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Arctic could see more rain than snow in 30 years, study suggests – Eye on the Arctic

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In this Aug. 2005 file photo, an iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland, near the Arctic Circle. A new report says the Arctic will be dominated by rain, rather than snow, sometime between 2050 and 2080. (John McConnico/AP Photo)

Increased rain detrimental to foraging Arctic mammals like caribou, reindeer, muskox

There could be more rainfall than snow in the Arctic in as little as 30 years because of the world’s changing climate, according to a new study that predicts the transition will happen decades earlier than previously anticipated.

The change is expected to happen sometime between 2050 and 2080, says research led by the University of Manitoba and published in the journal Nature Communications. Previously, the transition to a rain-dominated Arctic was expected to happen somewhere between 2070 and 2090.

Lead author Michelle McCrystall, a postdoctoral fellow at the university’s Centre for Earth Observation Science, said more than 50 per cent of precipitation in the Arctic falling as rain instead of snow will have “global implications” and a “very direct impact” on Indigenous people throughout the Arctic.

The biggest precipitation changes, she added, will happen during the fall. Predominant snowfall and snow precipitation is still expected in the winter months, even by the end of the century.

Some regions will make the transition earlier than others, she explained, based on their temperatures and proximity to the North Pole.

The study’s projections stem from an aggregation of data from around the world.

McCrystall said the 2050 to 2080 range in which the transition could happen reflects the variability of all the data that was used, but the average points to it happening, more specifically, around the year 2070.

Animal starvation

McCrystall said more rain in the Arctic would also lead to more rain-on-snow events — when rain falls onto an existing snowpack and freezes, forming ice layers either on the snow or within it — which would be “very damaging” for foraging mammals like reindeer, caribou and muskox.

Because of that ice, foraging animals will have a harder time reaching the grassland that lies beneath it.

“It can cause a huge starvation and die off in a lot of these populations,” she said.

Mark Serreze, a co-author of the study and the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement “the Arctic is changing so fast that Arctic wildlife might not be able to adapt.

“It’s not just a problem for the reindeer, caribou and muskox, but for the people of the North that depend on them as well.”

The mounted head of a muskox looks out over two Arctic exhibits at the Military Museums in Calgary in Feb. 2016. Foraging animals, like muskox, will have trouble reaching food sources below layers of ice in the snow caused by more frequent rain in the Arctic, said McCrystall. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Kent Moore, a professor of atmospheric physics at the University of Toronto, who is outside of the research team, told CBC News that rain-on-snow events would also cause “incredible” stress on hairy animals like muskox.

“If it rains and then it freezes, then they get a kind of frozen ice on their body, and that can be very, very stressful for them. They can lose heat more rapidly.”

Transition likely to happen in our lifetime, study predicts

Moore said he’s not surprised the Arctic will see more rainfall in the future, but he is surprised when the researchers predict the transition to more rain than snow is going to happen.

“A couple of decades is pretty significant,” he said. “Animals have to adapt quick, but we also have to adapt quicker. And that’s always a challenge, that adaptation,” he said.

Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, who is also not one of the study’s authors, said a difference of a few decades means that this transition is more likely to happen in the lifespan of current generations.

“It becomes, for a lot of people, not something that maybe my children or grandchildren will see, but something I may very well live to see,” he said, adding that he, too, was not surprised by the new prediction.

Rising sea levels, thawing permafrost

Meier and McCrystall both said an increase in Arctic rainfall would contribute to rising sea levels, particularly because it will cause more glaciers along the coast of Greenland to fall into the water.

Rain fell on the summit of Greenland — a location where precipitation has previously always fallen as snow or ice — for the first time on record this year.

In this Aug. 2019 file photo, large icebergs float away as the sun rises near Kulusuk, Greenland. McCrystall said warmer temperatures and more rainfall in the Arctic means that more glaciers along the coast of Greenland will fall into the water. (Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

The rain could also lead to permafrost thaw, said McCrystall.

