How Antarctic ice melt can be a tipping point for the whole planet’s climate


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Melting Antarctic ice can trigger effects on the other side of the globe.
NASA/Jane Peterson

Chris Turney, UNSW; Jonathan Palmer, UNSW; Peter Kershaw, Monash University; Steven Phipps, University of Tasmania, and Zoë Thomas, UNSW

Melting of Antarctica’s ice can trigger rapid warming on the other side of the planet, according to our new research which details how just such an abrupt climate event happened 30,000 years ago, in which the North Atlantic region warmed dramatically.

This idea of “tipping points” in Earth’s system has had something of a bad rap ever since the 2004 blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow purportedly showed how melting polar ice can trigger all manner of global changes.

But while the movie certainly exaggerated the speed and severity of abrupt climate change, we do know that many natural systems are vulnerable to being pushed into different modes of operation. The melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, the retreat of Arctic summer sea ice, and the collapse of the global ocean circulation are all examples of potential vulnerability in a future, warmer world.


Read more: Chasing ice: how ice cores shape our understanding of ancient climate.


Of course it is notoriously hard to predict when and where elements of Earth’s system will abruptly tip into a different state. A key limitation is that historical climate records are often too short to test the skill of our computer models used to predict future environmental change, hampering our ability to plan for potential abrupt changes.

Fortunately, however, nature preserves a wealth of evidence in the landscape that allows us to understand how longer time-scale shifts can happen.

Core values

One of the most important sources of information on past climate tipping points are the kilometre-long cores of ice drilled from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which preserve exquisitely detailed information stretching back up to 800,000 years.

The Greenland ice cores record massive, millennial-scale swings in temperature that have occurred across the North Atlantic region over the past 90,000 years. The scale of these swings is staggering: in some cases temperatures rose by 16℃ in just a few decades or even years.

Twenty-five of these major so-called Dansgaard–Oeschger (D-O) warming events have been identified. These abrupt swings in temperature happened too quickly to have been caused by Earth’s slowly changing orbit around the Sun. Fascinatingly, when ice cores from Antarctica are compared with those from Greenland, we see a “seesaw” relationship: when it warms in the north, the south cools, and vice versa.

Attempts to explain the cause of this bipolar seesaw have traditionally focused on the North Atlantic region, and include melting ice sheets, changes in ocean circulation or wind patterns.

But as our new research shows, these might not be the only cause of D-O events.

Our new paper, published today in Nature Communications, suggests that another mechanism, with its origins in Antarctica, has also contributed to these rapid seesaws in global temperature.

Tree of knowledge

The 30,000-year-old key to climate secrets.
Chris Turney, Author provided

We know that there have been major collapses of the Antarctic ice sheet in the past, raising the possibility that these may have tipped one or more parts of the Earth system into a different state. To investigate this idea, we analysed an ancient New Zealand kauri tree that was extracted from a peat swamp near Dargaville, Northland, and which lived between 29,000 and 31,000 years ago.

Through accurate dating, we know that this tree lived through a short D-O event, during which (as explained above) temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere would have risen. Importantly, the unique pattern of atmospheric radioactive carbon (or carbon-14) found in the tree rings allowed us to identify similar changes preserved in climate records from ocean and ice cores (the latter using beryllium-10, an isotope formed by similar processes to carbon-14). This tree thus allows us to compare directly what the climate was doing during a D-O event beyond the polar regions, providing a global picture.

The extraordinary thing we discovered is that the warm D-O event coincided with a 400-year period of surface cooling in the south and a major retreat of Antarctic ice.

When we searched through other climate records for more information about what was happening at the time, we found no evidence of a change in ocean circulation. Instead we found a collapse in the rain-bearing Pacific trade winds over tropical northeast Australia that was coincident with the 400-year southern cooling.


Read more: Two centuries of continuous volcanic eruption may have triggered the end of the ice age.


To explore how melting Antarctic ice might cause such dramatic change in the global climate, we used a climate model to simulate the release of large volumes of freshwater into the Southern Ocean. The model simulations all showed the same response, in agreement with our climate reconstructions: regardless of the amount of freshwater released into the Southern Ocean, the surface waters of the tropical Pacific nevertheless warmed, causing changes to wind patterns that in turn triggered the North Atlantic to warm too.

