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Svalbard’s glaciers thinning at an accelerated rate say researchers

Joint research carried out by academics from Swansea University and the Norwegian Polar Institute has found acceleration in the thinning rate on the western Svalbard glaciers in northern Norway.

The findings from the Natural Environment Research Council-funded project were published this week (September 21) in the well-respected US journal Geophysical Research Letters.

And the results confirm climate change experts’ fears – indicating a number of glaciers in western Svalbard, ranging in size from 5-1000km², are melting and losing mass at an accelerating rate.

The Swansea team, comprising Dr Tim James, Professor Tavi Murray, Dr Adrian Luckman, and PhD student Nick Barrand of the School of Environment and Society, has been carrying out the research with colleagues from the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø since 2003.

They used data from digital elevation models (DEMs) made from airborne lidar (laser scanner) data collected by the NERC Airborne Research and Survey Facility and digital photogrammetry.

Their research found the average thinning rate for the two glaciers with the best data, Midtre Lovenbreen and Slakbreen, has increased steadily since 1936 and at both, the most recent thinning rates to 2005 are more than four times the average for the first measurement period.

The team found thinning of several glaciers along the previously measured Wedel Jarls Land has also increased, doubling between the period 1990-1996 and 1996-2002.

Polar Medal recipient Professor Tavi Murray, Head of the Glaciology Group at Swansea University, said: “These dramatic rates of thinning have occurred because climate warming has resulted in both higher temperatures and less snowfall. And predictions are for even faster warming in the Arctic.

“Small glaciers like these only cover just a tiny fraction of the Earth. But many are melting rapidly, and they are one of the biggest contributors to sea level rise. These faster rates of melt imply an increased sea level contribution from the Svalbard glaciers.

“What concerns us are the environmental consequences if this acceleration of thinning continues at current rates. For animals living this far north there is really nowhere colder for them to move to.

“The team is moving on to measure changes around the edge of the larger Greenland ice sheet. Under the new Greenland Ice Margin Prediction, Stability and Evolution (GLIMPSE) project, our methods will be used to help understand the thinning of outlet glaciers there, some of which are thinning at rates of more than a metre a year.”

Bethan Evans | alfa
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