New research shows that Antarctica’s largest floating ice shelf is highly sensitive to warming of the ocean



Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated over a thousand kilometres in the Ross Sea region, more than any other region on the continent.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Dan Lowry, Victoria University of Wellington

Scientists have long been concerned about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its contribution to global sea level rise. Much of West Antarctica’s ice lies below sea level, and warming ocean temperatures may lead to runaway ice sheet retreat.

This process, called marine ice sheet instability, has already been observed along parts of the Amundsen Sea region, where warming of the ocean has led to melting underneath the floating ice shelves that fringe the continent. As these ice shelves thin, the ice grounded on land flows more rapidly into the ocean and raises the sea level.

Although the Amundsen Sea region has shown the most rapid changes to date, more ice actually drains from West Antarctica via the Ross Ice Shelf than any other area. How this ice sheet responds to climate change in the Ross Sea region is therefore a key factor in Antarctica’s contribution to global sea level rise in the future.

Periods of past ice sheet retreat can give us insights into how sensitive the Ross Sea region is to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Our research, published today, argues that ocean warming was a key driver of glacial retreat since the last ice age in the Ross Sea. This suggests that the Ross Ice Shelf is highly sensitive to changes in the ocean.




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History of the Ross Sea

Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated more than 1,000km in the Ross Sea region – more than any other region on the continent. But there is little consensus among the scientific community about how much climate and the ocean have contributed to this retreat.

Much of what we know about the past ice sheet retreat in the Ross Sea comes from rock samples found in the Transantarctic Mountains. Dating techniques allow scientists to determine when these rocks were exposed to the surface as the ice around them retreated. These rock samples, which were collected far from where the initial ice retreat took place, have generally led to interpretations in which the ice sheet retreat happened much later than, and independently of, the rise in air and ocean temperatures following the last ice age.

But radiocarbon ages from sediments in the Ross Sea suggest an earlier retreat, more in line with when climate began to warm from the last ice age.

An iceberg floating in the Ross Sea – an area that is sensitive to warming in the ocean.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Using models to understand the past

To investigate how sensitive this region was to past changes, we developed a regional model of the Antarctic ice sheet. The model works by simulating the physics of the ice sheet and its response to changes in ocean and air temperatures. The simulations are then compared to geological records to check accuracy.

Our main findings are that warming of the ocean and atmosphere were the main causes of the major glacial retreat that took place in the Ross Sea region since the last ice age. But the dominance of these two controls in influencing the ice sheet evolved through time. Although air temperatures influenced the timing of the initial ice sheet retreat, ocean warming became the main driver due to melting of the Ross Ice Shelf from below, similar to what is currently observed in the Amundsen Sea.

The model also identifies key areas of uncertainty of past ice sheet behaviour. Obtaining sediment and rock samples and oceanographic data would help to improve modelling capabilities. The Siple Coast region of the Ross Ice Shelf is especially sensitive to changes in melt rates at the base of the ice shelf, and is therefore a critical region to sample.




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Implications for the future

Understanding processes that were important in the past allows us to improve and validate our model, which in turn gives us confidence in our future projections. Through its history, the ice sheet in the Ross Sea has been sensitive to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Currently, ocean warming underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is the main concern, given its potential to cause melting from below.

Challenges remain in determining exactly how ocean temperatures will change underneath the Ross Ice Shelf in the coming decades. This will depend on changes to patterns of ocean circulation, with complex interactions and feedback between sea ice, surface winds and melt water from the ice sheet.

Given the sensitivity of ice shelves to ocean warming, we need an integrated modelling approach that can accurately reproduce both the ocean circulation and dynamics of the ice sheet. But the computational cost is high.

Ultimately, these integrated projections of the Southern Ocean and Antarctic ice sheet will help policymakers and communities to develop meaningful adaptation strategies for cities and coastal infrastructure exposed to the risk of rising seas.The Conversation

Dan Lowry, PhD candidate, Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Climate explained: why plants don’t simply grow faster with more carbon dioxide in air



Fast-growing plantation trees store less carbon per surface area than old, undisturbed forests that may show little growth.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Sebastian Leuzinger, Auckland University of Technology


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

Carbon dioxide is a fertiliser for plants, so if its concentration increases in the atmosphere then plants will grow better. So what is the problem? – a question from Doug in Lower Hutt

Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) is warming our climate, but it also affects plants directly.

A tree planted in the 1850s will have seen its diet (in terms of atmospheric carbon dioxide) double from its early days to the middle of our century. More CO₂ generally leads to higher rates of photosynthesis and less water consumption in plants. So, at first sight, it seems that CO₂ can only be beneficial for our plants.

But things are a lot more complex than that. Higher levels of photosynthesis don’t necessarily lead to more biomass production, let alone to more carbon dioxide sequestration. At night, plants release CO₂ just like animals or humans, and if those respiration rates increase simultaneously, the turnover of carbon increases, but the carbon stock doesn’t. You can think of this like a bank account – if you earn more but also spend more, you’re not becoming any richer.

Even if plants grow more and faster, some studies show there is a risk for them to have shorter lifespans. This again can have negative effects on the carbon locked away in biomass and soils. In fact, fast-growing trees (e.g. plantation forests) store a lot less carbon per surface area than old, undisturbed forests that show very little growth. Another example shows that plants in the deep shade may profit from higher levels of CO₂, leading to more vigorous growth of vines, faster turnover, and, again, less carbon stored per surface area.




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Water savings

The effect of CO₂ on the amount of water plants use may be more important than the primary effect on photosynthesis. Plants tend to close their leaf pores slightly under elevated levels of CO₂, leading to water savings. In certain (dry) areas, this may indeed lead to more plant growth.

