Arctic sea ice 2008 from NASA Explorer

This short video talks about the changes in polar ice caps with global warming. Is this a blip in the weather or long-term climate change?

Arctic ice cap in 2008

Arctic ice cap in 2008

What’s in your permafrost?

A man walking in his Arctic village found the remains of a 20,000-year-old bison.

Perhaps unfortunately, the man did not call on scientists immediately, but waited until it melted out of the soil, then gathered it up the bones and some internal organs and carried them away.

Arctic ice reaches a new low in historic times

The Arctic ice-pack has fallen below its previous nadir of September 2005, formerly the lowest area on record, and it’s still melting.

“During the first week in July, the Arctic sea ice started to disappear at rates we had never seen before,” said Sheldon Drobot, who leads the Arctic Regional Ice Forecasting System group at the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research, CCAR.The group at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department is the only group in the world making seasonal Arctic sea ice forecasts based on probability. Arctic sea ice researchers pay particular attention to the months of September and March because they generally mark the annual minimum and maximum sea ice extents respectively, said Drobot. The record low September minimum for sea ice, set in 2005, is 2.15 million square miles, Drobot said.

For 2007, the most likely minimum extent is 1.96 million square miles, he said. But there is a 25 percent chance the September sea ice extent will shrink even more – to 1.88 million square miles – said Drobot, and even a five percent chance it will fall to 1.75 million square miles, he said. Arctic sea ice is “one of the better predictors of climate change on Earth,” Drobot said. “There will probably be about two-thirds as much sea this September as there was 25 years ago, a good indication that something significant is happening with the climate.”

For more stories about polar ice, please see

New group of algae in Arctic waters: picobiliphytes

The Alfred Wegener Institute has announced the discovery of a new group of algae. They are small and contain proteins found in the cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). The picobiliphytes are “A marine picoplanktonic algal group with unknown affinities to other Eukaroytes.”

Scientists estimate that up to 90 percent of phytoplanktonic species are currently unidentified. In the present study, scientists used molecular techniques to investigate the smallest members of the plankton, the picoplankton. Because picoplankton algae are so extremely small, they are almost impossible to study by means of microscopy.

Researchers investigated gene sequences of the 18S gene, common to all cells. The identity of new organisms can be deduced from a comparison of familiar and unfamiliar gene sequences. “The gene sequences found in these algae could not be associated with any previously known group of organisms”, explain Dr Klaus Valentin and Dr. Linda Medlin, co-authors of the study and molecularbiologists at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven. The algae in this study were found in plankton samples originating from various regions of the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The scientists have discovered a group of organisms which, despite being completely new to science, have a wide distribution. “This is a good indication for how much there is still to discover in the oceans, especially using molecular tools”, says Valentin. [rest deleted]

Cold-loving algae flourish in Arctic.

Book: The Ice Finders

How did I forget to review this one?

This is another story of scientific detection: how clues scattered over the landscape were recognized as signs of widespread glaciation. In this book, Edmund Blair Bolles describes how people realized that glaciers and ice-fields were part of the earth’s history, and that periods of glaciation explained some features that were previously attributed to the Biblical Flood of Jewish myth.

This book covers a hundred years of discovery and debate, and makes it clear that the dating of rocks by fossils and fossils by rocks is not circular reasoning, but stepped: geology enabled scientists to date SOME rocks, which gave them dates for SOME fossils, which helped them to date OTHER rocks and fossils, all the while gathering in other supporting lines of evidence.

This book ties together the researches of scientists all over Europe with Elisha Kent Kane’s exploration, 20 years later, of the coast of Greenland and Canada’s arctic islands. The exploration story is particularly intense, and I think I’d enjoy the stories more if they were told one at a time instead of the author’s cutting back and forth between them.

Finished the book. The author makes clear that scientists are humans who are motivated by self-esteem and jealousy, and that they cling to their pre-conceived notions. But they also change their minds when the weight of evidence becomes overwhelming.

  • Louis Agassiz spent years gathering evidence for an ice age because he wanted to prove that God had wiped out all life on earth and started again with a new Creation.
  • Charles Lyell denied the evidence of ice movement because he didn’t want to believe that the earth could be so different in the past. He spent years trying to prove that flooding and icebergs could have moved the erratics found all over Europe.
  • Elisha Kent Kane undertook a romantic voyage to explore the Arctic and nearly died as a result but came back a wiser man who had seen the last stronghold of the Ice Age.

This story spans many years and illustrates clearly the wandering but self-correcting path of science.

ISBN 1-58243-101-9

Dude, where’s my ice shelf?

When I saw the news that the Ayles Ice Shelf at Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic had collapsed sixteen months ago, I thought that the news service was recycling old news for a slow period. But no—it collapsed 16 months ago and no-one noticed!

This shelf is small compared to the segment of the Ross Ice Shelf that broke off in the Antarctic. But it is 15 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide at its widest point. It is about 35 metres thick and it poses a danger to oil-drilling platforms in the area.

The ice in this shelf might be 4,500 years old. It has been a long time since the ice melted enough to let it break off. Scientists can not say that this is definitely caused by global warming. But it certainly is suggestive.

UPDATE: It wasn’t that nobody noticed, it’s that they didn’t make an announcement. The collapse of the ice shelf registered as a small earthquake, and occurred during the warmest summer on Ellesmere Island since 1960.

