On every continent and ocean, Earth Institute field researchers are studying the dynamics of climate, geology, natural hazards, ecology and other subjects with direct applications to the challenges facing humanity.
Twenty-three million years ago, the Antarctic Ice Sheet began to shrink, going from an expanse larger than today’s to one about half its modern size. Ancient fossilized leaves retrieved from a lake bed in New Zealand now show for the first time that carbon dioxide levels increased dramatically over a relatively short period of time as the ice sheet began to deteriorate.
Nicolás Young studies glaciers and ice sheets, and how they’ve changed in the past. His work earned him the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists last fall, which came with a $30,000 prize. You can hear him talk about his research in this new video, produced by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.
If just the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt, it would raise global sea level by 6 meters. That’s more than a theoretical problem. West Antarctica is losing ice mass, and scientists are worried.
Nicolás Young was just named a winner of a 2015 Blavatnik Award for his work measuring ice sheets in changing climates of the past. His new projects are taking glacier tracking to the next level.
Antarctica’s Retreating Ice
While the ice sheets on West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula are usually the ones to make the news in relation to climate change, recent studies have documented transformations that are taking place on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet as well. On the continent as a whole, large areas of ice have already melted and this trend shows no sign of slowing, meaning the implications for global sea level rise in this century could be more dramatic than earlier projections anticipated.
Glacial earthquakes are produced as massive ice chunks fall off the fronts of advancing glaciers into the ocean. A new study of the quakes’ mechanics may give scientists a way to measure ice loss remotely and refine predictions of sea-level rise.
For our spring expedition, NBP1503, to the margin of East Antarctica we will live and work on board the United States icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer. Together we are eight scientists, 10 science support staff and 19 crew members of the ship’s crew.
“Right now, we’re living in a world of a Pliocene atmosphere,” scientist Maureen Raymo of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory tells the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. “But the whole rest of the climate system — the oceans are trying to catch-up, the ice sheets are waning, and everything is trying to catch up to this Pliocene atmosphere.”
Every indication is that thermal expansion will not dominate rates of sea-level rise in the future. As Earth’s climate marches toward equilibration with present-day CO2 levels, the climate will continue to warm. And this warming threatens the stability of a potentially much, much larger source for sea-level rise — the world’s remaining ice sheets.