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Studying Glacier Activity on Baffin Island (Image 2)

Students study glacier history on Baffin Island, Canada

University at Buffalo (UB) students Elizabeth Thomas, Sean McGrane and Nicolas Young on Baffin Island, Canada. The students were part of a research team studying the historical extent of glaciers on the arctic island and in particular, how quickly glaciers can melt and grow in response to shifts in temperature.

The team, which was headed by Jason Briner, an associate professor at UB, studied and dated moraines, piles of rocks and debris that glaciers leave behind when they expand, and other geological features. Their findings showed that mountain glaciers on Baffin Island, along with a massive North American ice sheet, expanded quickly when the Earth cooled about 8,200 years ago. This finding adds to the evidence that ice sheets reacted rapidly in the past to cooling or warming and raises concerns that they could do so again as the Earth heats up. The finding was particularly surprising because the cold spell was very short--the temperature fell for only a few decades and then returned to previous levels within 150 years or so.

"One of the questions scientists have been asking is how long it takes for these huge chunks of ice to respond to a global climate phenomenon," says Briner. "People don't know whether glaciers can respond quickly enough to matter to our grandchildren, and we're trying to answer this from a geological perspective, by looking at Earth's history." He adds that "what we're seeing is that these ice sheets are surprisingly sensitive to even short periods of temperature change."

This research was supported by National Science Foundation grants ARC 09-09334, BCS 10-02597 and BCS 07-52848. (Date of Image: May 2009) [Image 2 of 3 related images. See Image 3.]

Credit: Jason Briner
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