This Week in Ice: Nov. 26-Dec.2


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HAPPY ANTARCTICA DAY (for Friday, Dec. 1)!

On December 1st, 1959, the nations of the world came together to sign the Antarctic Treaty, which says that “in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” To me, Antarctica is ever a sign of hope—that humanity can work together for good.

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Juvenile emperor penguin, Ross Sea                                                     Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

But this year’s Antarctica Day was especially momentous. Yesterday, the world’s largest marine reserve came into effect. The Ross Sea Marine Protected Area covers 598,000 square miles and was created by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources—the 24-nation body overseeing Antarctic waters. Cause for celebration indeed!

Endurance swimmer, marine lawyer, and ocean advocate Lewis Pugh engaged in multiple bone-chilling swims in Antarctic waters to gain global support for the protection of the Ross Sea.

“Over the past 30 years I’ve seen the devastating impacts of over-fishing and climate change on our oceans,” said Lewis. “If we allow the Ross Sea to go the same way, its unique riches may be lost forever. My hope is that these symbolic swims will bring the beauty and wonder of Antarctica into the hearts and homes of people around the world so they will urge their governments to protect this unique ecosystem, which is truly a polar Garden of Eden.”

Thank you for your tireless and extraordinary efforts, Lewis Pugh!

This week, I also met with filmmakers Stephen Smith and Diana Kushner to talk about their Enduring Ice project. With a very small team, they undertook an incredible adventure in the Arctic this past summer to draw attention to the importance of Arctic sea ice for balancing our climate.

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Credit: Stephen Smith

Starting only 500 miles from the North Pole, in three kayaks, they paddled and portaged south between the Canadian and Greenland coasts to make their upcoming documentary. I will be sharing my full interview with Diana and Steve soon.

I salute and am inspired by Pugh, Smith, Kushner, and their support teams—remarkable people working tirelessly for our vital polar regions.

Meanwhile in the Arctic, a new international agreement closed the Central Arctic Ocean—1.1 million square miles—to fishing for 16 years so that adequate research may be carried out to determine if commercial fishing would be sustainable.

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After 16 years, the pact will increase in 5-year increments, unless science-based limits on fishing and management are adopted or a country objects.

So, it’s been a great week for conservation of our polar regions!

Sea Ice

Kevin Pluck has produced another excellent animation showing the decline in global sea ice extent (since first satellite records to present).

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The freeze up in the Arctic is proceeding slowly:

And sea ice extent is low:

This week also saw abnormally warm weather in parts of the Arctic.

Due to fierce storms and warm Pacific waters, Arctic sea ice off Alaska has hit record lows and Alaska’s coast is vanishing as sea ice disappears.

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Antarctic sea ice is also lower than normal:

The Weddell polynya (an area of open water within the sea ice) is still in existence.

Melting sea ice could mess up deep sea chemistry.

And why, in a warming world, does Antarctic sea appear to be increasing in places?

Glaciers & Ice Shelves

NASA’s Operation IceBridge continues to provide spectacular images from Antarctica. One of my favorites this week over the Ross Ice Shelf:

The largest glacier in East Antarctica, the Totten glacier, is melting:

Icebergs

The iceberg formerly known as B-44, which calved from Pine Island Glacier—Antarctica’s fastest melting glacier—back in September and then quickly broke up, has further disintegrated.

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Image contains modified Copernicus Sentinel-1 data from ESA.

Scientists are concerned because they’re seeing a change in the calving pattern and in the glacier’s advance and retreat. An ice shelf  is a platform of floating ice that forms where a glacier or ice sheet floats to the coastline and onto the sea’s surface. Dr. Robert Larter, a marine geophysicist at the British Antarctic Survey says,

“If the ice shelf continues to thin and the ice front continues to retreat, its buttressing effect on PIG will diminish, which is likely to lead to further dynamic thinning and retreat of the glacier. PIG already makes the largest contribution to sea-level rise of any single Antarctic glacier and the fact that its bed increases in depth upstream for more than 200 km means there is the possibility of runway retreat that would result in an even bigger contribution to sea level.”

A very large iceberg also broke off Chile’s Grey Glacier.

General News

A study led by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and co-authored by an international team of researchers analyzed 90 blogs that cover climate change. 50% were science-based and 50% were climate change denier blogs, and these two groups had very different opinions on polar bears and Arctic sea ice extent.

First author Jeff Harvey from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology said,

“We found a major gap between the facts from scientific literature and the science-based blogs on one hand, versus the opinions ventilated in climate-change denying blogs on the other.”

They found that about 80% of the denier blogs relied on a single denier blog as their source. This source blog was written by a single author who had not conducted any original research or published articles in peer-reviewed literature. They found a lack of evidence and expertise, as well as personal attacks against researchers, are common among such climate change denial blogs. Jeff Harvey said,

“This is a very dangerous gap, as these blogs are read by millions.”

 

This week, to celebrate Antarctica Day and the Ross Sea Marine Protection Act, I ran a competition. I asked people to tell me why Antarctica is important. I got some excellent responses, which I will post in the next few days. Thank you to everyone who participated! You will all be receiving a large postcard print of my Gentoo penguin piece at the top of this post.

