More coastal glaciers around the world are melting faster than ever, but what exactly triggers the large-scale retreat has been difficult to pin down due to natural fluctuations in the glacier environment. Now, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and Georgia Tech have developed a methodology they believe cracks the code for why coastal glaciers are retreating, and in turn, how much can be attributed to human-induced climate change.
Attributing human influence to coastal glaciers – which flow directly into the sea – could pave the way for better predictions of sea level rise. So far, scientists have only tested the approach than in computer models using simplified glaciers. They found that even modest global warming caused most glaciers to melt or retreat.
The next step, the US National Science FoundationAccording to supported researchers, researchers must simulate the coastal glaciers of an actual ice cap, such as Greenland’s, which contains enough ice to raise sea levels by about 22 feet (7 meters). This will reveal if glaciers are retreating due to climate change and help predict when major ice loss could occur.
“The methodology we propose is a roadmap for making confident statements about what the human role is [in glacial retreats]”, said glaciologist John Christian of the University of Texas at Austin and Georgia Tech. “These statements can then be communicated to the public and to decision makers and help in decision making.
Published in the journal The Cryosphere, the methodology is unique because it treats the rapid retreat of glaciers as an individual probabilistic event, such as a forest fire or a tropical storm. For significant retreat to occur, the glacier must retreat past its “stability threshold”, which is usually a steep rise in the underlying bedrock that helps slow and stabilize its flow.
The likelihood of this happening varies with local climate and ocean conditions which change with natural fluctuations and human-caused warming. Even small variations can cause big changes in the behavior of glaciers, making them difficult to predict and leading to cases where glaciers are retreating right next to those that are not.
“This study gives us a toolkit to determine the role of humans in the loss of ice from Greenland and Antarctica, to say with confidence that it is not a mere coincidence,” said the glaciologist and co- Georgia Tech author Alex Robel.
When scientists ran models without human-caused climate change, they found it was virtually impossible for more than a few glaciers to start retreating every few years. In contrast, since 2000, 200 of Greenland’s 225 coastal glaciers have been in various states of retreat.
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