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What Arctic Glaciers Say About Climate Change
September 30, 2009   
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Prof. Jacek Jania, a glaciologist who studies the glaciers of Spitsbergen, chairman of the Polar Research Committee of the Polish Academy of Sciences, and head of the geomorphology unit at the Earth Sciences Department of the University of Silesia in Katowice, talks to Ewa Dereń.

The Fourth International Polar Year 2007-2009 ended this March. Ice2sea, a new project financed from European Union funds, began in June to research how polar glaciers contribute to raising the global ocean level. Does this intensification of polar research mean that the world has started to take global warming and its possible consequences seriously?
The International Polar Year 2007-2009 was in a way determined by the calendar-it was organized on the 50th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year (IGY 1957-1958) by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Still, it was the biggest scientific project in history, involving 64 countries and over 10,000 people who worked on more than 200 research projects.

Ice2sea, coordinated by Prof. David Voughan of the British Antarctic Survey, is a European project, though one carried out with partners from the United States and Russia. The EU has assigned 10 million euros for research under this project, the largest amount of EU funds ever earmarked for studies on how glaciers affect the global ocean level. This knowledge is essential for countries in Europe and elsewhere, because global warming is a fact. Over the past few decades, we have seen a significant decrease in the reach and thickness of glaciers on Spitsbergen, in the Antarctic, and recently in southern Greenland in particular. Glaciers are the first to react to climate change, which makes them an excellent medium for recording current change but also, when observed in a long-term perspective, they allow us to determine if the climate change trends are short-term in nature or are likely to last. Glaciers that end in the sea are more sensitive to climate change and more important for changes in the global ocean level than glaciers ending on land. Hence, the main aim of the Ice2sea project is to study the glaciers of the Arctic, and also the Antarctic. More than 20 research institutions from Europe are involved, including two from Poland: the Institute of Geophysics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), and the Earth Sciences Department of the University of Silesia.

Studies of glaciers that end in the sea were included in global glaciology thanks to glaciologists from the University of Silesia. Is it true that you were the precursor of this aspect of glacial research? In 1978, during your second stay on Spitsbergen, you took note of sea-ending glaciers as a potential object of study.

It's true that this early interest in glaciers has turned out to be especially important for the issue of the global ocean level. But I wouldn't call myself the precursor of this research. Before me, Prof. Mark Meier from the University of Colorado at Boulder studied Columbia Glacier in Alaska from this angle. His studies had a pragmatic reason, though. The port of Valdez is close by, a port of call for tankers taking oil from the Alaskan pipeline. Icebergs can be very dangerous to these huge ships, just like they were for the Titanic. A few years later they turned out to be less dangerous because Columbia Glacier withdraw deep into its branch of the fjord. My own interest in glaciers ending in the sea was driven purely by scientific curiosity. I asked myself what processes were responsible for a glacier "leaving" the water and retreating inland. I managed to infect a group of colleagues with my curiosity and they took up different aspects of this research. Prof. Meier heard about us and in the mid-1980s he invited me to attend a prestigious congress to present a paper on Hans Glacier on Spitsbergen, which was the subject of our research. It turned out there were only two such glaciers in the world at the time-Columbia Glacier in Alaska and Hans Glacier. Today we know of many more, for instance on Greenland where U.S. glaciologists are conducting intensive research. In 1988, I published my postdoctoral dissertation, noting for the first time that glaciers ending in the sea react more visibly to climate change. This work was published in Polish, with an extensive abstract and figure captions in English. I was surprised that it was widely cited at the time. The topic was quickly taken on by U.S. scientists. Looking back, the issue of who first discovered that glaciers produce icebergs faster when they flow faster-because more melted water reaches their bottom-is of secondary importance. The important thing is that long-term research by the Polish Polar Station at Hans Glacier on Spitsbergen, as well as the observations of other scientists in Greenland and Alaska, confirm the hypotheses of that publication. Research irrefutably shows that Arctic glaciers, especially those of Greenland, are the leading factor contributing to the global ocean level rise. Hence glaciers ending in the sea are currently the most attractive objects of study in glaciology. We are working in a large international team because this allows for better studies and understanding of the processes involved and their influence on climate change.

