AUSTIN (KXAN) — Greenland is a beautiful, icy country under siege. The ice sheets that make Greenland so distinct are retreating and melting due to climate change, and it is bad news for everybody on Earth.
“A large contributor to sea level is the melting ice sheets,” said Dr. Ginny Catania, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who will soon embark on a mission to study the uncharted waters around Greenland’s glaciers.
“You see some glaciers are retreating a lot and other glaciers that are not retreating so much,” Catania said, and she is hoping to understand why.
She’s leading a team that includes scientists from UT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to Greenland next year to study what they think could be the cause — new land being created beneath glaciers.
“If you build topography up, then that causes the retreat of your glacier to slow down,” Catania said.
Understanding this could help researchers around the world better predict the future of climate change.
Creating new land at the bottom of the ocean
How are glaciers creating new land? As a glacier melts, it slides into the ocean, and that’s why it is called retreating. Catania and her team believe that land beneath the glacier is getting scraped and pushed forward, creating mounds of dirt at the front of the glacier.
Plus, dirty ice melting on top of the glacier creates little streams of water that flow through the glacier. These streams empty into the ocean, creating powerful plumes of dust and dirt beneath the water.
Then there are icebergs. Icebergs break off of the edge of glaciers and can contain dirt frozen in the ice, Catania said. As the iceberg melts, the dirt can fall to the ocean floor.
All of this dirt and dust makes those mounds bigger. Catania says that 10 centimeters of new land at the base of glaciers is considered a significant amount of growth. In Alaska, the mounds are several meters high.
Send in the robots
“All the processes happening underneath the water, it’s obviously a very changeable and dangerous area to work in,” Catania said. So, they’re sending a robot the size of a pickup truck to investigate.
The Nereid Under Ice, or NUI, is a specialized robot designed to work in deep, turbulent waters. The robot is outfitted with a mechanical arm that will help pick up samples from the base of the glacier.
“This arm can grab sediments and get samples for us. That’s never been done before in this kind of environment,” Catania said.
It will be controlled by a 10-mile long fiber optic cable. If that cable breaks for any reason, it will automatically return to a pickup point.
Why should we care about new land at the bottom of the ocean
The data the robot collects will be used to help develop a new computer model. This model could help predict how fast glaciers are retreating.
Melting glaciers in Greenland deposit cold freshwater into the ocean surrounding them, according to Catania. This water disrupts what’s known as the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream brings warm water up from the equator to Europe and Britain.
Catania said that if the Gulf Stream is altered too much as a result of melting glaciers, the warm humid weather of Europe could soon look more like northern Canada.
It also has a huge impact on us here in Texas.
“You’re adding cold freshwater into the polar regions,” Catania said. “And this has big impacts to global ocean circulation, which affects all of our weather patterns.”
Changing ocean temperatures have been linked to more frequent severe weather and more powerful storms.
Sea level rise is also a problem. A recent report from NOAA found that if climate change and melting in Greenland and Antarctica are not slowed, then the sea could rise by nearly a foot.
One suggestion for slowing down glacier melt, building up the mounds that are forming at their bases. By slowing how fast the glacier slides into the ocean, you also slow how fast it melts.
Catania says they’re looking for further funding for the project. They’re hoping to get access to an additional boat for their voyage.