” said Shakun.

The team reexamined samples taken from boulders that were left by the retreating glaciers, said Shakun, who was joined in the research by experts from Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Purdue University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

Each boulder has been exposed to cosmic radiation since the glaciers melted, an exposure that produces the isotope Beryllium-10 in the boulder. Measuring the levels of the isotope in boulder samples allows scientists to determine when glaciers melted and first uncovered the boulders.

Scientists have been using this process called surface exposure dating for more than two decades to determine when glaciers retreated, Shakun said. His team examined samples collected by multiple research teams over the years and applied an improved methodology that increased the accuracy of the boulder ages.

The team then compared their new exposure ages to the timing of the rise of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, a development recorded in air bubbles taken from ice cores. When they crunched all their data, they were able to eliminate regional factors as the primary explanations for glacial melting across the globe at the end of the Ice Age.

“Our study really removes any doubt as to the leading cause of the decline of the glaciers by 11,000 years ago – it was the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere,” said Shakun.

Carbon dioxide levels rose from approximately 180 parts per million to 280 parts per million at the end of the last Ice Age, which spanned nearly 7,000 years. Following more than a century of industrialization, carbon dioxide levels have now risen to approximately 400 parts per million.

“This tells us we are orchestrating something akin to the end of an Ice Age, but much faster. As the amount of carbon dioxide continues to increase, glaciers around the world will retreat,” said Shakun.

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