Poland is among the global leaders in glaciological research, largely thanks to what scientists have achieved at the Spitsbergen station. Is it true that the station's crew is predominately made up of researchers from the University of Silesia?
The Polish Polar Station at Hornsund belongs to the Polish Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geophysics. The University of Silesia has worked with the institute's scientists for many years, mainly with Assist. Prof. Piotr Głowacki's team. We are partners and complement one another in glacier research going beyond Hans Glacier alone. We also collaborate in glaciology with the universities in Toruń, Poznań and Lublin, and in climate research-with the University of Wrocław. The station's crew often also includes scientists from other countries. This is the northernmost Polish research mission that works year round. Built in 1957, after the first wintering of 1957-58, it was only active in summer. After a thorough renovation in 1978 it has been working nonstop; eight to 10 people spend the winter there every year. Today it is one of the most comfortable and best-equipped polar bases. The station conducts continuous geophysical research and studies the polar environment. The University of Silesia takes part in all the research projects, our main field being glaciers and the polar environment (frozen ground and the chemistry of water, including rainwater). We have good, advanced equipment that we modernize all the time. I am about to go to Spitsbergen to set up a new infrared distance finder at Hans Glacier. It should be able to record changes of the glacier terminus position during the polar night, when automatic digital cameras are useless. The glacier is studied using many different methods, both traditional ones like drilling and meteorological methods, and with the help of the latest equipment, including sensors installed in the ice, radar sounding of ice thickness and measuring ice movement using GPS satellite surveying.

Hans Glacier, the main research object for Silesian glaciologists, lies close to the station. Does this make observations easier?
Yes, one of the benefits is that we have one of the world's longest series of observations of a glacier that ends in the sea: the studies at Hans Glacier have continued uninterruptedly since 1982. This is unique. The observations of Columbia Glacier in Alaska are a slightly longer series, but this is outside the High Arctic proper. That's why we can boast a sizable number of citations of results from our glacier. International cooperation is very extensive as a result, too, because such long-lasting observations facilitate new experiments and allow us to develop digital models to better understand this type of glacier.

What exactly can we find out from the current studies of glaciers and what can this knowledge give us in practice?
Thanks to the latest research we have found out that the rising global ocean level is due not only to melting glaciers but also to the mechanical displacement of ice masses from land into the sea-when parts of a glacier break off, resulting in the formation of icebergs. Accelerated glacier melting caused by global warming delivers more melted water to the glacier bed, which reduces friction at the base and accelerates the glacier's flow. As a result, the glacier calves more intensively, meaning pieces break off into the sea. The water is displaced by the ice, of which just one-eighth is visible above the water surface, and this raises the global ocean level. That's how sea-ending glaciers work. Smaller glaciers react a little more quickly to climate change, huge glaciers like the Antarctic, for example, have a long delayed reaction. But all polar glaciers clearly say: the climate is warming. This is the most visible today in the Arctic. Sea ice is an especially sensitive indicator. In the fall of 2007, the smallest reach of sea ice in researched history was reported in the Arctic Sea-just 4.3 million square kilometers, almost 40 percent less than the average from 1979-2000. The rising of the global ocean level cannot be stopped. Today this rise is about 3 mm per year, half of which is due to glaciers melting and the rest comes from the seawater being heated due to global warming. The ocean rising by 3 mm annually means a rise of 3 cm after 10 years, and we can expect the pace to accelerate further. Added to that is storm swelling, with storms reaching further inland with each year. It's not hard to imagine the consequences for ports, cities and people in coastal areas. That's why it's so important to learn as much as possible about the mechanisms of glacier calving and other processes that determine the impact glaciers have on the sea level. The results will be used to prepare forecasts, among other things. Predicting certain phenomena in advance, we buy time to adjust to living in a warmer climate; or maybe we can find ways to use this warming to our advantage.