The ConversationFuture work is now focusing on what caused the Antarctic ice sheets to retreat so dramatically. Regardless of how it happened, it looks like melting ice in the south can drive abrupt global change, something of which we should be aware in a future warmer world.

Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Sciences and Climate Change, UNSW; Jonathan Palmer, Research Fellow, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences., UNSW; Peter Kershaw, Emeritus Professor, Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University; Steven Phipps, Palaeo Ice Sheet Modeller, University of Tasmania, and Zoë Thomas, Research Associate, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Antarctic ice reveals that fossil fuel extraction leaks more methane than thought



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The analysis of large amounts of ice from Antarctica’s Taylor Valley has helped scientists to tease apart the natural and human-made sources of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

Hinrich Schaefer, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric

The fossil fuel industry is a larger contributor to atmospheric methane levels than previously thought, according to our research which shows that natural seepage of this potent greenhouse gas from oil and gas reservoirs is more modest than had been assumed.

In our research, published in Nature today, our international team studied Antarctic ice dating back to the last time the planet warmed rapidly, roughly 11,000 years ago.

Katja Riedel and Hinrich Schaefer discuss NIWA’s ice coring work at Taylor Glacier in Antarctica.

We found that natural seepage of methane from oil and gas fields is much lower than anticipated, implying that leakage caused by fossil fuel extraction has a larger role in today’s emissions of this greenhouse gas.

However, we also found that vast stores of methane in permafrost and undersea gas hydrates did not release large amounts of their contents during the rapid warming at the end of the most recent ice age, relieving fears of a catastrophic methane release in response to the current warming.

The ice is processed in a large melter before samples are shipped back to New Zealand.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

A greenhouse gas history

Methane levels started to increase with the industrial revolution and are now 2.5 times higher than they ever were naturally. They have caused one-third of the observed increase in global average temperatures relative to pre-industrial times.

If we are to reduce methane emissions, we need to understand where it comes from. Quantifying different sources is notoriously tricky, but it is especially hard when natural and human-driven emissions happen at the same time, through similar processes.


Read more: Detecting methane leaks with infrared cameras: they’re fast, but are they effective


The most important of these cases is natural methane seepage from oil and gas fields, also known as geologic emissions, which often occurs alongside leakage from production wells and pipelines.

The total is reasonably well known, but where is the split between natural and industrial?

To make matters worse, human-caused climate change could destabilise permafrost or ice-like sediments called gas hydrates (or clathrates), both of which have the potential to release more methane than any human activity and reinforce climate change. This scenario has been hypothesised for past warming events (the “clathrate gun”) and for future runaway climate change (the so-called “Arctic methane bomb”). But how likely are these events?

Antarctic ice traps tiny bubbles of air, which represents a sample of ancient atmospheres.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

The time capsule

To find answers, we needed a time capsule. This is provided by tiny air bubbles enclosed in polar ice, which preserve ancient atmospheres. By using radiocarbon (14C) dating to determine the age of methane from the end of the last ice age, we can work out how much methane comes from contemporary processes, like wetland production, and how much is from previously stored methane. During the time the methane is stored in permafrost, sediments or gas fields, the 14C decays away so that these sources emit methane that is radiocarbon-free.

In the absence of strong environmental change and industrial fossil fuel production, all radiocarbon-free methane in samples from, say, 12,000 years ago will be from geologic emissions. From that baseline, we can then see if additional radiocarbon-free methane is released from permafrost or hydrates during rapid warming, which occurred around 11,500 years ago while methane levels shot up.

Tracking methane in ice

The problem is that there is not much air in an ice sample, very little methane in that air, and a tiny fraction of that methane contains a radiocarbon (14C) atom. There is no hope of doing the measurements on traditional ice cores.

Our team therefore went to Taylor Glacier, in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Here, topography, glacier flow and wind force ancient ice layers to the surface. This provides virtually unlimited sample material that spans the end of the last ice age.

A tonne of ice yielded only a drop of methane.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

For a single measurement, we drilled a tonne of ice (equivalent to a cube with one-metre sides) and melted it in the field to liberate the enclosed air. From the gas-tight melter, the air was transferred to vacuum flasks and shipped to New Zealand. In the laboratory, we extracted the pure methane out of these 100-litre air samples, to obtain a volume the size of a water drop.

