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Roze Glacier, Novaya Zemlya By Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon (NASA Earth Observatory) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Glaciers are widely recognised as a major source of sea level rise and can respond very rapidly to climate change. Small glaciers and ice caps are responding more rapidly to global warming than large ice sheets, and are thus likely to contribute more to sea-level rise in the short term. Those in the Arctic are especially vulnerable, since this is the fastest warming region on the planet. However, since access to remote glaciers is not always logistically feasible satellite imagery has become very important in assessing the state of these ice masses.

C3W’s Rachel Carr of Aberystwyth University’s Department of Geography and Earth Science, recently co-authored a paper documenting rapid glacier retreat in the Russian High-Arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya. Located at the extreme north-east of Europe and well north of the Arctic Circle, the northern portion of the island chain is covered by an 18,000 km2 ice cap. In recent years, this ice cap has thinned dramatically, but little is known about the behaviour of its outlet glaciers. These fast-moving channels of ice act as a conveyor belt, rapidly delivering ice from the interior to the sea. As a result, a small change in their behaviour could result in large amounts of ice reaching the surrounding ocean and raising sea levels.

Using satellite imagery, the results showed that 90% of the glaciers studied retreated between 1992 and 2010. These changes accelerated over time, with retreat rates post-2000 being four times greater than during the previous decade. Retreat rates were far greater on glaciers terminating in the ocean than those ending on land, leading the authors to suspect an oceanic cause. Comparison of retreat with remotely sensed data on climatic and oceanic conditions indicated that loss of sea ice from the glacier fronts may have caused retreat. Results also showed that the geometry of the fjord within which the glacier is located can strongly influence its response to climate change. Overall, the study highlighted the need for further research in this rapidly changing, but little-studied area of the Arctic.

Recent retreat of major outlet glaciers on Novaya Zemlya, Russian Arctic, influenced by fjord geometry and sea-ice conditions – J. Rachel CARR, Chris STOKES, Andreas VIELI

The paper is available online at: http://www.igsoc.org/journal/60/219/j13J122.pdf