“Sea level rise” brings up images of beautiful tropical locales drowned by an angry, yet still perfectly blue sea.
University of Montana glaciologist Joel Harper doesn’t get to hang out on sundrenched beaches and contemplate sea level rise. He and his team go to cold, remote and forbidding Greenland. It’s sunny in summertime, but it’s not anyone’s idea of a tropical getaway.
The question Harper’s team is trying to answer is how fast melting ice in Greenland’s vast glaciers is adding to sea level rise.
Sea level rise is currently an eighth of an inch per year according to Harper, with half of that rise due to water expanding from heat and the other half from melting ice.
Those additions from melting ice are split roughly into thirds from the smaller glaciers in mountains around the world, Antarctica and Greenland. Greenland alone is capable of raising the sea level by 22 feet. Small increases in sea level can cause devastating changes for coastal habitats and cities, so a 22-foot rise would be catastrophic.
And Greenland’s contribution to sea level rise is increasing the fastest.
Harper and his team just got back from a weeklong Greenland trip they took in late July. Harper and the team were wrapping up a five-year study on glacial motion and its effects on melting ice.
“We want to know how the ice slides, how water finds its way to the bottom of the ice,” Harper explained in his University of Montana office. “More melt means more movement.”
The team spent its time in Greenland drilling boreholes 800 meters deep into the ice, placing sensors they engineered themselves at the bottom of the hole. They measured everything they could, including surface motion, internal motion, temperature and water temperature.
The surface and internal motion of Greenland’s inner ice sheet is of specific concern to Harper’s research, as faster motion means more sea level rise which in turn means more problems for the world at large.
Getting that data on this last trip was an impressively arduous experience. The crew sent 13,000 pounds of gear on a C-130 to Kangerlussuaq Airport on the western side of Greenland. They retrieved it on their way in, put the crew and the six-plus tons of gear on a huge Sikorsky S-61 helicopter and then flew all the way to the middle of Greenland to send electromagnetic pulses down through ice nearly a half-mile thick in order to understand the how and why of glacial movement.
It’s a difficult job.
That’s why Harper has to pick “durable” people to be part of the team. UM senior and Lewistown resident Aidan Stansberry was chosen because, as a former firefighter, he was “durable.” And good with computers.
Stansberry is currently in charge of sifting through 14,000 data points about the thickness of the glacial ice. He was also tasked with gathering that data, carrying around two 30-foot antennas that gathered bouncing radar pulses used to calculate the depth of the ice.
It wasn’t all hard work and suffering. “We were glamping pretty hard,” Stansberry said. Cookies, nice cheeses and other foods that would be impossible to take backpacking are popular.
Stansberry might have been overselling it. Harper said via email that “our camping situation is a bit different than the glamping folks you see at Paws Up. We sleep in small backpacking tents pitched in the snow and ice. And our bathroom, well that’s often just a small crevasse in the ice.”