Cincy Science: UC professor and students study glaciers as 'great sensors for climate change'

CINCINNATI - On May 6, NASA released a study calling the melt of Antarctic glaciers “unstoppable.” The prediction? That water levels will continue to rise more than three feet by 2100 as glaciers reduce in size, breaking into fast-melting ice flows. NASA declared the area of West Antarctica to be "past the point of no return."

NASA based its study on satellite data from more than 40 years of observation.

At the University of Cincinnati, department head and professor of geology, Lewis Owen has been studying the progression of glaciers for the past 25 years. His primary focus is primarily on glacial region located in Tibet and the Himalayas.

"We're interested in how glaciers change over time as climate has changed, because we're in a changing climate at the moment, dominantly because of increased human activity," Owen said. "From understanding past glacial changes, we can understand how glaciers may change in the future."

While glaciers in Antarctica show a rapid melting, Owen explained glaciers in the Tibetan region paint a more complex picture. He and a team of students have traveled to the region several times to assess changes.

Q&A with Professor Owen

1. Could you briefly tell me about your ongoing study with glaciers in the Himalayas?

Over the past 25 years, my students and I have been studying glaciers throughout the Himalayas and Tibet. We have been trying to understand how glaciers advance and/or melt related to past natural climate change. We do this by looking at ancient landforms produced by glaciers in the past and applying modern dating techniques to find out when the glaciers advances and/or melted.

2. How exactly do you determine the changes in glaciers?

This involves much fieldwork, remote sensing and laboratory work at UC. These studies are showing a complex picture of change. In some places glaciers advance or melted earlier than others, and to differing extents. We have also been looking at what glaciers are doing today and are trying to predict future change.

In short, the past, present and future pattern of change is complex. Glaciers in many regions of the Himalaya are retreating, similar to other mountain regions of the world, while in some regions (e.g. western Himalaya) glaciers are stable or even advancing. Our work is showing glaciers are very sensitive to climate change and their response to climate change is quite complex.

3. Did your research uncover new data that contradicts earlier studies?

We are showing that glacier response to climate change in the Himalaya and Tibet is complex. The simple idea of all glacier melting is due to human-induced climate change in the Himalaya and Tibet is more complex that one might think. This complexity adds to the potential hazards and detrimental effects of climate change on glaciers in the Himalaya; because of the unpredictability.

Despite the unpredictably, our work does show that glaciers in the Himalayan and Tibetan regions will be very sensitive to the increased temperatures that we will experience in the coming years and with overall effect being significant melting away of the glaciers. The melting over the past century, especially the last few decades, has already been substantial.

4. Why is it important to study glaciers in terms of climate change for the planet?

Glaciers are important because they are great sensors for recognizing climate change. They are very sensitive to changes in climate. They act like a canary for recognizing climate change in mountains. Moreover, glaciers and associated snowfields are important sources for water. This is particularly so in the Himalaya and Tibet where they add water to many of our great rivers (Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Yangste etc.) that help sustain vast populations (something like a third of the world’s population).

5. Could you discuss how climate change or what many call "global warming" is affecting glaciers?

In essence, global climate change  will cause mountain glaciers to melt. However, in some regions, such as the Himalaya, global climate change may increase precipitation, which at high altitudes falls as snow. This may initially cause glaciers to grow; but not necessarily in all regions. But over time the warming will likely exceed the effect of increased snowfall and glaciers will melt. Melting and/or disappearing glaciers alters the supply of water, which will have great effects on the people who use it.

Also, melting glaciers leave behind lakes that form behind dams produced by the sediments left by the melting glaciers. These dams may be catastrophically breached and the resulting floods have devastating effects. There are many examples of this happing in high mountains such as the Himalaya. My students at UC and I have also been studying these hazards.

6. What effects will climate change have on our planet during the next century?

Profound! Not only environmentally, but politically, socially and economically.

(Photos

courtesy of L. Owen)

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