Patagonia Ice and the Pandemic Stories It Will Tell

Candice Gaukel Andrews September 1, 2020 0
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After conducting a comprehensive, seven-year survey of Patagonia, glaciologists have concluded that the ice sheets in this vast region of South America are considerably more massive than expected.

With temperatures predicted to top 90 degrees Fahrenheit all week in Wisconsin where I live, I, of course, have been thinking about ice. For the past two decades, in fact, my thoughts have often turned to the world’s glacial fields and how climate change is changing them. But this article isn’t going to be just another one filled with dire prognostications for the future if we don’t act soon.

That’s because in addition to the summer’s high temperatures, the coronavirus pandemic has brought my ice introspections into even sharper focus and a deeper understanding. For me, melting glaciers aren’t just about saving coastal cities, the environment and polar bears anymore. Climate change, the world’s ice and the pandemic seem to be converging at this precise moment to show us a way forward, laying out a blueprint for rebuilding a better world that seriously takes nature into account.

More ponderous Patagonia ice

Patagonia is home to the largest ice fields in the Southern Hemisphere, outside of Antarctica; and its glaciers are among the fastest-moving on the planet. In the last 40 years, surface elevation observations from satellite radar altimetry and optical imagery have shown that most of the ice sheets in the region have been thinning rapidly. Their contribution to global sealevel rise has accelerated during that time.

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The Perito Moreno Glacier belongs to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which is the third largest freshwater reserve on the planet after the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.

But according to a new study conducted with support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and published in the June 2019 issue of the American Geophysical Union science journal Geophysical Research Letters, several glaciers in Patagonia are much thicker than previously thought.

The reason that past attempts to gauge the total heft of Patagonian ice have fallen short is because traditional sounding techniques were limited to the shallowest sections of the ice field. Another obstacle has been the temperate nature of Patagonian ice: the frozen water in the glaciers is near the melting point from the top to the bottom. This higher water content makes this kind of ice more difficult to measure with radar and thus quantify its bed elevation and thickness.

In order to overcome these challenges, scientists working on the new study took to the skies, flying over broad stretches of terrain in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft equipped with gravimeters, devices that can determine ice volume by reading changes in the Earth’s gravitational field. Adding in data collected by glaciologists from Chile’s Center for Scientific Studies—who had mapped the ice thickness with low-frequency, airborne radar sounding since 2002—the researchers were able to create the most complete ice-density map of the area to date. Some glaciers were found to be as much as a mile thick, or roughly 40 times the ice volume of the European Alps.

Scientists in Antarctica collect ice cores, which hold a record of what our planet was like hundreds of thousands of years ago. ©NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

With this more precise knowledge of the size and shape of the glaciers in this highly protected region—much of which is contained in one of the world’s largest national park systems—scientists and others will be able to more accurately model the effects of global warming and plan for potential disruptions in the freshwater resources that serve ecosystems and their inhabitants downstream.

Cores recording COVID-19

That good news about thicker ice than we thought existing in at least one area of the world means that we’ve got more trackers of COVID-19—at least, for future generations.

For a long time now, scientists have used ice cores from glaciers around the world to study societal changes throughout history. Ice and snow trap whatever is in the atmosphere at the time, including chemicals, microbes (such as bacteria and viruses), minerals and other organic material, like leaves and stems of plants. Ice cores, then, act as time lines, in some cases showing changes in the atmosphere year by year, much like the rings of a tree.

It follows that the ice now accumulating on fields around the world, such as those in Patagonia and in Greenland, is almost certainly collecting biological, chemical and physical evidence of this time period. During the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic—when people stayed home and drove less—nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide levels dropped over China and throughout much of the U.S. Both are potent pollutants that primarily form by burning fossil fuels, such as gas and oil. That decrease will be evident in ice cores retrieved by glaciologists 100 or 200 years from now.

Sections of ice cores are melted in order to release ancient atmospheric gases that are trapped in bubbles in the pristine ice. ©brookpeterson, flickr

Choice of future climates

We are standing at the moment when we can make a choice about what story the ice deposited now will tell about us to those in the future. According to a new, international study led by England’s University of Leeds and published in Nature Climate Change, a postlockdown economic recovery plan that emphasizes and incorporates climate-friendly choices could help significantly in the battle against global warming.

In the study, a research team found that despite carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other emissions falling by 10 to 30 percent globally through the massive behavioral shifts seen during the initial phases of the coronavirus lockdown, there will be only a tiny impact on the climate, mainly because the confinements were temporary. If some current lockdown measures stay in place to the end of 2021, it will have no significant impact on global temperatures by 2030. But if we include climate policy initiatives as part of a strong, green economic recovery plan, we could prevent more than half of the additional warming currently expected by 2050.

This would provide a good chance that global temperatures will stay below the Paris Agreement’s aspirational 1.5-degree-Celsius, global-warming limit, meaning the difference between success and failure when it comes to avoiding dangerous climate change.

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Glacial ice is a history textbook. What stories will it tell future generations about us?

The texts will tell

Two decades ago, if I had asked you to imagine what soaring temperatures, melting ice caps, raging storms and rising oceans would feel and look like, you’d probably have imagined some Hollywood science-fiction movie. Today, you just have to turn on the news.

Climate change and the coronavirus have joined together to show us that there are real consequences from denying science. For years, infectious disease experts have been cautioning us about the imminent appearance of a novel virus and that we need to be ready for it. Likewise, climate scientists have been warning for decades that we are unprepared for what lies just over the horizon.

I’m hoping that COVID-19 has finally opened our ears to scientists. We can’t just go back to business as usual when the threat of the virus subsides. I dream that the pandemic will provide us with compassion, insight and the strength to build a resilient and robust future.

Now, think about what you want the ancient texts of ice to say about you.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

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