Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Major ice calving from the Petermann Glacier

Image taken from the article cited in the text
On the 16th July, the Petermann Glacier, northwest Greenland lost an ice island around 120km2 in area. For a great comparison of satellite images from MODIS (before and after), see the following link:

A quote from the NASA Earth Observatory cover of the story suggested that this is the furthest back the ice front has been observed to retreat. Really interesting stuff. There are some great aerial photographs on this article too.

A brief introduction to... The Periglacial Environment

Great image of ice wedge polygons from

Well... not quite the post rate I'd expected after finishing Uni, but work and life take over and before you know it you've not posted anything in over a month! Before I get stuck in, I graduated last week with a 1st, something I am especially happy with as I had resigned myself to a 2:1 following an uncomfortable feeling after an exam. In other news, I’ve not seen the sun in what feels like months as Britain drowns in the longest intermittent downpour I have ever been subject to. I’m also seriously considering further study/ research; my graduation reminded me how much I miss it already! Enough about me... If I remember rightly, I promised an introduction to the periglacial environment. When I say environment in this context, I mean the specific climatic and geomorphological conditions to allow for a specific suite of processes to operate.

First, (as I'm sure @Dawnitoes will delight in reading) we'll talk about the word "periglacial". The word literally means "near a glacier" and on its inception that is exactly what the word was used for. However, since the processes and features seen in these areas surrounding glaciers were identified in other cold areas in the absence of a glacier, the term eventually evolved. “Periglacial” is now the word used to describe a set of zonal processes that occur in cold environments due to the presence of ice and snow and the repeated freezing and thawing of water. Certain azonal processes can also exhibit distinctive characteristics in periglacial areas. I've visited permafrost before in a previous article (however not formally introduced you... how rude of me). Permafrost – an area of perennially frozen ground – is responsible for many of the processes and landforms associated with periglacial areas; however it is not the defining characteristic of a periglacial area. There is likely to be an article on permafrost in the near future.

So, we have rather hand-wavey, vague explanation of the factors controlling periglacial environments without explaining any processes or resultant landforms associated with places you may term “periglacial”. Or have we? I mentioned in the paragraph above about “the repeated freezing and thawing of water”, which is probably the most important process when we consider most specific periglacial processes and landforms.

In these periglacial environments, the temperature fluctuates about the freezing point of water often diurnally (daily) at the ground surface; and annually (with the seasons) for deeper freezing and thawing. Seasonal snow accumulation and subsequent melting and the movement of groundwater towards a freezing front are also important water processes. As a general statement, these water/ ice processes result in weathering processes acting upon bare rocks and transport processes acting upon sediments.

As I write this, I’m debating whether to name and dissect specific processes and resultant landforms, or whether they warrant their own “brief introductions”... I have an idea. I’ll recommend a reference for you to read (if you wish) and then follow this up, starting with a post on periglacial weathering processes and formations, I’ll formally introduce you to permafrost, finishing with sediment movement processes and distinctive landforms. Anything I don’t catch in either of these will more than likely land in a final summary post...

For your reading, I recommend you read the following book; a comprehensive summary of the processes and landforms typical of periglacial environments:

Sunday, June 10, 2012

More on Ice Cores... an excellent resource

I received a tweet from @han_chet who, having read the brief intros to ice cores (parts one, two and three), guided me to the NASA Earth Observatory article on the ice core record. It's actually a great resource and I wish I'd found it myself before writing the posts, it would have been so much easier!

Have a read of it if you've read my brief intros to the subject. Even if you haven't, it's still a great summary and the site is a brilliant resource for climate science in general.

Service is resumed!

Hi! I believe I owe you an explanation. I've been away on holiday for the past two weeks and without gloating, I didn't really fancy writing while sat on the beach..., I had a great time!

However, as of tomorrow normal service will be resumed. As promised, I'd like to talk about periglacial conditions and processes. After that I have no ideas, so any suggestions are welcome.

In other news

As you may know, I've recently graduated and before I went away I was offered a full time job for a petrochemical company! Therefore, the daily posts (which I have been terrible at keeping up with anyway) are likely to drop to one or two per week. I'll still post things I find interesting but as far as the brief intros goes, they'll drop to one or two per week.

On a separate point, I'm going to try and redesign the blog, make it look more... snazzy. Let me know if you have any suggestions? I particularly like the design of the site, it's also worth a read!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A brief introduction to... Ice Core Records (Part 3)

Hello again. This is the last installment on ice core records and arguably the most interesting. I'm going to talk about the CO2 record, CH4 record and dust concentrations found in ice cores. Before we get into the details, I'll explain what CO2 and CH4 concentrations mean.