How can we benefit from climate warming?
There are benefits for transport, for instance. In 2007, Prof. Wiesław Masłowski, an outstanding Polish scientist working at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, came up with a model of ice loss in the Arctic Sea according to which we will be able to reach the North Pole without an ice-breaker in the summer of 2013. Two years ago, this was sensational news. Today, though, we can say there are quite good grounds for this model. If it were to prove correct and the ice cover on the Arctic Sea were to disappear, for one thing this would mean that a voyage from Gdańsk to Tokyo would take 40 percent less time. The savings are obvious. We simply need to learn how to utilize the effects of climate warming, of course without losing sight of the dangers. The EU is financing the Ice2sea project because most EU countries have a great concentration of people, substantial economic infrastructure and valuable protected areas along their coasts. All this is in danger of being flooded by the sea. The Dutch have known this for years and assign huge money to coastal research and protection. The British protect London from being flooded with seawater thanks to the unique structure of the Thames Barrier. In Poland, the state authorities still don't fully realize how serious the problem is, but districts on the Baltic coast already know that the width of their attractive sandy beaches will depend on the seawater level in the near future.

What are the latest forecasts on the rising of the global ocean level?
Current estimates suggest that by the end of the century the ocean level will be higher by 60-120 cm. These forecasts were developed before Ice2sea started; we hope that after it ends they will be much more reliable and accurate. The project is planned for three years and the results will serve as material for the fifth report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change). The previous, fourth IPCC report from 2007 contained serious inaccuracies related to underestimating the rise of the global ocean level. The report's polar segment included quite a few errors. This convinced leading European researchers, in association with several American centers, to take action to set things right. That's how the Ice2sea project was born, thanks to which future IPCC reports will provide up-to-date and firsthand data.

The effects of the Fourth International Polar Year are being summarized. What exactly does this project involve?
The International Polar Year is a scientific program involving the Arctic and the Antarctic. Its history goes back to the 19th century, when the First IPY was held in 1882-1883, with just 12 countries taking part, of course without Poland. Poland did take part in the Second IPY in 1932-1933, and also in the Third IPY in 1957-1958, which was called the International Geophysical Year because it encompassed the whole world, though the polar element was still the strongest. The main research topic at the time was the Antarctic. The Fourth IPY 2007-2009 dealt with the Arctic and the Antarctic and covered two one-year series so that the northern and southern hemispheres could observe all their full seasons. It closed officially this March, but expeditions carrying out its program are still working. In our case, observations related to the Fourth IPY will last until the start of the polar night.

The IPY is a major global scientific event; its strength lies in international cooperation-various tasks serving science involved over 10,000 people from 64 countries around the world. The program committee received 1,100 research project applications, and 228 of these were approved as priority projects. Mainly large international interdisciplinary projects using the latest technology were carried out during the Fourth IPY. The focus was on the signs and effects of climate warming. The general result is that the Earth's polar areas have become a lasting part of scientific investigations of fundamental importance to Earth geodynamics, global climate change, oceanology, the geophysical environment, and biological research. The Fourth IPY will leave behind new research stations, international cooperation between stations and ships as shared research platforms, new networks of automatic observation stations and millions of new data. Another major outcome of the IPY is getting the public interested in these issues.

Polish scientists took part in 40 projects as part of the Fourth International Polar Year. How significantly did they contribute to the global effort?
Our results rank us among the top 20 countries in the IPY. This success is made even greater by the fact that Poland assigned just under zl.9 million to the IPY, which is less than 0.25 percent of the money spent worldwide ($1.2 billion) and six times less than the average per participating country. Of those 40 research projects, just 17 received funding from Poland's Ministry of Science and Higher Education. However, the intellectual contribution and resourcefulness of Polish researchers allowed us to secure a very good position in terms of developing knowledge about the polar regions. We also had quite a few publications, with about 150 people publishing their results during those two years. Importantly, the researchers included quite a few young people, aged under 35. Many of them established very good contacts with their peers from other teams, which bodes well for the future. Polar research is costly and often dangerous, so only international cooperation can bring genuinely good effects. Both Polish polar stations, the Stanisław Siedlecki Polish Polar Station at Hornsund in the Arctic and the Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station, attracted many international research teams during the IPY, and this cooperation will continue well beyond the time frame of the IPY.