Only every trillionth of the methane molecules contains a 14C atom. Our collaborators in Australia were able to measure exactly how big that minute fraction is in each sample and if it changed during the studied period.

Low seepage, no gun, no bomb

Because radiocarbon decays at a known rate, the amount of 14C gives a radiocarbon age. In all our samples the radiocarbon date was consistent with the sample age.

Radiocarbon-free methane emissions did not increase the radiocarbon age. They must have been very low in pre-industrial times, even during a rapid warming event. The latter indicates that there was no clathrate gun or Arctic methane bomb going off.

So, while today’s conditions differ from the ice-covered world 12,000 years ago, our findings implicate that permafrost and gas hydrates are not too likely to release large amounts of methane in future warming. That is good news.

Wetlands must have been responsible for the increase in methane at the end of the ice age. They have a lesser capacity for emissions than the immense permafrost and clathrate stores.

Geologic emissions are likely to be lower today than in the ice age, partly because we have since drained shallow gas fields that are most prone to natural seepage. Yet, our highest estimates are only about half of the lower margin estimated for today. The total assessment (natural plus industrial) for fossil-fuel methane emissions has recently been increased.

In addition, we now find that a larger part of that must come from industrial activities, raising the latter to one third of all methane sources globally. For comparison, the last IPCC report put them at 17%.

The ConversationMeasurements in modern air suggest that the rise in methane levels over the last years is dominated by agricultural emissions, which must therefore be mitigated. Our new research shows that the impact of fossil fuel use on the historic methane rise is larger than assumed. In order to mitigate climate change, methane emissions from oil, gas and coal production must be cut sharply.

Hinrich Schaefer, Research Scientist Trace Gases, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Contributions to sea-level rise have increased by half since 1993, largely because of Greenland’s ice



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Water mass enters the ocean from glaciers such as this along the Greenland coast.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

John Church, UNSW; Christopher Watson, University of Tasmania; Matt King, University of Tasmania; Xianyao Chen, and Xuebin Zhang, CSIRO

Contributions to the rate of global sea-level rise increased by about half between 1993 and 2014, with much of the increase due to an increased contribution from Greenland’s ice, according to our new research.

Our study, published in Nature Climate Change, shows that the sum of contributions increased from 2.2mm per year to 3.3mm per year. This is consistent with, although a little larger than, the observed increase in the rate of rise estimated from satellite observations.

Globally, the rate of sea-level rise has been increasing since the 19th century. As a result, the rate during the 20th century was significantly greater than during previous millennia. The rate of rise over the past two decades has been larger still.

The rate is projected to increase still further during the 21st century unless human greenhouse emissions can be significantly curbed.

However, since 1993, when high-quality satellite data collection started, most previous studies have not reported an increase in the rate of rise, despite many results pointing towards growing contributions to sea level from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. Our research was partly aimed at explaining how these apparently contradictory results fit together.

Changes in the rate of rise

In 2015, we completed a careful comparison of satellite and coastal measurements of sea level. This revealed a small but significant bias in the first decade of the satellite record which, after its removal, resulted in a slightly lower estimate of sea-level rise at the start of the satellite record. Correcting for this bias partially resolved the apparent contradiction.

In our new research, we compared the satellite data from 1993 to 2014 with what we know has been contributing to sea level over the same period. These contributions come from ocean expansion due to ocean warming, the net loss of land-based ice from glaciers and ice sheets, and changes in the amount of water stored on land.

Previously, after around 2003, the agreement between the sum of the observed contributions and measured sea level was very good. Before that, however, the budget didn’t quite balance.

Using the satellite data corrected for the small biases identified in our earlier study, we found agreement with the sum of contributions over the entire time from 1993 to 2014. Both show an increase in the rate of sea-level rise over this period.

The total observed sea-level rise is the sum of contributions from thermal expansion of the oceans, fresh water input from glaciers and ice sheets, and changes in water storage on land.
IPCC

After accounting for year-to-year fluctuations caused by phenomena such as El Niño, our corrected satellite record indicates an increase in the rate of rise, from 2.4mm per year in 1993 to 2.9mm per year in 2014. If we used different estimates for vertical land motion to estimate the biases in the satellite record, the rates were about 0.4mm per year larger, changing from 2.8mm per year to 3.2mm per year over the same period.

