Monday, January 19, 2009

The Great Melt

Have you heard about the Great Melt? I'm sure you have in some form of melting glaciers, shrinking ice worlds, etc. However, given technology efforts, scientists have actually been able to "weigh" our melting Alaskan glaciers.

Thanks to NASA satellites, the GRACE mission allows two orbiting satellites to capture and calculate new, relevant data over various glacier hotspots in Alaska. The satellites are about 137 miles apart, pending the gravitational pull from the area they circling. By calculating weight change every 10 days, researchers determined that the Gulf of Alaska glaciers are losing 84 gigatons of mass each year, which is equivalent to the volume of the Chesapeake Bay.

So why does all of this really matter?

There will be scientists in the Arctic in 2009 interested in more than sea, ice and melting glaciers. Geologists are searching for the oil, gas and minerals that the melting ice might reveal. These experts will be busy mapping the sea bottom as the circumpolar powers—Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and America—try to prove that the Arctic sea floors are natural extensions of their own lands and thus belong to them.

While the race is on to find oil and gas in the melting Arctic, it is the greenhouse gases that are generated from burning fossil fuels which cause the big melt. So the treasure-seekers should beware that the Arctic may take its revenge. One threat is of sea levels rising. Another comes from the lakes of floating fresh water amid the sea ice. If Arctic circulation patterns change, this fresh water could travel out into the Atlantic, and turn off the ocean currents that bring warm weather to Europe. Yet another is the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Let’s hope that 2009’s scientific explorers give us the knowledge to understand the risks.

Source: Popular Mechanics - 2009, The Economist - The World in 2008.

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