What kind of polar research projects involving Polish scientists produced the most noteworthy discoveries?
The projects carried out by Polish scientists during the Fourth IPY were diverse, involving areas such as biology, climatology, geology and geodynamics, oceanology, and, of course, glaciology. Our contribution to the IPY was significant in all these fields. As for glaciers, one critical development that opened up the way to future research was the discovery by the international team of Assist. Prof. Głowacki (from the Polish Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geophysics) of a lake under Spitsbergen's thickest ice field, Amundsenisen. Radar studies indicate the presence of water under the 700-meter shell of ice. Drilling is the only way to confirm the existence of the lake; negotiations are under way, as this research is very expensive. Drilling would allow the lake's age to be determined as well as providing water samples from thousands of years ago and, perhaps, also biotic elements that could be preserved there. If we obtain this data we will know when the area was not covered with ice. Drilling would also be an excellent way of preparing for finishing the borehole into the famous Lake Vostok under the continental ice sheet of the Antarctic.

In another achievement of international stature and a lasting contribution to the IPY, we have determined that the West Spitsbergen Current in fact comprises two rather complex currents of Atlantic water. A perceptibly warmer flow of Atlantic water into the Arctic Sea has been observed since 2004. This water flows across the European continental slope and appears in the region of Spitsbergen, warming it. Studying this phenomenon is the crowning of many years of observation by the team of Prof. Jan Piechura from the PAN Institute of Oceanology in Sopot. Since 1978, the institute has monitored the thermal currents and salinity of the northern Atlantic between Greenland, northern Norway and Spitsbergen-this intensified and involved more advanced equipment during the Fourth IPY. These excellent results were achieved because the observations had been conducted on a nonstop basis for a long period since 1978. The Institute of Oceanology's research vessel Oceania took part in this work, systematically sounding the Greenland Sea. The oceanographic data obtained by the scientists from Sopot were used by Prof. Masłowski from California when he developed his model of Arctic ice mass loss. Climatic models didn't explain the reasons for this loss well enough. It was a combination of climatic models and the oceanographic model that resulted in the sensational "Masłowski scenario," according to which the North Pole could be free of ice as early as 2013. Earlier models had suggested this would not occur until after 2040. Other interesting results were obtained in a marine biology project. The team of Prof. Jan Marcin Węsławski (from the PAN Institute of Oceanology) proved that Arctic species are moving north, ousted by marine organisms found at medium latitudes that are appearing with the inflow of warmer Atlantic water and the decline of the ice cover. Prof. Lech Stępniewicz (of the University of Gdańsk), on the other hand, discovered the related influence of the changed diet of birds on fertilizing the vegetation in the Spitsbergen tundra. This documents the impact of climate warming on marine and land ecosystems.

In climatology, it is worth mentioning the results of Prof. Tadeusz NiedĽwiedĽ (from the University of Silesia), who studies atmospheric circulation. Based on studies around the Polish station in Spitsbergen, he showed that climate warming causes more frequent migrations of low pressure centers, and thus more frequent weather changes. This is also the reason for the more frequent and intense rains on Spitsbergen in the summer than occurred in the past. A similar phenomenon is observed in Poland, another area that Prof. NiedĽwiedĽ studies.

The Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station on King George Island was very active during the IPY; it is run by the PAN Department of Antarctic Biology. Its crew have opened up several new fields of research, including studies of the reactions of the glaciers to climate warming. Also in the Antarctic, glaciers are shrinking in terms of mass and reach, and ecosystems are advancing into areas newly emerged from the water. It's also worth mentioning the outstanding research of Prof. Maria Agata Olech (from the Jagiellonian University), who specializes in bryophytes and vegetation colonizing new areas. She conducted such research on Spitsbergen where the distribution of plant species is changing due to climate warming. Dr. Małgorzata Błaszczyk (from the University of Silesia) also carried out research related to Spitsbergen, performing a sophisticated analysis of ASTER satellite images that yielded the current inventory and determined the state of breaking glaciers in the whole of the Svalbard archipelago.

Yet another field in which Polish researchers had very significant achievements during the IPY were studies of the deep structure of the Earth's crust at "polar gates"-passages between the Atlantic and the Arctic and Antarctic (the Plates and Gates project). Geophysical probing of "polar gates" is a complicated and costly type of research. It involves setting off explosives under the sea and observing the records of seismometers located at the ocean bottom in order to investigate seismic wave propagation, the geological structure of undersea areas, continental drift etc. A major role in this research is played by Prof. Aleksander Guterch (from the PAN Institute of Geophysics) and his team, who have collaborated with researchers from Japan, Norway and the United States as part of this project. Studying undersea areas is essential for understanding the geological development of our planet but also-in combination with identification of geological structures on the surrounding land-it has practical significance in prospecting for undersea mineral resources. It is estimated that the Arctic accounts for almost 10 percent of global oil resources and 30 percent of natural gas. The decline of marine ice will open up the shortest route from Europe to Asia without using ice-breakers, but it will also facilitate access to undersea deposits.

This last project shows how fundamental research can be used in practice. It also shows that the problems of the Arctic are important for not only scientific but also economic and geopolitical reasons. The possibility of mining undersea resources is sure to give rise to specific economic plans and territorial claims. Who decides about the Arctic today?
The final word belongs to the governments of the Arctic countries. A major role is played by the Arctic Council, which brings together countries whose territory lies partially in the Arctic. The council also offers observer status to countries that don't have Arctic territory but have contributed to discoveries in the Arctic; these include Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain. The observers are starting to speak with one voice because, since they invest in Arctic research, they want-in harmonious cooperation with the Arctic countries-to have a say in accessing and utilizing this important region of the Earth. This, however, is a role for diplomats, not scientists. Today there is talk of a treaty for the Arctic, similar to that drawn up for the Antarctic after the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). Signed in 1961, the Antarctic Treaty halted any territorial claims and turned the Antarctic into a territory under international control. Such an option is neither necessary nor possible for the Arctic, but a treaty on scientific cooperation, especially in research on climate change, would be advisable.

So far, the International Polar Year has been organized every 50 years. Considering the current importance of polar issues, will this period be shortened?
The next meeting of the group of people who run the IPY offices, to be held in Oslo in October, will make the decision-already consulted with various international bodies-on the Polar Decade 2010-2020 as a follow-up to the Polar Year. This is a very good idea because we should take advantage of the present rapid pace in research in fields that govern the Earth's climate, to benefit everyone. Climate warming cannot be stopped in the foreseeable future.

Prof. Jacek Jania, 59, graduated with honors in geography from the University of Wrocław in 1973 and obtained his PhD there in 1978. He obtained a postdoctoral degree in glaciology in 1988 and became a professor in 1996. His first job was with the State Geological Institute in Wrocław. He has been with the Earth Sciences Department of the University of Silesia since 1975. He has been elected to various posts at the University of Silesia, working as dean of the department in 1993-1996, and university vice-rector for science in 1996-1999. He is now chairman of the Polish Academy of Sciences' Polar Research Committee and a member of many scientific societies and committees at home and abroad.

His fields of scientific interest include glaciology, geomorphology, remote sensing and cartography. He has taken part in polar research projects since 1972, beginning with work for his MSc as a student. The main area of his research is southern Spitsbergen (Svalbard archipelago) as well as observations of glaciers in Iceland, Norway and the Himalayas. He has also conducted studies in the Tatra Mountains, the Pomerania region and the Silesian Upland. He has written about 70 scientific papers and three books.
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