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Climate Change Research Draws Attention of Top National Panel

Date: April 11, 2002
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Images courtesy: Thomas Lowell, UC geology
Archive: Research News

One of the most influential national panels looking at global climate change traveled halfway around the world earlier this year to see what UC geologists and their collaborators have discovered about climate change in the Southern Hemisphere.

Faraday glacier

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Panel on Abrupt Climate Change held a working meeting on New Zealand's South Island, with a clear view of the glaciers UC geologist Thomas Lowell and his collaborators have been studying for more than 10 years.

"That is why the NOAA panel met in New Zealand," said Lowell, "so they could see the evidence for themselves."

The panel is headed by Wally Broecker, a long-time researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and an internationally recognized expert on climate change.

The panel spent several days listening to research findings that indicate Southern Hemisphere glaciers changed in sync with Northern Hemisphere glaciers on three different time scales over the last 15,000 years (see related story). That's an incredible record of consistency, but means scientists might have to rethink their models of how global climate change occurs.

"The thinking is going to change from abrupt climate changes driven by changes in the ocean circulation patterns to abrupt climate changes driven by changes in the atmosphere circulation belts," said Lowell.

The New Zealand findings are crucial, because they match a pattern Lowell and his collaborators found earlier in Chile. Glaciers there also moved in sync with northern ice sheets, and they were located in areas far away from the influence of ocean currents.

For the Abrupt Climate Change panel and other climate scientists, the implications are important for how they track future climate changes. "If the atmosphere is the trigger, the land may be the best place to detect those changes and track them," explained Lowell. "Over land, the climate changes will be larger."

retreat pattern of Mueller and Hooker glaciers

However, Lowell notes it will take several years and much more data to fully understand both the actual cause of global climate changes and how humans have impacted those natural cycles.

The maps seen here are part of the data Lowell presented at the meeting. They show the retreat pattern of four New Zealand glaciers over the last 200 years. Warming has reduced the size of some Southern Hemisphere glaciers by nearly half.

The dating was done by Lowell, former UC graduate student Katie Schoenenberger, and University of Maine graduate students Colby Smith and Jessica Black.

retreat pattern of Classen and Godley glaciers

Find out more about the Southern Hemisphere studies.

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