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Greenland and Antarctica Ice Caps Linked By Ocean Current

Polar ice caps of Antarctica.
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Nov 8, 2006
Greenland and Antarctica are at opposite ends of the planet but their climate systems appear to be linked by a remarkable ocean current, according to a study appearing Thursday. The paper, coincidentally published as a key UN conference on climate change unfolds in Nairobi, also sheds light on man-made climate change, for it implies that Antarctica's ice could eventually start to melt because of localised warming in the far North Atlantic.

The evidence comes from a 2,500-metre (8,125-feet-) deep ice core, drilled in blood-freezing chill by European scientists at Dronning Maud Land, on the part of Antarctica that faces the South Atlantic.

With its compacted layers of ice and telltale concentrations of methane in trapped air bubbles, the core yields a compelling picture of snowfall and atmospheric temperatures going back 150,000 years.

Even better than that, it can be matched with cores of similar amplitude drilled in the Greenland icesheet.

Put together, the cores provide the first solid evidence to back a theory that millennial scale climate changes that have unfolded in the far north and south of the Atlantic are not isolated, local events, but linked.

The glacial climate in the Northern Atlantic can swing extraordinarily rapidly, with temperatures rising by between eight and 16 C (14.4-28.8 F) within the space of a few decades at the end of each Ice Age and falling back, albeit more slowly, when the next Ice Age beckons.

Antarctica, though, has far smaller temperature shifts, of between only one and three C (1.8-5.4 F), and these unfold over millennia.

But the two sets of ice cores point to what the EPICA (European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica) scientists, reporting in the British journal Nature, describe as a "bipolar seesaw."

In short: what happens at one end of the Atlantic has a huge effect on the other, although at different timescales and in different ways.

The cause appears to be a conveyor-belt system of ocean flows.

Under it, relative heat from the Southern Ocean around Antarctica is picked up by a complex system called the Meridional Overturning Current (MOC), of which the Gulf Stream is the best-known component.

The MOC channels warm surface water up to the North Atlantic, coincidentally enabling countries in northwestern Europe to have a balmy climate despite their northerly latitude.

When this warm water reaches the far north, it cools and sinks, and the MOC sends it back southwards, back down towards Antarctica, at depths far below the ocean's surface.

"Our data shows that the degree of warming in the South is linearly related to the duration of cold periods in the North Atlantic," said lead author Hubertus Fischer of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, Germany.

Understanding this link also sheds light on a troubling aspect about man-made global warming -- the fate of Antarctica, where the world's biggest store of frozen water is held.

"Today, Antarctica is still a reservoir of cold. We don't see any contribution to global sea-level change because of Antarctica, it's not melting yet, in fact there has been more precipitation and some models suggest that Antarctica actually will grow a little," Fischer told AFP in an interview.

That reassuring scenario could change if -- as some studies are now tentatively suggesting -- the MOC is beginning to falter, said Fischer.

The causes for this slowing of the Atlantic conveyor belt could be a runoff of cold water from melting Siberian permafrost or the Greenland icesheet, triggered by rising atmospheric temperatures.

But any disruption would lead to a buildup of warmer water off Antarctica, according to the conveyor-belt theory.

"If the thermohaline [ocean convection] circulation in the Atlantic slows down just a little, it would cause a warming in the Southern Ocean," Fischer said.

"And if you have warming around Antarctica, at a certain point, the fringes of Antarctica will even warm over the melting point. Then we could start to see melting at the borders and runoff and that would contribute to sea-level rise."

A conference on global warming and the carbon pollution that causes it is running until November 17 in Nairobi, gathering signatories of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Source: Agence France-Presse

Related Links
Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research
Glaciers at Sweden - PDF paper from USGS
Beyond the Ice Age

Shrinking Swedish Glaciers Suggest Global Warming
Stockholm (AFP) Nov 8, 2006
Sweden's glaciers are melting at a rate that conforms to global warming climate models, Swedish researchers said on Wednesday. "In the past glaciers in the north (of Sweden) showed a pattern that did not correspond with climate change models (of global warming), they could even be used as an argument against global warming.

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