Is the whole the same as the sum of the parts?

Our results show that the largest contribution to sea-level rise – about 1mm per year – comes from the ocean expanding as it warms. This rate of increase stayed fairly constant over the time period.

The second-largest contribution was from mountain glaciers, and increased slightly from 0.6mm per year to 0.9mm per year from 1993 to 2014. Similarly, the contribution from the Antarctic ice sheet increased slightly, from 0.2mm per year to 0.3mm per year.

Strikingly, the largest increase came from the Greenland ice sheet, as a result of both increased surface melting and increased flow of ice into the ocean. Greenland’s contribution increased from about 0.1mm per year (about 5% of the total rise in 1993) to 0.85mm per year (about 25% in 2014).

Greenland’s contribution to sea-level rise is increasing due to both increased surface melting and flow of ice into the ocean.
NASA/John Sonntag, CC BY

The contribution from land water also increased, from 0.1mm per year to 0.25mm per year. The amount of water stored on land varies a lot from year to year, because of changes in rainfall and drought patterns, for instance. Despite this, rates of groundwater depletion grew whereas storage of water in reservoirs was relatively steady, with the net effect being an increase between 1993 and 2014.

So in terms of the overall picture, while the rate of ocean thermal expansion has remained steady since 1993, the contributions from glaciers and ice sheets have increased markedly, from about half of the total rise in 1993 to about 70% of the rise in 2014. This is primarily due to Greenland’s increasing contribution.

What is the future of sea level?

The satellite record of sea level still spans only a few decades, and ongoing observations will be needed to understand the longer-term significance of our results. Our results also highlight the importance of the continued international effort to better understand and correct for the small biases we identified in the satellite data in our earlier study.

Nevertheless, the satellite data are now consistent with the historical observations and also with projected increases in the rate of sea-level rise.

Ocean heat content fell following the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo. The subsequent recovery (over about two decades) probably resulted in a rate of ocean thermal expansion larger than from greenhouse gases alone. Thus the underlying acceleration of thermal expansion from human-induced warming may emerge over the next decade or so. And there are potentially even larger future contributions from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.

The ConversationThe acceleration of sea level, now measured with greater accuracy, highlights the importance and urgency of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and formulating coastal adaptation plans. Given the increased contributions from ice sheets, and the implications for future sea-level rise, our coastal cities need to prepare for rising sea levels.

Sea-level rise will have significant impacts on coastal communities and environments.
Bruce Miller/CSIRO, CC BY

John Church, Chair professor, UNSW; Christopher Watson, Senior Lecturer, Surveying and Spatial Sciences, School of Land and Food, University of Tasmania; Matt King, Professor, Surveying & Spatial Sciences, School of Land and Food, University of Tasmania; Xianyao Chen, Professor, and Xuebin Zhang, Senior research scientist, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Volcanoes under the ice: melting Antarctic ice could fight climate change



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Furious winds keep the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Anarctica free of snow and ice. Calcites found in the valleys have revealed the secrets of ancient subglacial volcanoes.
Stuart Rankin/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Silvia Frisia, University of Newcastle

Iron is not commonly famous for its role as a micronutrient for tiny organisms dwelling in the cold waters of polar oceans. But iron feeds plankton, which in turn hold carbon dioxide in their bodies. When they die, the creatures sink to the bottom of the sea, safely storing that carbon.

How exactly the iron gets to the Southern Ocean is hotly debated, but we do know that during the last ice age huge amounts of carbon were stored at the bottom of the Southern Ocean. Understanding how carbon comes to be stored in the depth of the oceans could help abate CO2 in the atmosphere, and Antarctica has a powerful role.

Icebergs and atmospheric dust are believed to have been the major sources of this micronutrient in the past. However, in research published in Nature Communications, my colleagues and I examined calcite crusts from Antarctica, and found that volcanoes under its glaciers were vital in delivering iron to the ocean during the last ice age.

