On July 21, scouts, summer campers and Ecoteens had a chance to get their most pressing climate questions answered from Ian Joughin, the leader of the Greenland Glacier Expedition that Chris has been writing about here through a live satellite link to the campsite in Greenland; later that night, adults got their turn. You can listen in, below.
The team is now back from the Greenland; here’s Chris’ last post on what they learned.
North Lake and the Journey Home
It has been a whirlwind since my last post—a hectic final week on the Greenland ice sheet studying two glacial lakes, a helicopter transfer back to the town of Ilulissat, and a long series of flights taking us home. Warm socks and down jackets are now a thing of the past—I’m typing this dispatch in 87-degree heat in Seattle (I know that’s not really hot for Texans, but it’s quite a tough adjustment for me after a month of subfreezing temperatures!)
Our final week on the ice was dedicated to exploring two nearby lakes, one of which had recently drained (dubbed “North Lake”) and another that was partially full of water when we arrived (dubbed “North North Lake”).
North Lake made the news earlier this year when Dr. Sarah Das (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and Dr. Ian Joughin (University of Washington Applied Physics Lab/Polar Science Center) published a pair of papers in the journal Science about the spectacular draining event that they captured with their instrumentation in July 2006. That summer, a giant hole called a moulin opened up in the lake bed and drained the entire water volume (which is a lot; this lake is several kilometers long!) in an hour and a half. This year, the lake was already empty when we arrived (in fact, we had already heard from colleagues that it drained on July 10, the day we arrived at South Lake camp), so the research team had the freedom to explore the empty lake basin on foot.
Our visits to the North Lake basin revealed a bizarre landscape of car-sized blocks, canyons, rivers and waterfalls. The variation in the landscape on the ice sheet, particularly in the drained lake beds, is staggering. I expected it to be, well, flat, and white.
What we saw was quite different—towering blocks of pushed-up ice, rivers of freezing melt water carving their way through 60-foot deep canyons, gaping bottomless cracks and holes. The color of the ice ranges from opaque white to clear to bluebird blue. To my glaciologist companions, the landscape was also an open book. The blocks indicate where major cracks occurred (the blocks are pieces of the ice sheet that are broken loose during the cracking), and the rivers lead us to the crevasses (cracks) or holes (moulins) where the water was still pouring through the ice sheet to the bedrock. If you put your ear to the cracks, you can hear the water echoing in the depths.
It will still be some time before the final picture of the 2008 lake draining can be told. The scientists had only a brief amount of time to examine their instruments and prepare them for another year of data collecting before we had to pack up and fly out. In the coming months, scientists will be examining the data their instruments collected over the previous year. Dr. Mark Behn, a scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Geology and Geophysics department (and resident “icequakes” expert), had this comment about the data he did look at:
“Even with a 10 minute look, I can see that the quality of the data is good, which tells me the instruments are working. We can also see the timing of large cracking events that drain the lakes, which stand out as dramatic spikes on the record.”
Thank you to everyone who came in to the museum on July 21 to talk with moderator Twila Moon and Dr. Ian Joughin live from the ice. Stay tuned for future Live from the Poles expeditions on the Polar Discovery website. Until then, best wishes and thanks again for reading,
Independence Day is here, and it’s time to fire up the grill with a few tasty bites from the overflowing pantry of alternative energy. For an appetizer, dig into some ocean algae that may one day soon be a superior producer of biofuels, at least according to researchers from Kansas State University. Well, don’t actually eat them, because they are probably not too tasty, and that’s good news, because using algae to make fuel could leave more corn (that would otherwise be used for biofuels) on the market for much-needed food supplies.
Another way to use tiny living things to make energy for us is to let microbes turn hard-to-reach oil into easier-to-extract natural gas. That is the goal of a group of Canadian and British scientists. If their research goes well, injecting microorganisms into wells formerly deemed depleted could renew production. And when will this exciting development get those gasoline prices below $4 a gallon again? Well, let’s see, the original biological process took tens of millions of years, so….
What better way to have fun in the sun on Independence Day than with a solar powered car. A group of students from Iowa State University are planning to compete in 2,400-mile race from Texas to Canada in a $400,000 sun-powered vehicle that looks like a souped-up ping-pong table-but hey, that’s a zero emissions ping-pong table that can cruise at over 30 miles per hour. More (solar) power to them!
You may one day declare your independence from less efficient chemical batteries to power your stuff as fuel cells become more efficient. Researchers in Germany are working with carbon nanotubes to make components for fuels cells that are ten times lighter and weight far less than conventional amorphous carbon structures used now. Even more impressive, these tiny-only several atoms thick-tubes boast 1000 times the electrical conductivity of their conventional counterparts.
For something a little more practical for you, the average American celebrating the quintessential summer holiday, you can get your very own fuel-cell-powered car and its solar-powered hydrogen production plant (which makes fresh fuel for the fuel cell)-and the whole package is only $99.99! Well, the model car is only about six inches long, but the science is real-and very cool. You’re sure to be the hit of the picnic.
As the warm July breezes whisk away your paper plates and blow that BBQ smoke right back in your face, rather than complain about the weather, celebrate the fact that Texas has the fastest-growing wind power industry in the USA. An ultra-clean, and only somewhat noisy, wind turbine-or a whole farm of them-may soon be coming to a desolate hilltop near you. The question is, “What’s the next big thing in Texas energy?” and the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Big time oilman T. Boone Pickens is betting $10 billion on that.
Another hot topic (aren’t they all?) for this hot month is geothermal energy-producing steam with the natural heat from the earth’s interior. I just got back from Iceland, where that clean and renewable source provides 90% of home heating energy-and allows for really long hot showers. Here in the US, we could supply the electrical needs for over 260 million Americans if we tapped in to only 5% of the geothermal potential available in our own underground. There are plenty of challenges to make this work, but you can bet that as hydrocarbon prices soar, those obstacles won’t seem quite so big.
As that sweet smelling smoke from the wieners and burgers on the grill wafts into the upper atmosphere, don’t overlook the contribution that it adds to your carbon footprint, and how that footprint contributes to global warming and climate change. Scientists are realizing just how hard it is for individuals to influence those numbers significantly-even the austere lifestyle of a Buddhist monk produces about 1/3 the carbon emissions of a typical energy-hungry American. So do we just give up? Of course not-we need to think more about alternatives already mentioned here-and walk more. The person who comes up with the carbon-free barbecue that still delivers that smoky flavor might be up for a Nobel Prize, at least in my book.
When you finally get back to the crib, your belly full of beef (or veggie burgers) and your eyes glazed from too many red, white and blue exploding chrysanthemums and Catherine wheels, you can settle back into your chair and read up on more energy topics the old-fashioned way-by the cozy glow of a zero-emissions gravity-powered lamp. Now, that’s a down-to-earth solution!