Here’s another article about the Arctic ice, with more facts, from the Science and Technology pages.

For further events, please see “Ross Ice Shelf break-up in Antarctic” (Dec. 20, 2006), “Arctic Ice reaches new low in historic times” (Aug. 2007), and “Wilkins Ice Shelf collapses in Antarctica” (Mar. 2008).

What would you do with the cleanest water in the world?

This story from the G&M is slated to evaporate within a week, so I’m quoting it here.

Earth’s cleanest water creates thorny issue
In Tiny Township, a precious resource faces threat from proposed garbage dump


TINY TOWNSHIP, ONT. — In this oddly named community in Central Ontario lies the world’s most pristine groundwater.

The water bubbling to the surface is so clean the only match for its purity is ice pulled from the bottom of Arctic ice cores from snows deposited thousands of years ago, well before any high-polluting industries existed.

“This is kind of like the old-growth forest of natural waters,” says William Shotyk, a geochemistry professor at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. “It tastes excellent. It’s the best water on Earth.”

The discovery of ultraclean groundwater would normally be greeted with great cheer in a world that is increasingly short of good drinking water.

But in Tiny Township, it has raised a thorny issue. The province has just approved placing a garbage dump on top of it, and the county plans to vote early next year on a budget for building the landfill. Garbage could be arriving within a year, threatening to pollute the water.

Dr. Shotyk, an expatriate Canadian, runs, at the German university, what is considered the world’s most sophisticated laboratory for measuring trace metals in water, a facility set up to analyze contaminants in prehistoric ice.

By chance, his family also owns property five kilometres from the proposed dump, which lies northwest of the city of Barrie.

This is an area of artesian wells, where water frequently rises out of the ground under its own pressure. Dr. Shotyk, after running tests on polar ice, got curious, in a scientific way, about how the water under the proposed dump would stack up against the really clean ice from ancient times. He drove over to the landfill site, currently a big grassy field, got some samples, and shipped them in a cooler to Germany for testing.

The results were unexpected. The water was comparable to ice with the lowest concentrations of metals ever measured anywhere on the planet.

Levels for lead and antimony, for instance, were typically only a couple of parts per trillion. That’s a concentration equivalent to a few grains of salt dissolved in an Olympic swimming pool and thousands of times cleaner than Ontario drinking-water standards, which limit lead because it causes brain damage. Low levels were also found for cobalt, chrome, vanadium, silver, copper and molybdenum, among others.

The metal content was comparable to the cleanest ancient Arctic ice from Devon Island in Canada’s Far North. The ice cores go back 16,000 years, and the metals in the Tiny water matched the cleanest period in the ice record, a long stretch from 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, when snow had very low metal contamination.

Since the finding, Dr. Shotyk has been extolling the virtues of Tiny’s water wherever he can. He has spoken to local politicians, urging them not to build the landfill because it might contaminate the water. And he has delivered the same message to staff at Ontario’s Ministry of Environment.

In a quirky way, he views the water as the hydrological equivalent of the spotted owl, the rare, endangered bird living in old-growth B.C. forests, the fate of which is frequently the subject of hand-wringing by conservationists. “Somebody has to speak for this water. We’ve got people speaking for spotted owls out on the West Coast,” he said. “I’m trying to speak for this water.”

At the ministry, researchers don’t dispute his finding that the water is exceptionally clean. “He’s not exaggerating when he says it’s certainly quite clean as far as metal levels go,” says Ray Clement, a senior research scientist. “To be lower than the levels he found, there’d be almost nothing at all.”

A different branch of the ministry that handles environmental assessments approved the dump after Dr. Shotyk informed the government of his findings, because it believes Simcoe County will be able to put controls in place to keep seepage from garbage out of most of the water.

The water is so clean because the soil and rocks from which it is drawn don’t contain many metals, and it has low acidity levels, which means that any metals present aren’t likely to dissolve.

Dr. Shotyk has already made one research discovery using Tiny water. There was so little antimony in it that he couldn’t find published accounts of such low amounts, although he did come across a reference suggesting that it might be in bottled water.

That made him test bottled water, and earlier this year, he published a finding that water sold in Canada in plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, contains antimony at amounts hundreds of times higher than clean water. The metal, used in making plastic, leaches into bottled water the longer it sits on store shelves.

Dr. Shotyk says Tiny water “is so clean it’s become my reference water for studying the contamination of bottled waters.”

Water at the proposed dump has been a big issue because there is so much of it. Test wells, capped giant metal pipes that resemble straws, stick out of the ground around the site. Once uncapped, the wells gush the ultraclean water, which rises out of the ground due to pressure.

Paradoxically, given how much people are willing to pay for clean water, the pristine water is a nuisance at the dump site.

In order to dig out a pit for the dump, the county will have to pump millions of litres out of the ground to prevent the landfill from becoming a pond. The pure water Dr. Shotyk uses for his laboratory experiments will be dumped into a nearby creek.

The amounts wasted in this way will be large, enough to slake the needs of up to 250,000 people a day for months.

The landfill is designed so that clean groundwater is supposed to seep into the dump and become contaminated with garbage residue. Then it will be sucked out using a network of pipes and hauled to a local sewage plant. It is hoped that this inward flow of some of the pure water will protect the rest from contamination.

Over the life of the dump, more water will have to be treated for cleaning or dumped into the nearby creek than the weight of garbage planned for the site.

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