How Fast Can Glaciers Respond to Climate Change?

Published: 14 September 2012

Scientists report that prehistoric ice sheets reacted rapidly to a brief cold snap, providing a rare glimpse of glaciers' response to past climate change

A new Arctic study in the journal Science is helping to unravel an important mystery surrounding climate change: how quickly glaciers can melt and grow in response to shifts in temperature. SUERC researcher Dr Dylan Rood was part of the team that made the discovery.

According to the new research, glaciers on Canada's Baffin Island expanded rapidly during a brief cold snap about 8,200 years ago. The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence showing that ice sheets reacted rapidly in the past to cooling or warming, raising concerns that they could do so again as the Earth heats up.

Dylan H. Rood, a Research Fellow at SUERC, used an accelerator mass spectrometer at SUERC to measure tiny amounts of the rare isotope beryllium-10 to work out the extent of the North American ice-sheet in the past.  The research team found 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. The finding was surprising because the cold snap was extremely short-lived: The temperature fell for only a few decades, and then returned to previous levels within about 150 years.

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First published: 14 September 2012

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