Today, glacial meltwaters from Greenland and the Antarctic peninsula supply iron both in solution and as tiny particles (less than 0.0001mm in diameter), which are readily consumed by plankton. Where glaciers meet bedrock, minute organisms can live in pockets of relatively warm water. They are able to extract “food” from the rock, and in doing so release iron, which then can be carried by underwater rivers to the sea.

Volcanic eruptions under the ice can create underwater subglacial lakes, which, at times, discharge downstream large masses of water that travel to the ice margin and beyond, carrying with them iron in particle and in solution.

The role of melting ice in climate change is as yet poorly understood. It’s particularly pertinent as scientists predict the imminent collapse of part of the Larsen C ice shelf.

Researchers are also investigating how to reproduce natural iron fertilisation in the Southern Ocean and induce algal blooms. By interrogating the volcanic archive, we learn more about the effect that iron fertilisation from meltwater has on global temperatures.

A polished wafer of the subglacial calcites. The translucent, crystalline layers formed while in pockets of water, providing nourishment to microbes. The opaque calcite with rock fragments documents a period when waters discharged from a subglacial lake formed by a volcanic eruption, carrying away both iron in solution and particles of iron.
Supplied

The Last Glacial Maximum

During the Last Glacial Maximum, a period 27,000 to 17,000 years ago when glaciers were at their greatest extent worldwide, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was lowered to 180 parts per million (ppm) relative to pre-industrial levels (280 ppm).

Today we are at 400 ppm and, if current warming trends continue, a point of no return will be reached. The global temperature system will return to the age of the dinosaurs, when there was little difference in temperature from the equator to the poles.

If we are interested in providing a habitable planet for our descendants, we need to mitigate the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere. Blooms of plankton in the Southern Ocean boosted by iron fertilisation were one important ingredient in lowering CO2 in the Last Glacial Maximum, and they could help us today.

The Last Glacial Maximum had winds that spread dust from deserts and icebergs carrying small particles into the Southern Ocean, providing the necessary iron for algal blooms. These extreme conditions don’t exist today.

Hidden volcanoes

Neither dust nor icebergs alone, however, explain bursts of productivity recorded in ocean sediments in the Last Glacial Maximum. There was another ingredient, only discovered in rare archives of subglacial processes that could be precisely dated to the Last Glacial Maximum.

Loss of ice in Antartica’s Dry Valleys uncovered rusty-red crusts of calcite plastered on glacially polished rocks. The calcites have tiny layers that can be precisely dated by radiometric techniques.

A piece of subglacial calcite coating pebbles. This suggests that the current transporting the pebbles was quite fast, like a mountain stream. The pebbles were deposited at the same time as the opaque layer in the calcite formed.
Supplied

Each layer preserves in its chemistry and DNA a record of processes that contributed to delivering iron to the Southern Ocean. For example, fluorine-rich spherules indicate that underwater vents created by volcanic activity injected a rich mixture of minerals into the subglacial environment. This was confirmed by DNA data, revealing a thriving community of thermophiles – microorganisms that live in very hot water only.

Then, it became plausible to hypothesise that volcanic eruptions occurred subglacially and formed a subglacial lake, whose waters ran into an interconnected system of channels, ultimately reaching the ice margin. Meltwater drained iron from pockets created where ice met bedrock, which then reached the ocean – thus inducing algal blooms.

We dated this drainage activity to a period when dust flux does not match ocean productivity. Thus, our study indicates that volcanoes in Antarctica had a role in delivering iron to the Southern Ocean, and potentially contributed to lowering CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

The ConversationOur research helps explain how volcanoes act on climate change. But it also uncovers more about iron fertilisation as a possible way to mitigate global warming.

Silvia Frisia, Associate Professor, School of Environmental and Life Sciences , University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Record high to record low: what on earth is happening to Antarctica’s sea ice?


Nerilie Abram, Australian National University; Matthew England, UNSW Australia, and Tessa Vance, University of Tasmania

2016 continues to be a momentous year for Australia’s climate, on track to be the new hottest year on record.

To our south, Antarctica has also just broken a new climate record, with record low winter sea ice. After a peak of 18.5 million square kilometres in late August, sea ice began retreating about a month ahead of schedule and has been setting daily low records through most of September.

