Lab 9: Recent Climate Variability & Change (Part 2)

Before beginning the lab, please watch the short video below. Mila summarizes what was learned in Part 1, notes that Part 2 focuses on the impacts of global warming, and then ends the video by stating the three main questions you should be able to answer at the end of the lab.

This lab has 25 short-answer questions you will answer prior to the three big questions (i.e., research questions) Mila has noted above.

Section 1

In the first part of this lab, you learned the following: (1) the difference between climate variability and climate change; (2) the type of recent climate change we have experienced over the past several decades has been global warming; (3) the most warming has occurred in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere; (4) the major cause of the warming has been an increase in greenhouse-gas concentrations; (5) much more excessive energy has gone into the oceans than the atmosphere (i.e., global warming); (6) the ocean has therefore also has warmed; and (7) increased evaporation from the oceans and increased air temperatures has contributed to increased levels specific humidity. The figures below show from left to right the energy accumulation in the oceans, the warming of the oceans, the warming global atmosphere, increased specific humidity, and the higher rates of lower-troposphere warming at the North Hemisphere high latitudes compared to the rest of the globe.

The second section of this lab focuses on the effects of the warming water and land, with a focus on the cryosphere (i.e., the frozen parts of Earth) and sea level.

By the end of this lab, you should be able to answer the following research questions:

    • How are recent changes to the cryosphere and oceans similar to natural changes to the cryosphere and oceans when going from a glacial period to an interglacial period?

    • How are changes to cryosphere evidence for global warming over the past several decades? 

    • What are the causes of the rise in global sea level over recent decades and how will continued warming of the Arctic region impact global sea level?


Entering with the right mindset
Throughout this lab you will be asked to answer some questions. Those questions will come in three different varieties:

FactbasediconeditFact based question →This will be a question with a rather clear-cut answer. That answer will be based on information (1) presented by your instructor, (2) found in background sections, or (3) determined by you from data, graphs, pictures, etc. There is more of an expectation of you providing a certain answer for a question of this type as compared to questions of the other types.

Synthesis_smallSynthesis based question →  This will be a question that will require you to pull together ideas from different places in order to give a complete answer. There is still an expectation that your answer will match up to a certain response, but you should feel comfortable in expressing your understanding of how these different ideas fit together.

Hypothesis_smallHypothesis based question → This will be a question that will require you to stretch your mind little bit. A question like this will ask you to speculate about why something is the way it is, for instance. There is no one certain answer to a question of this type. This is a more open- ended question where we will be more interested in the ideas that you propose and the justification (‘I think this because . . .’) that you provide.


Section 2: Overview of the Cryosphere

In previous labs, you observed that a warming of the planet causes a disappearance of the cryosphere (i.e., the frozen parts of Earth).  The components of the cryosphere are shown in the graphic below, and — based on your experience with Labs 5 and 6 — you should be most familiar with ice sheets and glaciers in the context of climate. The other major components of the cryosphere include ice shelves, sea ice, snow, and frozen ground.

The cryosphere was its maximum size during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), which occurred approximately 21,000 years ago, and you have explored the factors that caused the LGM and the transition to an interglacial period in Lab 6.  The Google Earth link below shows the extent of ice sheets, glaciers, and ice shelves during the LGM.  The mean sea level rose 120 meters from the LGM to the beginning of the last millennium; this was an average sea-level rise of 6 mm per year.

The current cryosphere is much smaller than the cryosphere that existed during the LGM, but we are still in an ice age (i.e., the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets still exist). The table below shows the expanses of the components of the cryosphere and their sea level equivalent, which is how much the sea level would rise with the melting of the ice on land.

FactbasediconeditQ1: In what ice sheet is nearly 90% of ice on Earth?

FactbasediconeditQ2:  If all the ice on land were to instantly melt, how much would the global sea level rise?


Section 3: Sea Ice

Sea ice is frozen seawater and it reaches a maximum (minimum) extent in March (September) in the Northern Hemisphere and a maximum (minimum) extent in September (March) in the Southern Hemisphere. Since sea ice floats on water, the melting of sea ice has no effect on sea level. The video below shows changes in minimum sea-ice extent from 1979 to 2016 in the Northern Hemisphere.

Synthesis_smallQ3: How and why has Arctic summer sea ice changed over the past several decades?

Open Sea Ice in Google Earth and notice that recent warming is not affecting maximum sea-ice extent in the Northern Hemisphere. This occurs in March. To see changes in sea-ice extent in September, click the button next to September. If you do not have access to Google Earth, then view selected sea-ice extent screenshots here.  

FactbasediconeditQ4: What country’s long Arctic coastline has become most ice-free during late summer?


Section 4: Snow Cover

Snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere is a seasonal phenomenon: it has its greatest extent in the winter and the smallest extent in the summer.  Watch the animation below to see monthly change in snow cover from  2000 to 2014.

FactbasediconeditQ5: During what season in the Northern Hemisphere does snow cover begin to disappear from lower latitudes? 

Satellite measurements have provided us with snow-cover data since the 1970s, and the image below shows changes March-April and June snow cover from 1979 to 2012.  

Synthesis_smallQ6: How and why has spring snow-cover extent changed over recent decades?



Section 5: Permafrost

Another component of the cryosphere is permafrost (i.e., permanently frozen ground), which is soil, sediment, or rock that remains at or below 0° C for at least two years. Permafrost is mostly confined to the Northern Hemisphere, where it covers approximately 25% of the hemisphere’s land surface.  That means 22.79 million km-2 in the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost.  The figures below show the change in permafrost temperature, the locations of permafrost, and Earth climate types.


FactbasediconeditQ7: Under what climate types do you typically find continuous permafrost? If you do not have access to Google Earth, then view the map of climate types here.