As always, I am not a scientist, but a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice. I welcome input and corrections by polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet and bring this knowledge to a wider audience.

Salt Marshes Stink!

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This week’s science adventure took me to a salt marsh in Barrington, Rhode island, with scientists Kenny, Tom, and Scott. With a wheelbarrow, numerous steel rods, two plastic step-stools, a plank of wood, several bags of quick-drying concrete, food and water for a hard day’s work, and sophisticated equipment that talks to satellites, we trudged through spongy, oozing, pungent coastal marsh.

And boots. Don’t forget tall, waterproof boots—-or waders if you’re lucky—-if you venture into the marsh. A salt marsh floods with the tides, and it’s a boggy, stinky, and treacherous place.

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Careful where you step, or the marsh may suddenly swallow a limb.

It’s hard to describe the stench of the marsh’s thick black mud. Mix rotten eggs, worn and moldy socks, and a briny tang, and you might be getting close. It’s an odor I’ve come to love, living in coastal Rhode Island, reminding me of happy days in my kayak, floating by spindly spider and fighting fiddler crabs, mussels, oysters, tiny fish called mummichogs, and graceful great blue herons and egrets. You can feel the abundance of life around you.

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Fiddler crab

Wetlands are areas of high productivity, meaning uncountable plants are breathing, growing, and reproducing, using sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into food for themselves and other organisms.

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Both migrating and resident Canada geese visit the salt marsh.

Macro-algae, various marsh grasses, and islands of shrubs, juniper trees, and other plants grow here. As Tom tells me, “Wetlands are now thought to be as productive as rain forests.”

It’s thrilling to be surrounded by one of the planet’s greatest carbon sinks. (A carbon sink is an area where productivity is high. Here masses of carbon dioxide—a major greenhouse gas—are taken up by plants.) Salt marshes, like other areas of high productivity such as rain forests and the Southern Ocean, are vital for mitigating global warming and climate change.

Today, Kenny and Tom are installing SETs—“surface elevation tables.” It’s an appropriate acronym for points set in concrete. Scott then uses sophisticated equipment to determine the elevation of each.

“I’m tying the SET into the National Spatial Reference System,” says Scott. “Water levels are rising, and salt marshes need to rise at the same pace. Otherwise they will flood and turn into mudflats—where vegetation can no longer grow.”

They will return to this marsh—and others like it—again and again over the years, measuring how its elevation and health change over time. Will they grow and rise? Will growth keep up with rising sea levels? Or will they sink, die, and regress?

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Scott and Kenny work together to pound a long metal pole deep into the spongy ground.

Tom, who has been mixing concrete to hold the stake in place, stands and stretches. This is hard physical work, and we are tired, wet, and filthy. He gazes out over the waving marsh grasses. “I grew up by the salt marsh. We could play football on the marsh in those days.”

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Tom concretes the stake into place, while Kenny spreads powdered rock called feldspar.

“You couldn’t do that now,” Kenny says matter-of-factly. We look down at the soggy peat below us. It ripples beneath us with each strike of the post hammer. “Especially here—this marsh is so degraded.”

“They didn’t used to stink as bad,” says Tom. “A lot of the stinkiness is due to the fact that they are now drowning in place due to sea level rise, sadly.”

Now Kenny is shaking out white powdery feldspar over two sections of the plot. “The feldspar is for what’s called a marker horizon,” he says. “As organic and inorganic material gets deposited on it over time, we can later take a small core and measure how much has accumulated over the feldspar over time, divide by time, and you get a surface accretion rate.”

“Why should we care about marshes?” I ask as they all take a breather. Kenny and Tom reel off a list of reasons.

Salt Marsh Facts:

  • Salt marshes grow on coasts and in estuaries the world over. In the US, they can be found on every coast.
  • Salt marshes stink due to the gases given off by decomposing organic matter.
  • The soil is composed of spongy peat (decomposing plant matter) and thick mud.
  • The marsh is frequently flooded, then drained, by salty tidal water.
  • Salt marshes provide a habitat—including food, shelter, and a safe place for juveniles—for over 75% of the fish and selfish humans enjoy.
  • Humans love wetlands and estuaries too for fishing and shell-fishing, boating, paddling, birding, and more.
  • Salt marshes protect shorelines from erosion and buffer wave action, especially during storms.
  • They trap sediment, which also helps protect the estuary.
  • They absorb rainwater and reduce coastal flooding.
  • They filter water and absorb excess nutrients (e.g., from fertilizers), thereby keeping beaches and waterways cleaner.

Salt marshes might stink, but what’s not to love about them? They are essential for our economy, culture, and environment.

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We love the salt marsh!

You can see an interview with Kenny in this piece by the Providence Journal.

Kenneth Raposa is a salt marsh ecologist with The Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Reserve, Tom Kutcher is a wetland scientist with Rhode Island Natural History Survey, and Scott Rasmussen is an environmental scientist with the Environmental Data Center at the University of Rhode Island. This project is funded through the RI Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) to establish two additional long-term salt marsh monitoring sites to complement the existing few sites. The goal is to build a strong network of long-term sites around all coastal RI to gain a better understanding of what is happening to salt marshes throughout the state.