It may not seem unusual in a warming world to hear that Antarctica’s sea ice – the ice that forms each winter as the surface layer of the ocean freezes – is reducing. But this year’s record low comes hot on the heels of record high sea ice just two years ago. Overall, Antarctica’s sea ice has been growing, not shrinking.

So how should we interpret this apparent backflip? In our paper published today in Nature Climate Change we review the latest science on Antarctica’s climate, and why it seems so confusing.

Antarctica’s sea ice has reached a record low this year.
NASA, Author provided

Antarctic surprises

First up, Antarctic climate records are seriously short.

The International Geophysical Year in 1957/58 marked the start of many sustained scientific efforts in Antarctica, including regular weather readings at research bases. These bases are mostly found on the more accessible parts of Antarctica’s coast, and so the network – while incredibly valuable – leaves vast areas of the continent and surrounding oceans without any data.

In the end, it took the arrival of satellite monitoring in the 1979 to deliver surface climate information covering all of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. What scientists have observed since has been surprising.

Overall, Antarctica’s sea ice zone has expanded. This is most notable in the Ross Sea, and has brought increasing challenges for ship-based access to Antarctica’s coastal research stations. Even with the record low in Antarctic sea ice this year, the overall trend since 1979 is still towards sea ice expansion.

The surface ocean around Antarctica has also mostly been cooling. This cooling masks a much more ominous change deeper down in the ocean, particularly near the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Totten glacier in East Antarctica. In these regions, worrying rates of subsurface ocean warming have been detected up against the base of ice sheets. There are real fears that subsurface melting could destabilise ice sheets, accelerating future global sea level rise.

In the atmosphere we see that some parts of the Antarctic Peninsula and West Antarctica are experiencing rapid warming, despite average Antarctic temperatures not changing that much yet.

In a rapidly warming world these Antarctic climate trends are – at face value – counterintuitive. They also go against many of our climate model simulations, which, for example, predict that Antarctica’s sea ice should be in decline.


Jan Lieser, Author provided

Winds of change

The problem we face in Antarctica is that the climate varies hugely from year to year, as typified by the enormous swing in Antarctica sea ice over the past two years.

This means 37 years of Antarctic surface measurements are simply not enough to detect the signal of human-caused climate change. Climate models tell us we may need to monitor Antarctica closely until 2100 before we can confidently identify the expected long-term decline of Antarctica’s sea ice.

In short, Antarctica’s climate remains a puzzle, and we are currently trying to see the picture with most of the pieces still missing.

But one piece of the puzzle is clear. Across all lines of evidence a picture of dramatically changing Southern Ocean westerly winds has emerged. Rising greenhouse gases and ozone depletion are forcing the westerlies closer to Antarctica, and robbing southern parts of Australia of vital winter rain.

The changing westerlies may also help explain the seemingly unusual changes happening elsewhere in Antarctica.

The expansion of sea ice, particularly in the Ross Sea, may be due to the strengthened westerlies pushing colder Antarctic surface water northwards. And stronger westerlies may isolate Antarctica from the warmer subtropics, inhibiting continent-scale warming. These plausible explanations remain difficult to prove with the records currently available to scientists.

Australia’s unique climate position

The combination of Antarctica’s dynamic climate system, its short observational records, and its potential to cause costly heatwaves, drought and sea-level rise in Australia, mean that we can’t afford to stifle fundamental research in our own backyard.

Our efforts to better understand, measure and predict Antarctic climate were threatened this year by funding cuts to Australia’s iconic climate research facilities at the CSIRO. CSIRO has provided the backbone of Australia’s Southern Ocean measurements. As our new paper shows, the job is far from done.

A recent move to close Macquarie Island research station to year-round personnel would also have seriously impacted the continuity of weather observations in a region where our records are still far too short. Thankfully, this decision has since been reversed.

But it isn’t all bad news. In 2016, the federal government announced new long-term funding in Antarctic logistics, arresting the persistent decline in funding of Antarctic and Southern Ocean research.

The nearly A$2 billion in new investment includes a new Australian icebreaking ship to replace the ageing Aurora Australis. This will bring a greater capacity for Southern Ocean research and the capability to push further into Antarctica’s sea ice zone.

Whatever the long-term trends in sea ice hold it is certain that the large year-to-year swings of Antarctica’s climate will continue to make this a challenging but critical environment for research.

