News / Science & Technology

Polar Scientist Charts Melting Caused by Climate Change

Expects accelerated thawing to continue unless greenhouse-gas emissions are reduced

Sparse snow patches in Taylor Valley Antarctica may be an important source of moisture for soil ecosystems in this extreme environment.
Sparse snow patches in Taylor Valley Antarctica may be an important source of moisture for soil ecosystems in this extreme environment.

Multimedia

Audio
Rosanne Skirble

Michael Gooseff follows water to the end of the earth. The Pennsylvania State University hydrologist works in remote regions of the Arctic and Antarctic, where ice and frozen ground are thawing. He expects polar warming and melting to continue at an accelerating pace if no significant reductions are made in climate-changing greenhouse-gas emissions.

At the annual convention of the Ecological Society of America in Austin, Texas this week he posed this question: “How are those polar systems responding to climate change?”  

The answer is based on his on-going research into how water crosses landscapes and what happens to it above and below ground.

“In the northern regions, of course, we have sea ice, but a smaller surface area than in the Antarctic where we have very large ice sheets. And that actually plays into the differences in climate change responses that we’re seeing at both of those places.”

According to Gooseff, the two regions also differ widely geologically and ecologically. He says the Antarctic McMurdo Dry Valleys station where he’s based “appears like a polar desert system with open exposed soils, with no vascular plants at the surface and with glaciers coming down from the mountains, whereas in northern Alaska, we have a lot of plants. The tundra is actually dense with vegetation and very green.”

Thawing permafrost creates a formation called a thermokarst, which sends an overload of sediment and nutrients into streams in the Western Brooks Range of Alaska.
Thawing permafrost creates a formation called a thermokarst, which sends an overload of sediment and nutrients into streams in the Western Brooks Range of Alaska.

Gooseff is documenting change over time, by observing patterns in polar rivers, streams and lakes. He recalls a 2003 visit to Alaska’s North Slope, when his team charted the course of an unusual muddy stream.

“We follow this up and finally we found a big gash in the hill slope essentially, and all of this mud pouring out from underneath it.”

Here’s what had happened: A massive ice wedge under the surface had melted, thawing the permafrost and causing the soil above it to collapse. That created a deep gully in the hillside.

A study of historic aerial photos of the area revealed that this dramatic change, as well as similar warming-induced changes to 25 other landscape features, had occurred over just two decades.

Gooseff explains that as water moves through these altered formations, it picks up sediment and nutrients normally locked up in the permafrost. As that flows into rivers, it could affect fisheries and coastal oceans.

The Toolik River thermokarst gully that Michael Gooseff and colleagues discovered just after its formation in 2003.
The Toolik River thermokarst gully that Michael Gooseff and colleagues discovered just after its formation in 2003.

Gooseff says the melting permafrost sets up another dangerous climate scenario.  “As we warm, we release more carbon, that carbon goes into the atmosphere, contributes to more warming, contributes to more permafrost degradation and the cycle sort of continues. In fact, permafrost itself is expected to hold about twice as much carbon as we currently have in the atmosphere.”

At the opposite end of the earth, near the McMurdo Dry Valleys station, Gooseff studies snow patches. Not much snow falls in Antarctica, but what little there is collects in cool shady spots, behind rocks and hills. These patches insulate the soil and may provide small amounts of moisture for microbes below.  

Gooseff says the melt from this frozen precipitation, as well as from older snowpack and glacier ice, is happening faster and is more widespread than a decade ago. The remote sensing devices his research team has deployed are helping to track how that water moves across the land.

“We expect that there are going to be patterns in both time and space that will be somewhat predictable.”

Gooseff hopes his research of climate change at the poles underscores the regions’ interconnectedness with a global climate system that affects everyone on the planet.

You May Like

Mali's Female Basketball Players Rebound After Islamist Occupation

Islamist extremists ruled northern Mali for most of 2012, imposing strict Sharia law, and now some 18 months later, the region is slowly getting back on its feet More

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

Many Chinese-made products go unsold, for now, with numerous Vietnamese consumers still angry over recent dispute More

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid