By Chelsea Zhao, Dilpreet Raju, Ilana Wolchinsky
As the earth warms, researchers at the Penn State Ice and Climate Exploration Research Center (PSICE) at Penn State University are interested in how we can expect glaciers, those dense bodies of ice that move under their own weight, to react to a drastically changing environment.
Extreme hurricanes and floods and increasing wildfires and drought make the impact of climate change increasingly obvious, but what happens to glaciers and ice sheets is important for the future of so many coastal cities that lie in potentially devastating floodplains.
Veteran geoscientist Richard Alley of Penn State University, revealed a bleak future during the annual Comer Climate Conference this fall, one where a changing climate will affect the Earth and all of its inhabitants, not just humans, at a systemic level.
Alley said that to study climate science is to steep one’s self into worry and anxiety about the future.
But it presents solutions to those very worries, as well.
“I suspect the students need a sign over the door that says ‘we are the ark,’” Alley said. “We’re going to get through this by preserving [various] species so we can get them back out, cause some of them are in such deep trouble now and they’re going to need help.”
Predicting a worst-case climate scenario
By 2100, projected global sea-level rise could be slowed to a half meter lower than prior projections, but only if global temperature increase is kept at 1.5°C instead of 2°C, according to estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Alley considers the projection a modest estimate and seeks, along with his research group, to estimate a worst-case scenario resulting from no climate action.
“We can hope, but I think the biggest thing is to limit CO2, and then as much collateral damage [as possible],” he said.
CO2 levels drive global warming and many scientists calculate that increasing levels over the past decades are already rolling 2°C of temperature rise into the atmosphere. Alley said that carbon dioxide spells devastating damage for lots of organisms that live in sea water even before those rising tides can impact humans.
Alley has studied the great ice sheets to predict the future climate and sea level change. He participated in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and was the co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize the IPCC received along with former vice president Al Gore. Alley was also the first recipient of the Stephen Schneider award for climate communication.
Sierra Melton, a geosciences Ph.D. student of Alley’s, currently focuses her studies on one of the largest glaciers in Greenland, Helheim Glacier. The glacier drains from the Greenland ice sheet straight into a fjord and – upon touching the water – breaks into icebergs. Melton is studying the complex hydrology behind the phenomenon as it is not totally understood by researchers yet.
“With more melting and warming, and glacier collapse, studying Helheim is kind of one way to look into the future where these glaciers might look like,” Melton said.
“It's really a very interesting glacier because there's a lot of meltwater, both on the glacier and, and draining from up the glacier,” she said.
Climate change research was the only major avenue Melton ever considered for a career path, long before she started her work on large-scale glaciology projects.
“I don't know exactly why but I was just always concerned about it,” Melton said. “Even for one of my birthdays in elementary school, I asked for donations to the World Wildlife Fund to save the polar bears. So yeah, so I guess I’ve always been concerned about climate change.”
“I am very concerned about what climate change is going to do for our future. And that’s why I’ve gotten into this work” she said. “And I think it does motivate me more than it makes me anxious.”