The Conversation

Nerilie Abram, Senior Research Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Associate Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Australian National University; Matthew England, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; Deputy Director of the Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC); Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Climate System Science, UNSW Australia, and Tessa Vance, Palaeoclimatologist, Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Antarctic ice shows Australia’s drought and flood risk is worse than thought


Anthony Kiem, University of Newcastle; Carly Tozer, University of Newcastle, and Tessa Vance, University of Tasmania

Australia is systematically underestimating its drought and flood risk because weather records do not capture the full extent of rainfall variability, according to our new research.

Our study, published today in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, uses Antarctic ice core data to reconstruct rainfall for the past 1,000 years for catchments in eastern Australia.

The results show that instrumental rainfall records – available for the past 100 years at best, depending on location – do not represent the full range of abnormally wet and dry periods that have occurred over the centuries.

In other words, significantly longer and more frequent wet and dry periods were experienced in the pre-instrumental period (that is, before the 20th century) compared with the period over which records have been kept.

Reconstructing prehistoric rainfall

There is no direct indicator of rainfall patterns for Australia before weather observations began. But, strange as it may sound, there is a link between eastern Australian rainfall and the summer deposition of sea salt in Antarctic ice. This allowed us to deduce rainfall levels by studying ice cores drilled from Law Dome, a small coastal ice cap in East Antarctica.

It might sound strange, but there’s a direct link between Antarctic ice and Australia’s rainfall patterns.
Tas van Ommen, Author provided

How can sea salt deposits in an Antarctic ice core possibly be related to rainfall thousands of kilometres away in Australia? It is because the processes associated with rainfall variability in eastern Australia – such as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), as well as other ocean cycles like the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) and the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) – are also responsible for variations in the wind and circulation patterns that cause sea salt to be deposited in East Antarctica (as outlined in our previous research).

By studying an ice record spanning 1,013 years, our results reveal a clear story of wetter wet periods and drier dry periods than is evident in Australia’s much shorter instrumental weather record.

For example, in the Williams River catchment, which provides water for the Newcastle region of New South Wales, our results showed that the longest dry periods lasted up to 12 years. In contrast, the longest dry spell since 1900 lasted just eight years.

Among wet periods, the difference was even more pronounced. The longest unusually wet spell in our ice record lasted 39 years – almost five times longer than the post-1900 maximum of eight years.

Busting myths about drought and flood risk

Although this does not tell us when the next major wet or dry period will happen, it does help us predict how often we can expect such events to occur, and how long they might last. This is critical information for water resource managers and planners, especially when our millennium-long record tells a very different story to the post-1900 instrumental record on which all water infrastructure, planning and policy is based.

Our results challenge the underlying assumptions that govern water resource management and infrastructure planning. These assumptions include:

  • that droughts longer than five years are rare;

  • that droughts or flood-dominated periods cannot last longer than about 15 years;

  • that drought and flood risk does not change over time, so a century of instrumental records is enough to gain a full understanding of the situation.

The fact that these assumptions are probably wrong is a concern. These principles are used to make crucial decisions, not just about predicting the likelihood and severity of droughts and floods themselves, but also about the design of infrastructure such as roads, reservoirs and buildings. Our study suggests that these decisions are being taken on the basis of incomplete information.

Cold case: drilling for ice to reveal long-term weather patterns.
Tessa Vance, Author provided

What’s more, Australia’s increasing population and development will mean that water demands and exposure to droughts and floods are likely to have been different in the past to what they are now (and will be in the future).

Therefore, given that the factors used to quantify risk are most likely wrong, it implies that current hydroclimatic risk assessments are not representative of the true level of risk.

This raises serious questions about water security and the robustness of existing water resource management, infrastructure design and catchment planning across eastern Australia and in other places where hydroclimatic risk is assessed on records that do not capture the full range of possible variation.

Water is a precious resource, meaning that we need the best knowledge about what our rainfall patterns are capable of delivering. Our findings can be used to better characterise and manage existing and future flood and drought risk. Forewarned is forearmed.

