Shrubs lend an insight into a glacier's past

November 26, 2012

The stems of shrubs have given researchers a window into a glacier's past, potentially allowing them to more accurately assess how they're set to change in the future.

Their findings have been published today, 27 November, in IOP Publishing's journal Environmental Research Letters, and show how a glacier's history of melting can be extended way past the instrumental record.

Much like the rings on a tree stump indicate how old it is, measuring the width of rings on the stem of a shrub can give a good indication of how well it has grown year on year. Under extreme environmental conditions, such as those close to a glacier, a shrub's growth relies heavily on summer temperatures, meaning the ring-width of a shrub can be used a proxy for glacial melting, which also relies heavily on summer temperatures.

Lead author of the study, Allan Buras, said: "In warm summers, shrubs grow more compared to cold summers. In contrast, a glacier's summer mass balance is more negative in warm summers, meaning there is more melting compared to cold summers.

"Big rings in shrubs therefore indicate comparably warm summers, and thus a strongly negative summer mass balance - in other words, more melting."

The researchers, from the University of Greifswald, tested this theory on a local icecap in the Scandic Mountains of southern Norway. They took 24 samples of shrubs from a site close to the glacier and analysed their ring-widths.

Monthly precipitation and temperature data from a local climate station were retrieved from the Norwegian Meteorological Office, and the summer mass balance of the glacier, from 1963 to 2010, was retrieved from the existing literature.

Each of these data sets was then statistically tested to see if there was a correlation between them. The results showed a robust and reliable correlation between the ring-width of shrubs and the summer melting of the glacier.

"Our results show that it is possible to reconstruct glacier summer mass balance with shrub ring-width series and it is therefore theoretically possible to extent records of summer mass balance into the past," Buras continued.

The shrubs that were collected in the study were relatively young, only allowing for reliable reconstructions over the past 36 years, meaning they could not be used to extend the record of the glacier; however, the researchers are confident that this could have been achieved if longer-lived shrubs were selected.

Most of the available data on the mass balance of glaciers only spans several decades and there is some data missing, mainly because most glaciers are situated in hard-to-reach arctic and alpine areas.

With the possibility to extend the instrumental records of summer mass balance, researchers may gain a better understanding of how glaciers behave in the summer, which they can use to calibrate and verify their existing models.

From Tuesday 27 November, this paper can be downloaded from http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/7/4/044031/article
-end-
Notes to Editors

Contact

1. For further information, a full draft of the journal paper or contact with one of the researchers, contact IOP Press Officer, Michael Bishop:
Tel: 0117 930 1032
E-mail: Michael.bishop@iop.org

Can shrubs help to reconstruct glacier retreats?

2. The published version of the paper 'Can shrubs help to reconstruct glacier retreats?' (Allan Buras et al 2012 Environ. Res. Lett. 7 044031) will be freely available online from Tuesday 27 November. It will be available at http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/7/4/044031/article.

Environmental Research Letters

3. Environmental Research Letters is an open access journal that covers all of environmental science, providing a coherent and integrated approach including research articles, perspectives and editorials.

IOP Publishing

4. IOP Publishing provides publications through which leading-edge scientific research is distributed worldwide. IOP Publishing is central to the Institute of Physics (IOP), a not-for-profit society. Any financial surplus earned by IOP Publishing goes to support science through the activities of IOP. Beyond our traditional journals programme, we make high-value scientific information easily accessible through an ever-evolving portfolio of community websites, magazines, conference proceedings and a multitude of electronic services. Focused on making the most of new technologies, we're continually improving our electronic interfaces to make it easier for researchers to find exactly what they need, when they need it, in the format that suits them best. Go to http://ioppublishing.org/.

The Institute of Physics

5. The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society. We are a charitable organisation with a worldwide membership of more than 45,000, working together to advance physics education, research and application. We engage with policymakers and the general public to develop awareness and understanding of the value of physics and, through IOP Publishing, we are world leaders in professional scientific communications.

IOP Publishing

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