But again, things are much more complex and we don’t always see positive responses. Research we published in Nature Plants this year on grasslands around the globe showed that while dry sites can profit from more CO₂, there are complex interactions with rainfall. Depending on when the rain falls, some sites show zero or even negative effects in terms of biomass production.

Currently, a net amount of three gigatons of carbon are thought to be removed from the atmosphere by plants every year. This stands against over 11 gigatons of human-induced release of CO₂. It is also unclear what fraction of the three gigatons plants are taking up due to rising levels of CO₂.

In summary, rising CO₂ is certainly not bad for plants, and if we restored forested land at a global scale, we could help capture additional atmospheric carbon dioxide. But such simulations are optimistic and rely on conversion of much needed agricultural land to forests. Reductions in our emissions are unavoidable, and we have very strong evidence that plants alone will not be able to solve our CO₂ problem.




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The Conversation


Sebastian Leuzinger, Associate Professor, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Taller, faster, better, stronger: wind towers are only getting bigger



Wind towers are getting taller.
Shutterstock

Con Doolan, UNSW

Former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown made headlines this week after he objected to a proposed wind farm on Tasmania’s Robbins Island. The development would see 200 towers built, each standing 270 metres from base to the tip of their blades.

Leaving aside the question of the Robbins Island development, these will be extraordinarily tall towers. However, they fit right in with the current trend for wind turbines.




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Wind turbines come in many designs, but the most common is the so-called “horizontal axis” kind, which look like giant fans on poles. This type of turbine is highly efficient at turning the energy in the wind into electrical energy.

Keen observers will have noticed that these turbines have been gaining in size over the years. In the 1990s, wind turbines typically had hub heights and rotor diameters of the order of 30m. Today, hub heights and rotor diameters are pushing well past 100m.



Shutterstock/The Conversation

Bigger is better

When it comes to wind turbines, bigger is definitely better. The bigger the radius of the rotor blades (or diameter of the “rotor disc”), the more wind the blades can use to turn into torque that drives the electrical generators in the hub. More torque means more power. Increasing the diameter means that not only more power can be extracted, but it can be done so more efficiently.

Larger and longer turbine blades mean greater aerodynamic efficiency. Creating more power in one turbine means less energy is lost as it is moved into the transmission system, and from there into the electrical generator. The economies of scale provide an overwhelming push for wind energy companies to develop larger rotor blades.




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Wind turbines are also growing taller because of the way wind travels around the world. Because air is viscous (like very thin honey) and “sticks” to the ground, the wind velocity at higher altitudes can be many times higher than at ground level.

Hence it is advantageous to put the turbine high in the sky where there is more energy to extract. Hilly terrain (like a mountain ridge) may also distort the wind, requiring engineers to design the wind turbines to be even taller to catch the wind. Wind turbines used offshore are generally larger and taller because of the higher levels of wind energy available at sea.

Typically, onshore turbines (most common in Australia) have blades between 40m and 90m long. Tower heights are usually in the range of 150m. Offshore turbines (those situated at sea and common in Europe) are much larger.

Offshore turbines are typically much larger than onshore towers.
Shutterstock

One of the largest wind turbine designs in the world, General Electric’s offshore 12-megawatt Haliade-X, has 107m blades and a total height of 260m. As a comparison, Sydney’s Centrepoint tower is 309m tall.

If the Robbins Island turbines are indeed built to 270m, as reported in the media, they would eclipse General Electric’s behemoths. I cannot speak to the likelihood of this, but I would assume engineers will have to select the best turbine for the prevailing wind conditions and existing infrastructure.

Challenging heights

The quest for bigger and taller turbines comes with its fair share of engineering challenges.

Longer blades are more flexible than shorter ones, which can create vibration. If not controlled, this vibration affects performance and reduces the life of the blades and anything they are attached to, such as the gearbox or generator.

Materials and manufacturing techniques are constantly being refined to create longer, and longer-lasting, turbine blades.

The longer the turbine’s blades, the more pressure is put on internal mechanisms.
Shutterstock

Taller turbines generate more power, which puts greater loads on the gearbox and transmission system, requiring mechanical engineers to develop new ways of converting the ever-increasing torque into electrical power. Taller wind turbines also need stronger support towers and foundations. The list of challenges is long.

As turbines grow, so too does the noise they make. The dominant source of noise occurs at the outer edge of the blades. Here, turbulence caused by the blade itself creates a “hissing” sound as it passes over the trailing edge. More noise is created when the blade chops through atmospheric turbulence in the wind as it blows into the tower.

Noise isn’t just a matter of size. If one turbine is placed in the wake of another, the sound of its blades passing through the highly turbulent air created by the upstream turbine will be very loud.

Keeping noise under control requires inventive solutions, such as borrowing ideas from nature: the silent-flying owl uses serrated feathers to control noise and these are now being used to make noisy turbines quieter.




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Of course, engineering challenges are not the only considerations for creating wind farms. Environmental effects, noise, visual impacts and other community concerns all need to be considered, as with any large infrastructure project. But wind turbines are one of the most cost-effective and technologically sophisticated forms of renewable energy, and as the developed world comes to grips with climate change we will only see more of them.The Conversation

Con Doolan, Professor, School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wetlands are disappearing faster, just when we need them the most


Grist

Wetlands are going the way of the glaciers.

A new federal study has cataloged the alarming demise of the nation’s coastal ecosystems. Mangroves, marshes, and other wetlands help protect homes and communities from sea surges and storms. But more than 360,000 acres disappeared between 2004 and 2009, much of it cleared to make way for coastal developmentThe Washington Post reports:

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