Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A Warm(ists) Look at Glaciers

This caught my eye today (h/t Tom Nelson), titled "Canadians ought to care about the radical changes occurring in the polar regions", by Geoff Green, who describes himself as "Arctic Explorer - Environmental Educator".

In response to the question (the piece masquerades as an interview, though the byline is "by Geoff Green") "What inspired you to start bringing youth on Arctic expeditions?" he replies
What inspired it all was really seeing how incredible the polar regions are – how they are these cornerstones of our global ecosystem; windows to the health of the planet. Not to mention the fact that they are just beautiful places, home to huge concentrations of wildlife.
It's hard to pinpoint an exact moment, but I do remember one day standing on this beach in the Arctic surrounded by about 200,000 chinstrap penguins
It must be "hard to pinpoint an exact moment" because pygoscelis antarcticus, as the name rather gives away, are resident in the Antarctic. He continues
And I thought, “Imagine if we could bring kids or youth to these places at the beginning of their lives – at a time when that type of experience could help define their future and change their perspectives and motivate and inspire them.” I thought, “Wouldn't the polar regions be the greatest classroom on earth?”
For kids to be able to look into the eyes of a bowhead whale or a polar bear, and to experience the unbelievable beauty of the Arctic … I knew that would change them on a personal level and connect them, not just to nature, but to their place in this big global picture.
I suggest that if a kid looked into the eyes of a polar bear, he/she would connect directly to nature by becoming part of the food chain. Still, perhaps I'm being unfair, so let's read more
We are also seeing the affect on glaciers that are shrinking. We often go to Auyuittuq National Park. Auyuittuq is an Inuktitut word meaning “the place that never melts.” They’re going to have to change that name. They had to close the park three years ago because of flash flood warnings due to the rapid melting of the glaciers. Greenland is in the same situation.
"due to the rapid melting of the glaciers" - sounds catastrophic, surely glaciers don't melt, do they? What does the Auyuittuq National Park of Canada site have to say?
Auyuittuq National Park Closure is lifted as of August 8, 2008
Due to rain on snow, two weeks of record breaking warm sunny weather followed by more rain Summit Lake filled well beyond normal limits and burst out through the normal drainage into the Weasel River and scoured the outflow channel to bedrock through permafrost sending a pulse of extreme high water through Akshayuk Pass.
Subsequent to the high water that took out the Windy Lake bridge and some trails, areas of permafrost continued to melt causing erosion, cracking and slumping of affected areas from Crater Lake to Summit Lake. 
Nothing there about glacier melt being a major factor. When did those lakes form? The Great Canadian Parks site tells us
Three of the park's lakes, Crater, Summit and Windy, were created about 100 years ago when moraine ridges of gravel and boulders formed a natural dam that held back the meltwater when the glacier retreated. Much of the land is in the permafrost zone, where the earth's moisture, just centimetres below ground, is frozen solid for all time. In summer, the surface can become a slurry of sand and gravel, a hazard to hikers who must also beware the Owl River valley, where thawing is capable in some sections of creating waist-deep quicksand-like quagmires.
So the glacier had a major retreat 100 years ago, and it doesn't appear that there's any plan to change the name from Auyuittuq "the land that never melts" anytime soon. The previous paragraph gives some background
The buckling of bedrock by continental drift forces formed the Precambrian granite peaks of the jagged Penny Highlands which reach 2100 metres and range over 6000 square kilometres of the park’s landscape. The ice cap produced by the compression of accumulated snow into glaciers covers the highlands to depths of 300 metres. The remaining 2/3 of the park is mainly covered in ice that melts only at its edges and then only during the brief summer. The peninsula's coastline is cut deeply where glaciers shaped the valley floors below sea level, chiseling narrow fjords with 900 metre-high vertical walls. Glacial action that gave the valleys, such as the 97-kilometre Akshayuk Pass, their characteristic U-shape, is still actively shaping the land. 25 kilometre-long glaciers, spawned from the massive ice cap, slide down from the high plateau to the sea at Davis Strait pulled by gravity and their own weight. Glacial moraines - huge mounds of eroded rubble pushed by a moving glacier, and sandy areas where rock was ground into particles have become part of the landscape.
They don't sound as though they're concerned about future job prospects.

I recall an article I read several years ago (link long lost), in which a glaciologist (could it have been Geoff Green?) was recounting his depressing experiences on the Antarctic peninsula. He said "I was kept awake all night by the mournful sound of the melting glaciers". Kept awake? By the sound of flowing water? No, "the sound of the ice crashing into the sea". I haven't got a PhD in physics, but I do know when ice melts it becomes water, and it doesn't "crash into the sea". I'd suggest that scientists who are too emotionally involved with their subject of study might tend to be somewhat less than objective in their conclusions.

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