In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Jason Briner reveals evidence that glaciers respond to temperature changes more rapidly than previously thought.
Jason Briner is an associate professor of geology at the University at Buffalo where his paleoclimate lab uses glacial and lacustrine records to study climate change in the Arctic. His research examines ice sheet processes and the history of glaciation to understand arctic climate change during the Pleistocene and the Holocene. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Dr. Jason Briner – Glaciers and Temperature Change
We’re learning more and more about how ice sheets are changing today. In places like Greenland and Antarctica, we see tremendous changes taking place. But, it is difficult to know how these ice sheet changes are influenced by climate. The pattern of ice sheet change is noisy - speeding up, slowing down, retreating fast, retreating slowly – and it is difficult to detect the climate “signal” through all this ice sheet “noise.”
This difficulty partly stems from our relatively short period of observation – which spans only the past few decades. If we understood how ice sheets changed in the distant past, for example during well-documented periods of past climate change, we could better decipher the climatic “signal” of ice sheet change.
My team has been working on this problem by reconstructing past changes of Arctic ice sheets. We look at geologic formations that ice sheets created in the past that still exist on the landscape today. We go to places like Arctic Canada and Greenland to read the record that is still there, which tells us about past ice sheet behavior.
What we’re seeing is that ice sheets are surprisingly sensitive to even short periods of temperature change. A new study we published in the journal Science shows that thousands of years ago, Arctic ice sheets responded to a very brief period of climate change – by brief I mean on timescales that would matter to us – a couple degrees in just a few decades. This finding is somewhat surprising because it tells us that even huge masses of ice can respond to abrupt climate change in as little as decades.
One of the ways we hope our research will help with current problems is that our ability to forecast the future — the future of ice sheet changes, and sea level rise — largely hinges on the ability of computer models to make accurate predictions. The geological reconstructions that we’re producing ultimately help to improve climate and ice sheet models – and hence our ability to plan better for the future.