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Glaciers and Deglaciation: The Global Warming Cycle

A lightning strike caused the fire at Glacier National park and it was impossible to put up during that time because of the weather condition / Photo by Tobiaz Klenze via Wikimedia Commons


It was reported that a wildfire broke out rather spontaneously in, of all places, Glacier National Park, which is based in the northern U.S. state of Montana and bleeds over the Canadian border into both Alberta and British Columbia. This comes at a time, though, when glaciers seem to constantly come under siege, and scientists are frequently assessing the various ways that climate change is seeking out and melting glaciers almost systematically. One new study focusing on the Pacific Ocean was just published, attempting to elucidate a commonly analyzed carbon mystery—how carbon got from the ocean to the atmosphere in the first place. The new explanation is that water circulation in the Pacific yielded a flushing phenomenon near Antarctica, and the fact that this was studied during a period of considerable deglaciation is significant.



Glacier National Park hosted 150 people at the time of the incident, which was caused by a lightning strike on Saturday, and they were observing the 26 glaciers spread throughout the park. This is already a figure indicating decline as the park boasted of 150 glaciers as late as the 1850s. The fire that resulted from the lightning strike was seemingly impossible to put out because of the weather conditions at the time. A heat wave in the region compounded with dry winds and a dearth of precipitation, making it that much more difficult to manage the crisis. The National Weather Service has publicly added that the park, in fact, broke a temperature record by hitting 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

To be fair, this is certainly among the least common and most indirect ways in which global warming is melting glaciers, but the novelty of it speaks volumes about temperature averages going up regionally all over the world now. A similar wildfire, in fact, just broke out over the same weekend in Spain for example. Glaciers are melting everywhere, but the frozen water that constitutes them is ripe for analysis of the deep sea of old, which is why researchers from Oregon State University studied it for evidence that carbon dioxide might have been reaching the atmosphere far in advance of the industrial revolution—a period almost classically blamed for introducing human beings to all the most environmentally harmful ways to improve qualities of life.

It was an old hypothesis that has never been debunked. Scientists have long believed that the Earth’s emergence from the ice age resulted in oceanic CO2 rising in significant quantities to the atmosphere. It’s never really been proven, though, because there wasn’t a way to document how carbon got out of the ocean in the first place. The Oregon State team now presents compelling evidence to support just that, though, concluding that a water circulation pattern not far from Antarctica in the northern Pacific accelerated to the point of inducing a flushing effect on the deep waters. They’ve found reason to believe that this liberated CO2 from the depths, and they think it could even be a recurring phenomenon to some extent, which is crucial in a time when environmentalists know more than anything else that they can’t afford to be making calculations and prognostications about climate change and its consequences based on inaccurate assessments of how much CO2 is out there leaking to the atmosphere.

“The Pacific Ocean is big and you can store a lot of stuff down there,” according to Alan Mix, an oceanographer from Oregon State and a co-author on the paper. “It’s kind of like Grandma’s root cellar; stuff accumulates there and sometimes doesn’t get cleaned out. We’ve known that CO2 in the atmosphere went up and down in the past, we know that it was part of big climate changes, and we thought it came out of the deep ocean, but it has not been clear how the carbon actually got out of the ocean to cause the CO2 rise.” An oceanography doctoral student on the project with him, Jianghui Du, adds that the aforementioned water circulation pattern starts with waters near Antarctica sinking and moving northward several miles beneath sea level, and he says it then flows back to Antarctica and mixes back in with the surface waters.

That water cycle pattern takes just under a whole millennium to complete according to Du. The team determined that it’s a flow that decelerates during times when glaciers are abundant in nature but that accelerates considerably during periods of deglaciation like this. “It happened roughly in two steps during the last deglaciation—an initial phase from 18,000 to 15,000 years ago, when CO2 rose by about 50 parts per million, and a second pulse later added another 30 parts per million,” Du explains. All in all, that’s just under the amount of CO2 that’s already escaped from ocean to atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Understanding this is how scientists can now get a better perspective on just how much carbon dioxide the waters of Earth might really represent because there’s no doubt that, without taking deglaciation into consideration, all estimates of the past had to be inaccurate—optimistically so at that.


A circulation pattern not far from Antartica in the northern Pacific accelerated to the point of inducing a flushing effect on the deep waters / Photo by CC0 Public Domain via




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