Remember the brief introduction to glaciation? We discussed how snow becomes buried under more snow. Under enough pressure (ie. at a certain depth) snow becomes firn. This is a kind of state between snow and ice, where snow crystals interlock, closing up pores and trapping bubbles of gas within the firn. When an ice core is extracted, it is the gas within these bubbles that is analysed for CO2 and CH4 concentrations, as these are assumed to be tiny samples of the atmosphere at that point in time. You may have noticed a flaw. The atmosphere at the time the pores are closed up as the snow turns to firn does not reflect the atmosphere when the snow was deposited. There is no standard time lag between the deposition of snow to the transition to firn because precipitation rates are different for different regions, times and climates. These things have to be estimated based on precipitation rates.

A lot of the concern about CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere causing climate change is derived from estimations of CO2 concentrations in the past. In the last two posts we discussed the use of isotopes as climate proxies and most specifically temperature. I have a couple of lovely graphs for you. Again, these are from the EPICA Dome C core, and show deuterium ratio in the black series and CO2 concentrations from the gas bubbles in the ice core in the red series.

Click image for full size
Click image for full size

As you can see, CO2 concentration increases in the atmosphere seem to be a response to an increase in temperature. I've chosen these two graphs because we can see the Last Glacial Maximum in the top one, followed by the Holocene (what we're in now), and something called the Mid-Bruhnes Event in the second graph. This is the interglacial that is considered the most similar to the one we are in now, and may be used to predict how the climate will change in the near future. However, you can see CO2 concentrations in the Holocene continue to increase steadily with temperature remaining around constant.

I'm going to skip over to methane concentrations now because this is swiftly turning into something more than a brief introduction! CH4 concentrations in the atmosphere are thought to be a result of greater wetland extent globally, indicating greater precipitation at lower latitudes and greater temperatures at higher latitudes. The next graph shows methane concentrations from the EPICA Dome C ice core against deuterium ratio in the ice. It shows a clear time lag in methane concentrations following temperature changes, which may be a result of the time it takes for vegetation to respond to climate change.
Click for full size
The next graph almost confirms the idea that it gets wetter during interglacials and drier during glacials. It shows dust concentrations in the ice. We know that dust will only become suspended in the atmosphere when it is dry, so it stands to reason that it's drier with increased dust fluxes.

Click for full size
In summary, it is obvious that there is a lot of information to be obtained from ice cores. Whether we can make any useful predictions about climate change in the future from these records is up for debate. The changes we are making to the atmosphere and biosphere are unprecedented and we are certainly not in a state of equilibrium with the climate system, if there is such a thing.

One thing you should almost certainly check out is the Mauna Loa Keeling Curve, it shows year on year CO2 concentrations from the top of Mt Mauna Loa since 1958. See this link for more information. Compare the concentrations seen on their graphs in comparison to CO2 concentrations of the past on the two CO2 graphs above.

As always, thank you for reading. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, corrections etc etc. just get in touch! Any discussion is good discussion! Staying with the glacial theme, I'm going to explain the concept of till fabric analysis and interpretation and over the weekend I'll introduce the periglacial environment and start explaining some landforms and processes.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A brief introduction to... Ice Core Records (Part 2); Photo by Planet Taylor
I didn't keep you waiting too long for the follow up to ice cores pt1, did I? As promised, today we will discuss the cycles of climate change throughout the Quaternary and what we think the reasons for this are. We may need to go off on a tangent on this post too, but it's worth it.

So we've established that we can use ice cores as a record of regional temperature through the Quaternary. But regional temperature is subject to many different variables. If only we had information about global temperature change? Well, the last post mentioned that we'd concentrate on just the polar ice cores. Isotope ratios from ice cores in both Greenland and Antarctica have been compared and it seems that they correlate relatively well, implying that whatever is forcing the climate in the Northern Hemisphere is doing exactly the same thing in the Southern Hemisphere, a global climate forcing. Now for the promised tangent.

