Aberystwyth University have drilled to the centre of Greenland's ice sheet in a groundbreaking project to measure the effects of climate change.

The project is intended to help scientists make more accurate models of the future movement of the world’s second-largest ice sheet, after the Antarctic.

A vivid example of global warming for decades, the mass loss from the Greenland sheet has increased sixfold since the 1980s - making it the single largest contributor to increases in the global sea-level.

Professor Bryn Hubbard and Dr Samuel Doyle, from Aberytstwyth University's Department of department of Geography and Earth Sciences, were responsible for pushing the cable through the surface of the ice sheet through to its base, more than 1,000 metres below the surface.

The research team, led by the University of Cambridge, used a new technique in which laser pulses are transmitted in a fibre-optic cable to obtain highly detailed temperature measurements from throughout the depth of the ice sheet.

After lowering the cable into the borehole, the team transmitted laser pulses in the cable, and then recorded the distortions in the scattering of light in the cable, which vary depending on the temperature of the surrounding ice.

In contrast to previous studies, which measured temperature from separate sensors located tens or even hundreds of metres apart, the new approach allows temperature to be measured along the entire length of a fibre-optic cable installed in a deep borehole.

The result is a highly detailed profile of temperature, which controls how fast ice deforms and ultimately how fast the ice sheet flows.

Dr Sam Doyle from Aberystwyth University’s department of geography and earth sciences said:

"The level of detail is astounding. Where once we were guessing what was happening between measurements, now we can see clearly what is going on. We were able to identify new processes such as heat generated by deformation concentrated within a very small depth range."


Previously it was thought the temperature of ice sheets varied as a smooth gradient, with the warmest sections near the surface where the sun hits, and at the base where it’s warmed by geothermal energy and friction as the sheet grinds across the subglacial landscape toward the ocean.

But the new research found greater variantions in temperature throughout the depth of the ice sheet. Highly localised changes, or deformations, in the temperature were found and concentrated at the boundaries between ice of different ages and types.

It's thought dust in the ice from past volcanic eruptions or large fractures which penetrate several hundred metres below the surface of the ice could be responsible for the differing temperatures but the exact cause remains unknown.

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Professor Bryn Hubbard, who is the director of the Centre for Glaciology at Aberystwyth University, said:

“This technology is a big advance in our ability to record spatial variations in ice temperature over long distances and at really high resolution. With some further adaptations, the technique can also record other properties, such as deformation, at similarly high resolution.”

Around half of the mass loss from the ice sheet is from surface meltwater runoff, while the other half is driven by discharge of ice directly into the ocean by fast flowing glaciers that reach the sea.

Accurate temperature information is vital for scientists to understand how ice is moving and what is melting it.

Conditions on the surface can be detected by satellites or field observations but determining what is happening within and beneath a kilometre-thick ice sheet is far more challenging, and a lack of observations is a major cause of uncertainty in projections of global sea-level rise.

The project, known as 'Responder,' was funded by the European Research Council and engineers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and geophysicists at the University of Leeds, assisted with data collection and analysis. 

The National is running its first Environmental Awards to celebrate the best green practices and climate action projects across Wales.

The awards will shine a spotlight on the individuals, companies and organisations doing outstanding work to protect the environment and tackle climate change.

Find out more information and how to nominate here.

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