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Research Shows How Fast Glaciers Respond to Climate Change


Baffin Island moraineWe may be familiar with the saying, “at a glacier’s pace,” but when it comes to climate change, new research is showing a surprising response. “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,” said study co-author Jason Briner, PhD, a University at Buffalo associate professor of geology.

Briner and Nicolás Young, members of a research team that went to Baffin Island, studied the extent and historical changes in the glaciers and ice sheets there. According to their research, the glaciers on Canada’s Baffin Island, and the ice sheet over North America, had expanded rapidly during a few decades of colder-than-average temperatures about 8,000 years ago. “It’s not at all amazing that a small local glacier would grow in response to an event like this, but it is incredible that a large ice sheet would do the same,” Young said.

Interestingly, though, their research also indicated that a longer cold period about 13,000 years ago, the Younger Dryas period, didn’t seem to lead to as much growth of glaciers. This seems to point to some other, unknown, factor effecting the ebb and flow of glaciers and ice sheets. One thing seems for certain, though, that climate change has a drastic effect on the ice sheets, and it may be too late to reverse the effects.

While not all scientists agree on the amount and severity of the global warming phenomenon, it seems for certain that ice sheets and glaciers react very quickly to even short-lived changes in global temperature. Patterns of glacial growth may be a final warning before global catastrophe. The research being done today, data collection and a detailed analysis of these ancient moraines, will be indispensable in developing models for existing glaciers in a changing climate.

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