We mentioned solar forcing. Cyclic changes in received solar radiation (known as insolation) are caused by the rhythmic variation in the Earth's orbit and axial tilt. These are known as the Milankovitch cycles, named after Milutin Milankovitch. The eccentricity of the Earth's orbit (how elliptical it is) fluctuates on a 100,000 year cycle and affects both the total solar radiation received in a year  (due to the change in distance from the sun) and seasonality (difference in temperature between Summer and Winter). Obliquity is the angle of the tilt of the Earth's axis. This fluctuates between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees on a cycle of 42,000 years and is another control on seasonality. If the North Pole is further away from the sun during Southern Hemisphere Summer, Northern Hemisphere Winter is longer and colder than if it were closer to the sun. Do you follow? The third cycle is the Precession of the Equinoxes. This occurs on a cycle of 26,000 year cycle and is the cycle at which the Earth's axis rotates about an imaginary axis perpendicular to Earth's orbit. The precession is caused by the combined gravitational forces of the Sun and the Moon and is another control on seasonality. For a really great tutorial on Milankovitch Cycles check out this link, it's a great introduction to the concept (you do need flash player I think).

How do these Milankovitch cycles relate to the fluctuations in the climate proxy records we see in ice cores? It is the current paradigm that these cycles in the relative position of the Earth to the Sun control the cycles in the Earth's climate from glacial conditions back to interglacial conditions.

The prevailing cycle in the climate proxy record is the 100,000 year glacial cycle. However, it has been noted by many researchers that the fluctuations in received solar radiation caused by the 100,000 year eccentricity cycles would not be enough to control the massive fluctuations in global air temperature seen between the interglacial and glacial climate extremes. Many summarise that it is probably the combined effect of the precession and obliquity cycles that control or trigger the 100,000 year climate cycle observed over the past 400-800,000 years.

There is however, a hitch. Work by Carl Wunsch analysing the temperature proxy record leads to the conclusion that most of the temperature variation over the past 400,000 years is indistinguishable from a stochastic (internally complex with unidentified feedback mechanisms) system and not a result of solar forcing. In my opinion, the jury is still out on this. Also, as highlighted in the work by Wunsch, an 800,000 year sample size isn't that big when you're only considering eight 100,000 year cycles.

So, make of that what you will! The best place to start reading about this is probably from the beginning, with the Hays et al. (1979) paper in Science, "Variations in the Earth's Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages". I know it talks about marine sediment cores, but the concept is exactly the same. It's definitely a great introduction to the concept of solar forcing of past climate.

There we have it, a brief introduction to ice core temperature proxies. Tomorrow I will discuss some of the other climate proxies we extract from ice cores: CO2, CH4 and dust flux, and what these tell us about the environments at the time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A brief introduction to... Ice Core Records (Part 1)

Bad form, but source: wikipedia
As promised, for today and the next couple of days I will be writing about the ice core records of Greenland and Antarctica. I'll start today with an introduction to ice cores and discuss isotope signals within them. Tomorrow I hope to explain other proxies in the ice cores such as dust, CO2 and methane (CH4) and finish with a post about the controversies surrounding the conclusions based on proxies within the records, with the arguments against the validity of solar forcing (I'll get to that). So, I hope you enjoy exploring the ice core records. I've got some graphs I produced for my course to help explain the concepts, there are some garish colours in there (you have been warned).

Ice cores are simply a core of ice extracted from areas where annual accumulation of snow has resulted in a consistent record of winter precipitation over an extended period of time. These are obtainable from mountain glaciers and the polar ice caps, but I'm only going to focus on the ice caps here as these provide the longest records, and therefore a greater insight into past climates throughout the Quaternary. We know from a previous post that ice accumulation is the result of a greater snow accumulation than summer melt for any given year. Because of this annual accumulation - melt, annual layers are visible within an ice core, with clear layers signifying the melt season and cloudier layers indicating the winter accumulation. We also know that the ice will flow down slope from an ice centre in the form of glaciers. For the purpose of obtaining a complete record, it is very important to take ice cores from areas where lateral movement of ice does not occur, as this would distort or remove some of the record. Ice centres are perfect for this, however in polar regions, they are obviously extremely difficult to get to.

The three most well known ice cores from polar regions are the Vostok and Epica Dome C ice cores from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, where ice is known to flow extremely slowly in comparison to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet; and the GRIP ice core chronology from Greenland.

I'm going to jump off on a tangent now and start talking about isotopes. Don't get scared, it's a simple concept based on the relationship between the ocean and temperature. As we know, snow is made of water, H20. The H part, hydrogen, normally consists of one proton and one electron. However, an isotope of hydrogen known as Deuterium exists, containing one proton, one electron and one neutron. This neutron effectively doubles the mass of the hydrogen molecule. Still with me? Deuterium is far less common than normal hydrogen on Earth, around 99.98% hydrogen to 0.015% deuterium. So imagine that the ocean is made up of mostly normal water, but a tiny fraction of this water is made with deuterium, and consequently slightly heavier than the rest of the water.

