Turning Up the Temperature in the High Arctic

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - 10:29

Al Werner is feeling the heat this summer. Typically, that wouldn’t be a problem to alleviate; a jump in the pool or a visit to the movie theatre would cool things down. But there weren’t pools or movie theatres in the Norwegian Arctic, where Werner just finished conducting research as part of the Svalbard Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). There were, however, glaciers--and, as the Mount Holyoke professor of geology found, they’re melting. Quickly.

“There is clear evidence of climate change here,” Werner said via email from Svalbard. “The Linne´ Glacier has been retreating since 1936 at an average rate of 20 meters per year. Since 2002, that rate has increased twofold, to nearly 40 meters per year. Now, we’re seeing the return of warm-water-loving mollusks. These results are consistent with other Arctic regions that likewise show accelerated warming in the past two decades.”

It’s an alarming trend that the REU is monitoring in the Norwegian High Arctic. The project’s ultimate goals are to monitor the area’s glacier/river/lake system, and to provide a better understanding of natural (pre-industrial) climate change there.

The Svalbard research is just one part of the much larger REU program, funded by the National Science Foundation, that aims to attract undergraduates to scientific fields by immersing them in field research experiences. In this way, Werner says, his REU project is mainly about educating and, hopefully, inspiring tomorrow’s climate change scientists.

This summer, he led seven U.S. students and three from the local Norwegian university, UNIS, on the five-week Svalbard trip. While the overall goal was to provide a better understanding of past climate change in the High Arctic, Werner and Hampshire faculty member Steve Roof worked with each of the students, helping them collect data for their individual honors thesis work.

The team was based at Isfjord Radio, an old communications outpost that has been turned into an eco-tourism station. The distance to the research site varied each day depending on what data was needed—one day, for example, project members hiked for nearly 12 straight hours to the top of the Linne´ Glacier and didn’t arrive back at home base until 11 pm.

“Most days involve lots of hiking with a heavy pack, and it is almost always rainy and cold,” Werner said. “Still, it is a lot of fun and incredibly rewarding--and what a privilege to work with the next generation of climate change scientists!” (See photos of the trip on the Polar TREC blog).

The experience has been a role reversal of sorts for Werner, who did his dissertation fieldwork in the Norwegian High Arctic in the 1980s. Twenty years later, in 2002, he began the REU project there, in Svalbard’s Linne´ Valley, which is home to a small glacier, a meltwater river system, and a proglacial lake. Core samples taken from the lake, Werner said, are beautifully layered.

“Think of tree rings,” he explained. “These annual layers reflect glacier and climate variation through time. In a sense, we have this system (glacier-river-lake) instrumented like a critically ill patient, so that we can see the effects of annual snowfall, rainfall, summer air temperature, and glacier mass balance on lake sedimentation.”

The prognosis is not good. If the Linne´ Glacier continues to retreat at it’s current rate, Werner said, it will disappear in a matter of decades. That makes the Svalbard REU’s mission of developing scientists who will be able to research past and future climate change all the more important.

While ominous, present conditions, said Werner, make it an exciting time to conduct research in the Arctic. “By loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses we are conducting an incredible experiment with the climate system and we are able to watch it play out in real time.”

Mount Holyoke students have the opportunity to join Werner the next time he visits the Arctic. More information on the REU program and application process is available on the Svalbard project Web site.