CU-Boulder physics Assistant Professor Meredith Betterton said the spikes, known as penitentes, are shaped when concentrated rays of sunlight evaporate snow from low spots on glacier fields in a process known as sublimation. The lab studies confirm that the low spots, or troughs, deepen as intense sunlight strikes them, sculpting penitentes by the hundreds of thousands on some glaciers, she said.
Some scientists have predicted that penitentes might help put the brakes on shrinking glaciers in a warming climate by blocking sunlight that might otherwise be absorbed by glacial surfaces, said Betterton. She gave a presentation on penitentes at the March Meeting of the American Physical Society in Denver March 5-9, which hosted more than 7,000 scientists.
"The key piece of physics here is that the dips in the snow absorb more reflected light, which drops the snow height and helps to form the penitentes," she said. "One big question is how penitentes will fare in a warming world."
Betterton, along with colleagues Vance Bergeron and Charles Berger from Ecole Normale Superieure research laboratories in Paris, sprouted miniature penitentes in the lab to better understand the physics behind their formation. Penitentes -- named for their resemblance to a procession of white-hooded monks -- were first described by naturalist Charles Darwin during an expedition to South America he and his crew made in 1835 aboard his ship, the Beagle.
The research team put a block of snow in a horizontal freezer in Paris filled with water vapor and chilled with liquid nitrogen, covered it with a clear Plexiglas lid, and shined a spotlight on the snow to simulate sunlight, Betterton said. Tiny snow spikes up to two inches high formed within a few hours, apparently by the same process through which penitentes form naturally on alpine glaciers, she said.
The study confirmed previous theories that penitentes grow when sunlight in cold, dry air in the high mountains strikes snow patches and transforms them directly into water vapor, she said. Mathematical models developed by Betterton indicate microscopic penitentes begin merging with each other, or "coarsening," early in the sublimation process, growing both taller and wider over time.
The research has applications for understanding and even mitigating global warming, since Andean penitentes shade large areas of glacial surfaces, possibly cooling them and slowing the rate of ice loss, she said. Some scientists believe warming temperatures could trigger the eventual destruction of vast fields of penitentes and hasten glacier melting, "which would be disastrous for Argentinean and Chilean regions that depend on runoff for water supplies," said Betterton.
Betterton and her colleagues took the research a step further, sprinkling the sprouting lab penitentes with a fine layer of carbon soot to simulate pollutants known to be accumulating on some glaciers around the globe. Such carbon-based pollutants have been found to increase melting rates on glaciers by causing the ice to absorb more sunlight and heat up, she said.
The team found that small amounts of soot sprinkled on the snow in the lab appeared to accelerate penitente formation. "One worry that scientists have is that without penitentes, some of these Andean glaciers will melt more quickly," she said. "It may well be that adding a small layer of dirt to the surface of these glaciers could help to preserve them."
The penitente research effort also has implications for the microelectronic industry, she said. Precisely shaped micro-penitentes formed by laser beams could lead to the development of solar energy cells that trap light more efficiently.
Meredith Betterton | EurekAlert!
Ice cave in Transylvania yields window into region's past
28.04.2017 | National Science Foundation
Citizen science campaign to aid disaster response
28.04.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
28.04.2017 | Event News
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering
28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences
28.04.2017 | Life Sciences