Synthesis_smallQ8: How and why has permafrost changed over the past several decades?


The loss of permafrost is one of the primary changes occurring in the tundra biome. The figure and table below show observed geographical shifts in tundra and other biomes during the 20th century.    


FactbasediconeditQ9: What has been the most common biome shift resulting from a changing climate?

Synthesis_smallQ10: Where (e.g., latitudinal zone, climate type, etc.) and why have these shifts occurred?

Just as the melting of snow and ice on Earth’s surface leads to the ice-albedo feedback, the melting of permafrost also leads to positive feedback loops as discussed in the video below.

Synthesis_smallQ11: How can the melting of permafrost affect the atmosphere and the greenhouse effect?




Section 6: Glaciers

Fallen snow that compresses over the course of many years produces glaciers.  Therefore, glaciers are small versions of ice sheets. There are roughly 170,000 glaciers scattered across Earth (see below).



FactbasediconeditQ12: If all the glaciers on Earth were to melt, by how much would the global mean sea level increase?


Changes in glacier length and mass over time are shown in the images below.  Keep in mind that the loss of one gigaton (Gt) of ice, which is equivalent to a 1 km3 cube of liquid water, would raise the global mean sea level by just 2.78 µm.  The ocean has a huge volume of water.  

Synthesis_smallQ13: Why are glaciers everywhere retreating?

Synthesis_smallQ14: Approximately how much glacier ice was lost from 1961 to 2010 and by how much did global mean sea level rise as a result of this?

Let’s focus on the Muir Glacier, one of the roughly 170,000 glaciers worldwide. This glacier is in southeastern Alaska and it used to be labeled a tidewater glacier (i.e., a glacier that terminates in the ocean), but it has retreated so much that it is now classified as a valley glacier (i.e., a mountainous glacier) whose flow is confined by valley walls). Click on thumbnail on the left below to view the Muir Glacier in Google Earth and click on the thumbnail on the right below to see how Muir Glacier changed from 1941 to 2014.


Synthesis_smallQ15: How does the change in the Muir Glacier compare to changes in glaciers in the Alaska region as a whole?


Section 7: Ice Sheets

An ice sheet is a mass of glacial land ice extending more than 50,000 square kilometers, and the two ice sheets on Earth today cover most of Greenland and Antarctica. While both ice sheets are huge and have portions that are more than 3 km thick, the Antarctic ice sheet has approximately eight times as much ice as the Greenland ice sheet. In Lab 6, you encountered the Vostok ice core, which is under the Antarctic ice sheet, and you discovered that during the LGM ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere also covered much of North America and Scandinavia.

Hypothesis_smallQ16: Which ice sheet do you think lost more ice due to recent global warming? Why?

Since 2003, researchers have been able to accurately estimate changes in the thicknesses of ice sheets by using data from the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellites. The figure below shows changes in the Greenland and Antarctic sheets from 2003 to 2012. 


FactbasediconeditQ17: How did the Greenland ice sheet change from 2003-2012?

FactbasediconeditQ18: How did the East Antarctic ice sheet change from 2003-2012?

FactbasediconeditQ19: How did the West Antarctic ice sheet change from 2003-2012?

Synthesis_smallQ20: What other factors – besides atmospheric warming – could have caused the West Antarctic ice sheet to change the way it did?  Feel free to search the internet.



Section 8: Sea Level Rise

The two main causes of sea-level rise attributed to global warming are (1) the thermal expansion of ocean water; and (2) input of fresh water from the melting cryosphere.  Sea-level rise due the thermal expansion of water is of the oceans is known as thermosteric component. Sea-level data prior to the 1990s relied almost entirely on measurements made at tide gauges, which have changed greatly in numbers over the years and are located mostly along coastlines.  Beginning in August 1992 with the launch of the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite, altimetric measurements of practically the entire ice-free ocean were available; this satellite stopped making measurements in 2006. The Jason-I satellite began making measurements in 2001.


The table below shows that from 1993-2015 the global mean sea level rose 2.8 mm yr-1, while from 2006-2015 it rose at a faster rate of 3.0 mm yr-1.  The table shows the rise in sea level from thermal expansion, the melting of glaciers not on Greenland or Antarctica, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet (GIS) and peripheral glaciers, and the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet and peripheral glaciers. The values for land water storage are based on climate variability and the effects of dams; these values are very uncertain. 

Synthesis_smallQ21: Between thermal expansion and the input of freshwater (i.e., the melting of ice), what was the larger contributor to sea-level rise from 1993-2015? You might want to use a calculator for this.

Synthesis_smallQ22: Between thermal expansion and the input of freshwater (i.e., the melting of ice), what was the larger contributor to sea-level rise from 2006-2015? You might want to use a calculator for this.



Section 9: Summary

What you just explored were changes to the cryosphere caused primarily by an imbalance in Earth’s energy budget that has existed for several decades.  This imbalance has led to increased energy going into the oceans, atmosphere, and land.  A summary of changes to the cryosphere is shown below.

Synthesis_smallQ23: What three aspects of the cryosphere — as shown in the figure above — were not examined in this lab?


Changes to the cryosphere can be combined with changes to the atmosphere and hydrosphere to obtain a comprehensive picture (see below) of changes to the climate systems caused by the imbalance in Earth’s energy budget.

FactbasediconeditQ24: What has increased due to the energy imbalance?

FactbasediconeditQ25: What has decreased due to the energy imbalance?


Section 10

Before the next lab, write for yourself a one-sentence response to each of the following big questions of this lab.

How are recent changes to the cryosphere and oceans similar to natural changes to the cryosphere and oceans when going from a glacial period to an interglacial period?

How are changes to cryosphere evidence for global warming over the past several decades?

What are the causes of the rise in global sea level over recent decades and how will continued warming of the Arctic region affect global sea level?

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