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Greenland Glaciers: A Melting Mystery

A new grant will help Geology Professor Thomas Lowell study glaciers and climate change in Greenland.

Date: 9/30/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Provided by Thomas Lowell
Thomas Lowell is gearing up for a trip to Greenland. The geology professor was recently awarded a grant that will allow him to go to the Scoresby Sund region in the eastern part of the country next summer to study the long-term fluctuations of glaciers and learn more about climate change.

Thomas Lowell has traveled the globe to study glaciers. His most recent NSF grant will put him in teh Scoresby Sund region of Greenland next summer.
Thomas Lowell has traveled the globe to study glaciers. His most recent NSF grant will put him in the Scoresby Sund region of Greenland next summer.

Funding for the project comes from the National Science Foundation. The $201,310 grant, “Collaborative Research: Sensitivity of Local Ice Caps in Central East Greenland to Holocene Climate Change,” is funded under the U.S. government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

“One of the concerns with global warming is sea level rise, and one of the biggest sources of potential sea level rise is the ice sheets,” Lowell says. Greenland is a great place to study ice sheets because there are some dramatic changes taking place, but the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report didn’t include any estimates about sea level contributions from Greenland due to lack of data. “It’s caused a boom of researchers to go to the area to look at the problem,” Lowell says.

Lowell and his research team are looking at environmental changes in the Scoresby Sund because the glaciers there are larger today than they were 1,000 years ago. As the glaciers start receding, it exposes old plant remains and sediment that can tell researchers a lot about the last time similar conditions existed.

Greenland glaciers.
By studying the Greenland glaciers, Lowell hopes to uncover information about how and why glaciers melt.

The plan, Lowell says, is to use smaller, surrounding glaciers—which are easier to study—as a proxy for the larger Greenland ice sheet.

“We want to know if the increased activity we’re seeing today is something that’s really dramatic and unique that has never happened before—and therefore can be really catastrophic—or is this really just the natural ebb and flow of the ice sheet?” he asks. “What’s the historical context of the current environmental change?”

The researchers have already carbon dated the plant remains that have been exhumed and have approximated their age to a millennium ago.

“The last time these plants were happy and growing was about the time the Vikings were there. And, you know, the Vikings didn’t do so well because conditions got pretty lousy for them,” Lowell says with a laugh.

Tom Lowell.
Lowell will collaborate with two other glaciologists from University of Maine and Dartmouth College.

Using various geological techniques, including radiocarbon and cosmogenic dating, Lowell and his team of researchers will be able to physically track the glaciers. While ice coring is a common procedure for glaciologists, Lowell is excited about coring in lakes near the ice sheets instead, an underused method to study glaciers.

“Glaciers discharge muddy water. When they get bigger, the more muddy the water,” he says. “Our plan is to go to a variety of lakes that are downstream from the glaciers, sample the lakes with a coring apparatus, and measure how much sediment is coming off these glaciers.”

The NSF grant is a collaborative effort between Lowell and two professors from University of Maine and Dartmouth College. Lowell will also be advising a UC graduate student, Bill Honsaker, who will be doing his thesis on the lake coring project in Greenland.

“We’re really interested in what probably is the largest climate change since the transition from the ice age to the modern-day conditions,” Lowell says. “Glaciers are very sensitive to climate change, so we’re trying to understand the mechanisms of why and how to track that change.”

Read more about Lowell in UC Magazine:
Iceman: Glacier Study Keeps Professor’s Passion from Melting

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