During the colder periods (ie. glacial maxima), there is less energy to evaporate seawater into the atmosphere. Because it takes more energy to evaporate the heavier deuterium water the clouds, and consequently the snow that lands on the ice caps, are made up of a higher ratio of normal water to deuterium water (more than 99.98% to less than 0.015%). Therefore, the ratio of deuterium to normal hydrogen in the snow for that year is less than normal. The opposite is true when temperatures are warmer, with more energy, a greater proportion of deuterium can be evaporated and is deposited on the ice caps as snow. So for warmer years, the deuterium to normal hydrogen ratio is greater than colder years.

Ok, so we're back onto ice cores again. As I mentioned earlier, each years' snow deposition is recorded in a thin band of cloudy ice. This is made up of the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen that was deposited as snow all those years into the past. When we compare these with previous years, we can see that the ratio fluctuates year on year, indicating regional temperature increases and decreases back through time. The Epica Dome C ice core goes back an astonishing 800,000 years and the data extracted from this ice core (and numerous others) is available for free to download as a spreadsheet at I find it amazing that the average Joe Public (like me) can download this data and manipulate it, graph it and make their own decisions about the climates of the past. The graph below is exactly that. It shows the deuterium ratio (delta D) for the Epica Dome C ice core. The X axis is age, youngest at the left and oldest at the right, with the deuterium concentration on the Y axis. As you can see, a pattern emerges. Sharp warming events are followed by a gradual cooling to glacial conditions.

Click image for full size

So, you've been introduced to the ice core records and the concept of isotope ratios. The use of oxygen isotope ratios are used in the same way (18O / 16O), but all you really need to know is that water made with oxygen 18 is heavier than the normal water made with oxygen 16, and the ratio of these two are used to indicate temperature in exactly the same way. Tomorrow, I'll discuss the cycles of temperature changes, how they relate to the amount of sunlight the Earth receives. On Thursday we will discuss the other measurable properties of ice cores including CO2, CH4 and dust concentrations, and what they are likely to mean.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A brief introduction to... Deglaciation
As promised, I'm going to write today about the evolution of landscapes from glacial maximum through to interglacial. I'm particularly excited about this one because I find it really interesting. As I said in the last post, landscapes just go crazy. This post is primarily based on a leviathan of a review paper by Colin Ballantyne (2002) on paraglacial geomorphology, or the geomorphology of landscapes following ice retreat/ deglaciation.

Again, we will work with our hypothetical landscape as mentioned in the previous post. Imagine a glacier flowing down a glacial trough it has carved for itself. As air temperatures warm, the ice begins to retreat back up the valley.

The first effect is the lack of support for the valley walls as the ice buttressing the wall is now gone. This exposes a slope that is steeper than would have naturally formed in the absence of ice. This can result in catastrophic failures of slopes or a set of discrete rockfalls to bring the slope into equilibrium with the conditions it now finds itself in. These deposits are then weathered and reworked by periglacial processes, aeolian transport and slope drainage. It is common to find gullies and debris cones superimposed upon the classic glacial trough valley walls.

An increase in meltwater from a retreating glacier will result in enhanced glacio-fluvial reworking of glacial sediments and valley floors are often in-filled with a mix of glacial till and sediments derived from the paraglacial acceleration of hillslope modification processes.

Sediment yields for such areas are thought to follow something similar to an exponential curve, with glacial and paraglacial sediments being transported by fluvial activity at a much higher rate directly following deglaciation and a gradual trend towards "background" denudation rates as the landscape tends towards equilibrium with present conditions.

Proglacial lakes - in direct contact with the glacier front - make the transition to distal lakes as the glaicer retreats away from them. The characteristics of sedimentation also change as the glacier front retreats and eventually disappears. Initially sedimentation is primarily glacigenic deposits, exhibiting features such as ice contact deltas, sub-aqueous fans and moraines, submerged ice ramps from mass movement and rythmic laminated deposits. As the glaicer retreats the pro-gradation of gently sloping deltas occurs, with the rythmic deposition of sand, silt and clay. As mentioned earlier, sediment influx decreases over time as the glacier disappears completely.

Landscape adjustment towards an equilibrium position has been estimated to take up to 25,000 years. This implies that previously glaciated landscapes during the Last Glacial Maximum c. 12,000 years ago are still in the process of rebounding to non-glacial conditions. The implications of this should not be underestimated for sediment budget calculations in populated areas downstream of relict glacial environments.