The Conversation

Anthony Kiem, Senior Lecturer – Hydroclimatology, University of Newcastle; Carly Tozer, Hydrologist, Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, University of Tasmania, University of Newcastle, and Tessa Vance, Palaeoclimatologist, Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tipping point: how we predict when Antarctica’s melting ice sheets will flood the seas


Felicity Graham, University of Tasmania; David Gwyther, University of Tasmania; Lenneke Jong, University of Tasmania, and Sue Cook, University of Tasmania

Antarctica is already feeling the heat of climate change, with rapid melting and retreat of glaciers over recent decades.

Ice mass loss from Antarctica and Greenland contributes about 20% to the current rate of global sea level rise. This ice loss is projected to increase over the coming century.

A recent article on The Conversation raised the concept of “climate tipping points”: thresholds in the climate system that, once breached, lead to substantial and irreversible change.

Such a climate tipping point may occur as a result of the increasingly rapid decline of the Antarctic ice sheets, leading to a rapid rise in sea levels. But what is this threshold? And when will we reach it?

What does the tipping point look like?

The Antarctic ice sheet is a large mass of ice, up to 4 km thick in some places, and is grounded on bedrock. Ice generally flows from the interior of the continent towards the margins, speeding up as it goes.

Where the ice sheet meets the ocean, large sections of connected ice – ice shelves – begin to float. These eventually melt from the base or calve off as icebergs. The whole sheet is replenished by accumulating snowfall.

Emperor penguins at sunrise.
David Gwyther

Floating ice shelves act like a cork in a wine bottle, slowing down the ice sheet as it flows towards the oceans. If ice shelves are removed from the system, the ice sheet will rapidly accelerate towards the ocean, bringing about further ice mass loss.

A tipping point occurs if too much of the ice shelf is lost. In some glaciers, this may spark irreversible retreat.

Where is the tipping point?

One way to identify a tipping point involves figuring out how much shelf ice Antarctica can lose, and from where, without changing the overall ice flow substantially.

A recent study found that 13.4% of Antarctic shelf ice – distributed regionally across the continent – does not play an active role in ice flow. But if this “safety band” were removed, it would result in significant acceleration of the ice sheet.

The Totten Glacier calving front.
Esmee van Wijk/CSIRO

Antarctic ice shelves have been thinning at an overall rate of about 300 cubic km per year between 2003 and 2012 and are projected to thin even further over the 21st century. This thinning will move Antarctic ice shelves towards a tipping point, where irreversible collapse of the ice shelf and increase in sea levels may follow.

How do we predict when will it happen?

Some areas of West Antarctica may be already close to the tipping point. For example, ice shelves along the coast of the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas are the most rapidly thinning and have the smallest “safety bands” of all Antarctic ice shelves.

To predict when the “safety band” of ice might be lost, we need to project changes into the future. This requires better understanding of processes that remove ice from the ice sheet, such as melting at the base of ice shelves and iceberg calving.

Melting beneath ice shelves is the main source of Antarctic ice loss. It is driven by contact between warmer sea waters and the underside of ice shelves.

To figure out how much ice will be lost in the future requires knowledge of how quickly the oceans are warming, where these warmer waters will flow, and the role of the atmosphere in modulating these interactions. That’s a complex task that requires computer modelling.

Predicting how quickly ice shelves break up and form icebergs is less well understood and is currently one of the biggest uncertainties in future Antarctic mass loss. Much of the ice lost when icebergs calve occurs in the sporadic release of extremely large icebergs, which can be tens or even hundreds of kilometres across.

It is difficult to predict precisely when and how often large icebergs will break off. Models that can reproduce this behaviour are still being developed.

Scientists are actively researching these areas by developing models of ice sheets and oceans, as well as studying the processes that drive mass loss from Antarctica. These investigations need to combine long-term observations with models: model simulations can then be evaluated and improved, making the science stronger.

The link between ice sheets, oceans, sea ice and atmosphere is one of the least understood, but most important factors in Antarctica’s tipping point. Understanding it better will help us project how much sea levels will rise, and ultimately how we can adapt.

The Conversation

Felicity Graham, Ice Sheet Modeller, Antarctic Gateway Partnership, University of Tasmania; David Gwyther, Antarctic Coastal Ocean Modeller, University of Tasmania; Lenneke Jong, Cryosphere System Modeller, Antarctic Gateway Partnership & Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, University of Tasmania, and Sue Cook, Ice Shelf Glaciologist, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.