Tidewater Glaciers: Harbingers of Climate Change?

We’ve all seen them. The videos of sheets upon sheets of glacier ice falling into the waiting, warming ocean. (If you haven’t yet, go check out Chasing Ice – a fantastic documentary.) But what have we actually learned from those videos? Well Dr. Jason Amundson of the University of Alaska Fairbanks recently spoke at Emory University about tidewater glaciers and the role they play in our understanding of ecosystem processes and climate change.

Dr. Amundson first defined tidewater glaciers. These glaciers are those that cut off in the ocean as opposed to land. There are about 50 of them in Alaska alone and most of them are retreating. This retreat can be moderate and part of the normal life cycle of the glacier or it can be a rapid response to a change in climate. It could look something like this:

glacier 2 pic
A stark visual representation of Muir glacier’s retreat. Source: NASA


In order to better understand glaciers in the context of climate change and vice versa, scientists are trying to model or predict these changes. That way, we can get clearer picture of arctic environmental processes. Even though glaciers are very difficult to model, glaciologists like Dr. Amundson are on the case!

Source: The Pink Panther / thedrive.com


There is a lot of information that we can gather about tidewaters that has implications for other environmental processes.They can change quickly and are often quite sensitive to shifts in climate, making them a point of interest for glaciologists and climatologists. The ocean’s average temperature is one of the more straightforward factors. The warmer the ocean, the more submarine melting (glacier ice melting beneath the surface) and can quicken the glacier’s break down. A widespread retreat is big indicator that a glacier is responding to atmospheric and/or oceanic warming.

There are new models in the process of being developed and implemented, but in the meantime we can draw conclusions about other regions given our current understanding of tidewater glaciers. It is known that West Antarctica is below sea level and there are extremely high thinning levels there. This could contribute to sea level rise in a big way, but to what extent is still uncertain.

I know the focus is on climate change and the big picture, but it’s always important to remember the details as well. These glaciers are key processes in an ecosystem that is home to lots of  awesome species. Polar bears, sea otters, albatrosses and whales – the list goes on! (Yes, I’m hitting you with the cute factor.) It’s always good to remember that this isn’t just about humans in relation to the climate, it’s also about protecting those species that have no control over the situation.

otter pic
Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium

We are lucky that we get to try to model these glaciers. We can improve our understanding and hopefully use that knowledge to help the earth, ecosystems, and individual species, including our own.

Source: Wikipedia

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