Tomorrow I hope to introduce the ice core records and their validity as an indicator of solar insolation, so don't miss that one! I find it really interesting because it is important for both reconstructing past climates through the past 800,000 years and for attempting to model future climatic changes and our place within the global system. As I said, don't miss it!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A brief introduction to... Glaciation

Glen Nevis.
Back again! Today's brief intro is on the evolution of landscapes through the transition from interglacial to glacial. I'll try not to focus too much on global temperature changes or the causes of these, more on a hypothetical landscape. And we're off...

A gradual drop in temperature will result in periglacial conditions and the onset of permafrost. Periglacial processes occur on the surface and subsurface, resulting in patterned ground features, pingos, palsas (in wetlands), sorting of sediments and frost action processes on exposed rocks. 

Precipitation in winter months results in a build up of snow cover, with melting occurring during the summer months. Seasonality is considered one of the primary controls on glaciation. If the net snow accumulation is positive for an extended period of time, snow cover thickness increases. Pressure from the snow overburden causes the transition of snow into firn, the point where the pore spaces between ice crystals become enclosed (more on this in a further post), trapping the air at its present concentration within the firn. Under increasing pressure, firn becomes ice.

Once overburden reaches a critical point, the ice spreads out in all directions from this "ice cap". Just as a river will find the path of least resistance, ice will flow in a direction which is easiest, this could be a relict river valley or any natural depression in the land. The erosive power of a massive body of moving ice is huge. Imagine the base of the glacier includes fragments of rock like giant sand-paper. Through time, this ice carves the classic glacial troughs seen throughout the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District, Snowdonia and Glen Nevis (Ben Nevis is an amazing place to hike; see the picture above and follow the link for more). This is probably the most awe inspiring period to imagine; millions of tonnes of ice grinding away the rock it is forced over by more ice being produced at the ice cap it originated from.

The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) was between 12 and 14 thousand years ago depending on where you were at the time. It is known as the Loch Lomond Stadial or the Younger Dryas, and was preceded by an interglacial, just as every other glacial within the Quaternary.

Just as these periods capture my fascination due to the pure scale of landscape change, I find the transition from glacial to interglacial, known as the paraglacial period (coined by Colin K Ballantyne), is by far the most interesting. Landscapes just go crazy! This will be covered in my next post, so make sure to check back for that!

I hope you found this interesting. Please have a go at the feedback below, let me know what you think and what you'd like to read about, I'd be grateful for the ideas!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A brief introduction to... Estuaries
Here goes! As promised, my first brief introduction to... I do need to clarify why I didn't post anything yesterday. This is because it was the last exam of my degree yesterday so I thought that was a tad more important! Enough about me, on to estuaries.

An estuary can be considered the connective zone between a river environment and the coast, and is subject to fluvial and coastal processes to varying degrees. The best definition of an estuary can be found in John Pethick's Introduction to Coastal Geomorphology (1984):
" inlet to the sea where a river comes into contact with seawater and is subject to tidal currents".
 The most interesting thing about estuaries from a physical standpoint is the drastically different depositional environments caused by inlet scale and morphology, tidal range and river discharge (with respect to inlet size and shape).

An estuary subject to a small tidal range (microtidal) and a dominant river discharge results in an interaction between saline sea water and fresh land drainage known as a "salt wedge". A salt wedge is formed when river water flows over the top of the denser saline seawater, with little mixing of the water due to a low tidal range. The majority of sediments in these estuaries are derived from land, being carried by the dominant flow of the river.

A greater tidal range (macrotidal) in an estuary with a river discharge proportional to the scale of the bay (in sync with the geomorphological setting) is subject to partial mixing of the saline seawater and the fresh river water. Deposition in these estuaries is predominantly seaward derived, with coarser sediments deposited at the mouth of an estuary, grading to finer coastal sediments being washed up the estuary into the head of the bay by tidal currents. The Thames Estuary is a good example of this, with fine muds deposited upstream; see the beautiful picture of the river Thames and its estuary above.

If the tidal range is great (macrotidal) but the river feeding into the estuary is a smaller discharge than required to produce the inlet (ie. a river follows the path of a previous, larger, glacial river for example), the river and seawater act in a unique way. Due to the Coriolis Effect, river discharge flows along the right hand bank of the estuary (looking out to the sea) and deposition of fluvially derived sediments takes place. By the same principal, tidal currents push water upstream along the left bank, depositing seaward derived sediments along this bank up to the head of the inlet.

From an ecological point of view, estuaries are a unique habitat hosting a massive variety of bird species especially. See for an ecological perspective on the importance of estuaries. is a particularly good website on the aforementioned Thames Estuary, with emphasis on considering all stakeholder perspectives.