“With more warming and more rainfall, that kind of percolates through the soil and will allow the soil to warm up,” she said. Permafrost stores carbon, she pointed out, and if it thaws “you’ll get a lot more greenhouse gases that will be emitted into the atmosphere.”

McCrystall said that increase in carbon creates a negative impact, because carbon emissions contribute to the further warming of the atmosphere.

“Changes that happen in the Arctic don’t really stay within the Arctic,” she said.

Though she doesn’t see her research as a call to action, McCrystall wants to see people putting more pressure on politicians to make tangible changes that will have big impacts in the fight against climate change.

The research team, which also included members from University College London, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Lapland and the University of Exeter, said that if the world is able to remain below 1.5 C of global warming, the transition to a rainfall-dominated precipitation might not happen in some Arctic regions.

But, if the world remains on its current trajectory, the transition is likely.

Related stories from around the North: 

CanadaOctober saw ‘extraordinary, record-setting heat’ in parts of Arctic Canada, CBC News

Finland: Cold weather perfect to pioneer electric aviation says Finnair, Yle News

GreenlandGreenland to join Paris climate agreement, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Deep freeze in Arctic Europe sends power prices soaring, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia’s Arctic coast warmest since records started says weather service, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Sweden aims to be ‘role model and bridge builder’ on climate change, Radio Sweden

United States: Author Q&A – Welp: Climate Change and Arctic Identities, Eye on the Arctic

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Canadian Scientist Goes Back in Time Using the World's Biggest Space Telescope – Optic Flux

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A group of astrophysicists may soon have a key to unraveling the puzzle of life’s beginnings.

On December 25, the James Webb Space Telescope was launched into orbit from French Guiana, South America.

Webb is the biggest and most powerful space telescope ever built by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, at the cost of $10 billion US.

Tyrone Woods, a Canadian astronomer, aims to utilize it to go through the time and uncover the earliest stars ever produced.

“We’re going to be able to look back into this earliest epoch of the universe,” Woods stated.

Woods, a Plaskett Fellow at the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre in Victoria, B.C., is originally from Edmonton.

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, and NASA claims Webb as its successor.

On December 25, Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket launches from French Guiana, carrying NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.
On December 25, Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket launches from French Guiana, carrying NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency collaborated on the new telescope.

The project has been in the works for decades.

Webb’s mirror is substantially bigger than Hubble’s, allowing it to capture more light and see farther back in time.

“Light has a fixed speed. It doesn’t travel infinitely fast. It takes time,” Woods said on CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active.

Many stars are millions, if not billions, of light-years distant from Earth, even though light travels at 300,000 kilometers per second.
Some of the stars that we see in the night sky may no longer exist.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was placed on top of the Ariane 5 rocket that will send it into space from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on December 11.

Stellar Nurseries

Stellar nurseries are places of dust and gas where stars are born.
Woods’ team used computer simulations to create a cosmic roadmap to aid in the search for the earliest stars.

“So conventionally, we had always thought of the first stars as being so very compact and very blue. We’ve seen that in some of them [nurseries of the very first stars], they would be the perfect conditions for making really massive, really bloated, really red stars.”

HD 140283, the Methuselah Star, is now the oldest known star.
It is thought to be 14 billion years old, around the same age as the universe.

Webb is an infrared telescope, which means it can see the light that human eyes can’t see.
Because infrared is a wavelength that our planet produces, it’s feasible that concentrating on infrared light may lead to the discovery of a planet identical to Earth.
Woods added they’ll be searching in the surroundings around some huge clusters of galaxies for a magnified light from behind them to obtain a very, really deep exposure of the early cosmos.

Aside from the origins of the stars, Woods thinks that the new telescope will aid scientists in discovering the first black hole, understanding how gases assemble in the cosmos and learning more about how our own solar system was created.

After traveling 1.5 million kilometers from Earth to its targeted orbit around the sun, Webb will spend the next several months deploying its mirrors and enormous sunshield and cooling down before seeing into the furthest regions of the cosmos.

