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Greenland’s Frigid Waters Being Warmed By Subtropical Streams

September 23, 2009

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution spent last month trying to determine if warmer oceanic waters were seeping into the regions surrounding Greenland.

Ruth Curry and a team of researchers based their study on the observation that glaciers have started to flow faster than normal throughout the past decade.

This observation led them to believe that warmer, subtropical waters were to blame.

In 2005, scientists noticed that Greenland’s Helheim Glacier had nearly doubled in speed as it moved through a river at a pace of 100 feet per day.

The rapid movement caught researchers by surprise and sparked concerns that it could be a sign of a massive melting of the Greenland’s ice sheet to come.

A melting of the massive two-mile-thick ice sheet could result in a global sea level increase of 20 feet.

“If you were to dip your hand in it, it doesn’t seem that warm,” Curry, Senior Research Specialist of Physical Oceanography at WHOI, told the Associated Press.

“But it is. It’s warm enough to melt ice. And that’s the important thing here.”

Curry’s team took observations in the icebergs of the Sermilik fjord last month to determine if waters from warmer latitudes were flowing into the region.

They used tools to discover that subtropical water with a temperature of about 39 Fahrenheit was reaching the distant region.

“The measurements alone are not enough to conclude that the glacial melt is to a high degree driven by subtropical water. But I think the story is (starting) to come together,” research leader Fiamma Straneo told the AP.

“We’ve had a confirmation that the waters are really coming up to the glacier. This is the first time that we’ve seen it in these southeast glacial fjords.”

The warmer waters are carried by currents known as the Gulf Stream. But researchers said it is typical for the warmer waters and frigid waters to battle it out naturally. However, they have not previously resulted in such a constant rise in oceanic temperature.

“We’ve actually measured the waters at their source and have seen their temperature going up, up, up in a way that can’t be explained without taking into account human influences,” Curry said.

Researchers are trying to gather as much information as possible, as soon as possible, in order to meet a December deadline when the world’s leaders are expected to meet in Copenhagen to discuss a new agreement to replace Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report estimated that sea levels could rise by 7 to 24 inches, but the report fails to take the Greenland melt into account.

Some researchers estimate that the addition of melting glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland could double to estimates projected by the IPCC.

Image Caption: View of Sermilik Station on Ammassalik Island, East Greenland.

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