From: Kansas City InfoZine
A rugged and steady-going glacier is helping University of Kansas researchers more accurately predict future sea levels, which directly affect millions of people living near coasts worldwide.
Lawrence, KS - infoZine - “Sea level rise, even though we’re far from the ocean here in Kansas, is a global problem,” said Leigh Stearns, assistant professor of geology and co-principal investigator of the project. “Though the water will not be lapping at our doorsteps, climate change will affect storm tracks and precipitation amounts and patterns that we see.”
Studying glaciers is a good way to see how the climate is changing, Stearns added, because they often respond so sensitively to changes in temperature and precipitation. Stearns, along with a team of mountaineers and other scientists, traveled in November to East Antarctica to begin a three-year study of the large Byrd Glacier — a river of ice that slowly flows toward the Ross Sea. The team will use field observations, GPS units and satellites to track how evenly and quickly the ice moves, and to better predict how it may act in the future.
Much research has been done on the lively glaciers of Greenland and West Antarctica. Many of these have sped up substantially in the past decade and are now flowing at nearly six miles a year. For clues on why glaciers suddenly change their pace in this way, geologists must study more stable specimens like Byrd Glacier, Stearns said. This ice mass usually takes a year to crawl a half-mile but at times exhibits bursts of higher speed. Information on why and how the glacier accelerates will help scientists refine sea level rise predictions, which currently harbor large uncertainties with respect to changes in ice sheets. The work is funded by a $412,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
“We don’t think that Byrd Glacier is responding to any large-scale climate changes right now, but it’s important for us to understand its dynamics in very good detail in case something does happen,” Stearns said. “A lot of the glaciers that we study, they change, and a bunch of scientists scurry over and try to understand what’s happening. But by that point, we’ve missed the baseline from what it used to be doing.”
Stearns, along with KU geography professor Cornelis van der Veen and others, placed 30 GPS units on the Byrd Glacier’s jagged surface. Each unit broadcasts its position, down to a fraction of an inch, every 15 seconds.
“Every 15 seconds we know the exact position of these 30 units attached to poles on the surface of the glacier,” Stearns said. “We can see how they’re moving throughout the season, whether the glacier flows at the same rate or moves in spurts.”
The fieldwork was not simple. No one else in recent memory has attempted to land on Byrd Glacier. Its surface is carved up by two-story-deep crevasses that appear in the ice as it moves. The team hopped from point to point in a helicopter, braving the chasms, the -22 degree cold and the biting winds of the Antarctic summer. The two experienced mountaineers came to ensure everyone’s safety.
“I always bring to the polar regions at least one explorer’s book from the 1900s — [Ernest] Shackleton or [Douglas] Mawson or [Robert Falcon] Scott,” Stearns said. “These guys did science when they didn’t know that they would make it home and survive. It’s fun to get a little lost in the adventure of what they went through versus how easy we have it.”
Stearns is a member of the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, a multi-institutional effort established by the NSF in 2000. CReSIS, which is headquartered at KU, develops new technologies and computer models to predict how changing ice sheets relate to global sea levels.