“Over the subsequent year, we’re going to start to see the first really exciting results,” Woods added.

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Canadian scientist examines melting Antarctic glacier, potential sea level rise – Williams Lake Tribune

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As icebergs drifted by his Antarctica-bound ship, David Holland spoke this week of how the melting glacier he’s cruising towards may contain warning signals for the coasts of far-off Canada.

The atmospheric and ocean scientist from Newfoundland is part of an expedition to one of the world’s most frigid and remote spots — the Thwaites glacier in the western portion of the continent — where he’ll measure water temperatures in an undersea channel the size of Manhattan.

“The question of whether sea level will change can only be answered by looking at the planet where it matters, and that is at Thwaites,” said Holland, director of the environmental fluid dynamics laboratory at New York University, during a satellite phone interview from aboard the South Korean icebreaker Araon.

It’s over 16,000 kilometres from Holland’s hometown in Brigus, N.L., on Conception Bay, to the site about 100 kilometres inland from the “grounding zone” where the Thwaites’ glacier leaves the continent and extends over the Pacific.

The team’s 20,000 tonnes of drilling gear will be assembled to measure the temperatures, salinity and turbulence of the Pacific waters that have crept underneath and are lapping away at the guts of the glacier.

“If it (the water) is above freezing, and in salt water this means above -2 centigrade, that’s not sustainable. A glacier can’t survive that,” said Holland.

Since 2018, more than 60 scientists from the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration group have been exploring the ocean and marine sediments, measuring warming currents flowing toward the deep ice, and examining the stretching, bending, and grinding of the glacier over the landscape below.

The Florida-sized Thwaites glacier faces the Amundsen Sea, and researchers have suggested in journal articles over the past decade it may eventually lose large amounts of ice because of deep, warm water driven into the area as the planet warms. Some media have dubbed Thwaites the “doomsday glacier” due to estimates that it could add about 65 centimetres to global sea level rise.

Holland notes current research models mainly suggest this would happen over several centuries, however there are also lower probability theories of “catastrophic collapse” occurring, where the massive ice shelf melts in the space of decades. “We want to pay attention to things that are plausible, and rapid collapse of that glacier is a possibility,” he said.

While Holland looks at the undersea melting, other scientists are examining how the land-based portions of Antarctic glaciers are losing their grip on points of attachment to the seabed, potentially causing parts to detach. Still other researchers point to the risk of initial fractures causing the ice shelf to break, much like a damaged car windshield.

All of the mechanisms must be carefully observed to prove or disprove models on the rates of melting, said Holland.

“If the (water-filled) cave beneath the glacier we’re studying gets bigger, then Antarctica is losing ice and retreating, and if the cave collapses on itself, then (the cave) will disappear. This is how Antarctica can retreat, these kinds of specific events,” he said.

The implications of the glacier work reach back to Atlantic Canada — which along with communities along the Beaufort Sea and in southwestern British Columbia is the region most vulnerable to sea level rise in the country, according to federal scientists.

Everything from how to calculate the future height of dikes at the low-lying Chignecto Isthmus — the narrow band of land that connects Nova Scotia to the rest of the country — to whether the Fraser River lowlands may face flooding is potentially affected by glacial melting in Antarctica, he said.

Scenarios where Antarctica ice melts more quickly than expected are briefly discussed in the 2019 federal report Canada’s Changing Climate. Based largely on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that refer to them as low-probability “tipping point” theories, the 2019 report invoked the possibility of one metre of sea level rise by 2100.

However, Blair Greenan, a federal oceanographer who oversaw the relevant chapter of the report, said in a recent interview that a rise in global sea levels approaching two metres by 2100 and five metres by 2150 “cannot be ruled out” due to uncertainty over ice sheet processes like Thwaites.

“We don’t know, nobody knows,” Holland said. “But it’s plausible these things can change, and several feet of sea level change would have a major impact on Atlantic Canada. What’s needed is glacier forecasting that resembles the kinds of accuracy that weather forecasting currently provides.”

