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16 Nov 2018 | Cryosphere

Glaciologists share their research findings from the three “poles”

The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is often referred to as the “Third Pole” because it contains the world’s highest mountains, including all 14 peaks above 8,000 metres, is the source of 10 major rivers, and forms a formidable global ecological buffer. The North Pole in the Arctic and the South Pole in Antarctica are thus important comparative points on the globe for glaciological research and for global understanding of the role that glaciers play in climate change.

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Meeting of minds: Christine Dow, Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo, explains the role of meltwater in controlling the stability of the Antarctica ice sheet.

On 29 October 2018, glaciologists from three poles of the globe came together to discuss their research and explore new avenues for collaboration. Two Canadian glaciologists who work in the Arctic and Antarctica met with a team of researchers whose work is focused in the HKH. The discussion was part of Cryo Brain, a knowledge-sharing activity of ICIMOD’s Cryosphere Initiative.

The researchers presented their Arctic and Antarctic work which is based on remote sensing and differential GPS observations of changes in ice dynamics and structure, such as crevasses and numerical modelling of meltwater routing. These methods can be replicated to study changes in Himalayan glaciers.

Luke Copland, Professor at the University of Ottawa, shared his insights on where glaciers are speeding up or slowing down as a result of the changing climate.

With rise in temperature, meltwater can contribute to the speeding of the ice sheet. A major finding of his research is that the response time of glaciers to the current climate is shorter than previously assumed. This means that mitigation actions need to be sped up as per the glacier response time. Response time of glaciers refers to the time it takes for glaciers to be in equilibrium with current climatic conditions.

Christine Dow, Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo, presented about her research on the role of meltwater in controlling the stability of the Antarctica ice sheet. She highlighted how the ice shelves in Antarctica function as a buttress or cork for the Antarctica ice sheet, thereby delaying ice melt and, consequently, the transfer of land ice into the ocean, where it can contribute to sea level rise.

She explained that basal and surface melt contribute to crevasse formation and thus the disintegration of the whole ice shelf. This illustrates how glacial meltwater not only contributes to the loss of mass but also results in structural change.

The two glaciologists and their students visited some glaciers during their trip to Nepal to explore potential new field sites where they can apply their expertise on ice dynamics and the role of meltwater. Given the difficult terrain in the Himalayan glaciers, field observations and information about regional variability are limited. More field data are needed to calibrate and validate remote sensing and modelling results. Sharing expertise to collaborate for future work on Himalayan glaciers can contribute to such much-needed field data, thereby increasing the understanding of Himalayan glacier dynamics.

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