Thu, Nov 05, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Scientists add to climate data on Greenland mission

The US government spends about US$1 billion per year to support Arctic and Antarctic research, while the researchers are aware their work costs ‘a tremendous amount of taxpayer money’

By Coral Davenport, Josh Haner, Larry Buchanan and Derek Watkins  /  NY Times News Service, ON THE GREENLAND ICE SHEET

Illustration: Mountain People

The midnight sun still gleamed at 1am across the brilliant expanse of the Greenland ice sheet. Brandon Overstreet, a doctoral candidate in hydrology at the University of Wyoming, picked his way across the frozen landscape, clipped his climbing harness to an anchor in the ice and crept toward the edge of a river that rushed downstream toward an enormous sinkhole.

If he fell in, “the death rate is 100 percent,” said Lincoln Pitcher, Overstreet’s friend and fellow researcher.

Overstreet’s task, to collect critical data from the river, is essential to understanding one of the most consequential impacts of global warming. The scientific data he and a team of six other researchers collect could yield groundbreaking information on the rate at which the melting of Greenland ice sheet, one of the biggest and fastest-melting chunks of ice on Earth, will drive up sea levels in the coming decades. The full melting of Greenland’s ice sheet could increase sea level by about 6m.

“We scientists love to sit at our computers and use climate models to make those predictions, but to really know what’s happening, that kind of understanding can only come about through empirical measurements in the field,” said Laurence Smith, head of the geography department at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the leader of the team that worked in Greenland this summer.

For years, scientists have studied the impact of the planet’s warming on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. However, while researchers have satellite images to track the icebergs that break off, and have created models to simulate the thawing, they have little on-the-ground information and so have trouble predicting precisely how fast sea levels will rise.

Scientists know that the melting of Greenland is accelerating. As the temperature rises, large lakes form on the surface of the ice, which in turn create a network of rivers.

“The rivers melt down faster than the surrounding ice, like a knife through butter,” Smith said.

The rivers then flow down into giant holes in the ice, called moulins, which drain through tunnels in the ice sheet and out into the ocean.

“The ice sheet is porous, like Swiss cheese,” Smith said. “We didn’t know that until this year.”

This summer in Greenland, the scientists set up camp on the ice, where they hoped to capture the first comprehensive measurements of the rate of melting. Their research could yield valuable information to help scientists figure out how rapidly sea levels will rise in the 21st century, and thus how people in coastal areas from New York to Bangladesh could plan for the change.

Each year, the US government spends about US$1 billion to support Arctic and Antarctic research by thousands of scientists like Smith and his team. The agency officials who receive that money from the US Congress, including the directors of the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), say the research is essential for understanding changes that are predicted to affect the world’s population and economies for more than a century.

The are under increasing fire by some Republican leaders in Congress, who deny or question the consensus that human activities contribute to climate change.

Leading the Republican charge on Capitol Hill is US Representative Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House of Representatives Science Committee, who has sought to cut US$300 million from NASA’s budget for Earth science and has started an inquiry into about 50 National Science Foundation grants.

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