However, collecting glacier forecast data is a daunting undertaking in the short period — from late January until mid-February — when scientists can safely take readings. Helicopters will be ferrying a hot water drill, 30 barrels of fuel and water to Holland’s site beginning near the end of January. The drill will have to penetrate over a kilometre of ice to reach the 300 metres of undersea channel to take measurements.

As the data is collected, some scientists question whether there’s really much for Canadian coastal residents to worry about at this stage.

One study by Ian Joughin, a University of Washington glaciologist, has suggested Thwaites will only lose ice at a rate that creates sea level rise of one millimetre per year — and not until next century. At that rate it would take 100 years for sea levels to rise 10 centimetres.

In a telephone interview last week, Joughin said planning coastal protection and other measures for the more extreme scenarios may not be cost effective at this point, as it may take up to a century before the major risks starts to unfold.

However, Joanna Eyquem, a Montreal-based geoscientist who is studying ways to prepare infrastructure for rising sea levels, said in a recent email that glacier research shows sea level forecasts “are constantly evolving,” and adaptation efforts need to be quicker.

“The question is: How desperate does the situation need to be before we take action?” she asked.

READ MORE: Expert panel says Canada needs to ‘up its game’ on climate data to better adapt

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press


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Star search: Canadian scientist to travel way back in time using world's largest space telescope – CBC.ca

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A team of astrophysicists may soon be getting a key to unlocking the mystery on the origins of life. 

The James Webb Space Telescope was launched into space from French Guiana in South America on Dec. 25.

With a price tag of $10 billion US, Webb is the largest and most powerful space telescope ever constructed by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Canadian astrophysicist Tyrone Woods hopes to use it and find the first stars ever created by travelling through time — in a sense. 

“We’re going to be able to look back into this earliest epoch of the universe,” Woods said.

Originally from Edmonton, Woods is currently a Plaskett Fellow at the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre in Victoria, B.C.

On Dec. 11, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was secured on top of the Ariane 5 rocket that would launch it to space from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. (ESA-M.Pedoussaut)

NASA touts Webb as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990. The new telescope is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The project has been decades in the making.

Since Webb has a much larger mirror than the Hubble, it can collect more light and peer farther back into time. 

“Light has a fixed speed. It doesn’t travel infinitely fast. It takes time,” Woods said on CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active. 

While light travels at 300,000 kilometres per second, many stars are millions — if not billions — of light years away from Earth. It’s possible that some of the stars we see in the night sky no longer exist. 

Astrophysicist Tyrone Woods, originally from Edmonton, Alta., hopes to discover the first stars in the universe using the James Webb Space Telescope. (Submitted by Tyrone Woods)

Stars are born in areas of dust and gas known as stellar nurseries. To help find the first stars, Woods’s team has built a cosmic roadmap by using computer simulations.

“So conventionally, we had always thought of the first stars as being so very compact and very blue,” he said. 

“We’ve seen that in some of them [nurseries of the very first stars], they would be the perfect conditions for making really massive, really bloated, really red stars.”

Currently, the oldest known star is HD 140283, also known as the Methuselah Star. It is estimated to be 14 billion years old, similar in age to the universe.

Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, which means it sees light that our eyes cannot. It’s possible that by focusing on infrared light, the telescope could find a planet similar to Earth, because infrared is a wavelength our own planet emits. 

“We’re going to be looking in the environment around some very big clusters of galaxies in order to find a magnified light from behind them and get a really, really deep exposure of the early universe,” said Woods. 

Other than the origin of the stars, Woods hopes the new telescope will also help scientists find the first black hole, how gases assemble in the universe, and more about how our own solar system was formed.

6:48How were the first stars formed?

We talk with an astrophysicist about his research on the origins of the universe. 6:48

Webb will spend the next several months getting ready to look into the farthest reaches of the universe by unfolding its mirrors and massive sunshield and cooling down after travelling 1.5 million kilometres from Earth to its intended orbit around the sun.

“Over the subsequent year, we’re going to start to see the first really exciting results,” said Woods.

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