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Arctic Climate Change in Photos

An Icy History: Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages

Mapping Sinkhole Risk in Maryland

Arctic Climate Change in Photos

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” so the old cliché goes. And nowhere is that truer than in the Arctic, where scientists are taking snapshots in time of retreating glaciers, some of which were presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union last December. These photos are “unqualified examples of climate change,” says Bruce Molnia, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., whose collection of Alaskan glacier photos aims to show the Arctic warming trend by comparing the exact same spot in the early 20th century and again in the 21st century. While scientists are seeing a significant loss of both glacial area and volume throughout Alaska, Molnia says, the results can vary. For example, 1 to 2 percent of large glaciers above 6,000 feet are actually advancing, Molnia says, but the vast majority of the remaining glaciers in the state are thinning, especially at lower elevations.

For example, all of the glaciers are retreating near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska, says Matt Nolan, a glaciologist with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He is also documenting Arctic climate change through images that show glacial retreat.

Vegetation has also been responding to increased warmth and longer summers, by spreading and changing at an unprecedented rate, says Ken Tape, also at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who has been working on documenting vegetative changes as part of the Arctic System Science Program. “If you find the increase in shrubs to be subtle at first glance [in the photos], ask yourself if there are two times as many shrubs in the new photographs,” Tape says. The collection of 202 repeated photographs shows a 39 percent increase in shrubs, he says, and this change has “huge implications” for the Arctic ecosystem. “The great thing about the photos is that you can make your own assessment of the change,” Tape says.

These photos are available through several sources, online and in books, such as Glaciers of Alaska by Molnia. See below for links to Web sites that feature more of these photos.

Megan Sever

See the April print version of Geotimes for several examples of these photo pairs from Alaska.


Earth Science World Image Bank
Land Atmosphere Ice Interactions

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Book review
Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages

by Doug Macdougall,
University of California Press, 2004.
ISBN 0 5202 3992 9. Hardcover $24.95.
An Icy History
Terence Hughes

Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages, Doug Macdougall’s second book written for general science readers, is a tour through the history of our knowledge of glaciation through time. He starts with the 19th-century realization that scoured bedrock, large boulders and other evidence of former widespread erosion and deposition were not left by the Biblical flood, but by a flood of ice spreading across Scandinavia, Switzerland and Scotland, and then leads us through to modern research in glaciology and climatology.

As Macdougall tells, after Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz presented his ice age theory, the body of evidence for glaciation grew: evidence for the existence of vast ice sheets in Earth’s recent past, the history and causes of advance and retreat, and evidence that ice ages had been part of Earth’s history almost from the beginning. It was later that James Croll, a self-taught Scot, showed how cycles of about 100,000 years in the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit and 23,000-year cycles for precession of Earth’s rotation axis correlated with the four glaciations in Europe and North America. Although greatly acclaimed at the time of publication in 1875, Croll’s calculations fell into disfavor, but were revived in 1920 by the Serbian mathematician Milutin Milankovitch, who added the 41,000-year cycle for tilt of Earth’s rotation axis. Most fascinating is Macdougall’s description of several “snowball Earth” ice ages from 800 to 600 million years ago, during which ice may have covered the whole planet, both land and sea (see story, this issue).

Macdougall also presents the global efforts and innovative technology used to extract Earth’s glacial history, with particular attention to cores of ocean-floor sediments, ice sheets and mountain glaciers. These cores contain microfossils, volcanic and terrestrial dust, isotopes, air bubbles and stratigraphy, all of which allow for the mapping and dating of events in Earth’s climatic history.

The end of the book is devoted to our prehistoric ancestors, our historical past and our possible future on a planet still in an ice age. Macdougall examines how the last glaciation cycle interacted with climate to influence human evolution and migration. The section, however, on human evolution was the most disappointing, as it was a rehash of old ideas based on scanty evidence. Macdougall notes that Agassiz and some of the other pioneering figures were devout Christians, and reluctant to accept slow evolution by natural selection championed by Charles Darwin.

Throughout the book, Macdougall employs the literary tactic of focusing on a few people who made landmark contributions to the understanding of our frozen Earth. He brings these people to life, and instills an appreciation of the difficulties in formulating new ideas and then getting them accepted, which makes the book highly readable. A downside of this approach is that many key players get left out, and showcasing individuals obscures the teamwork that is needed to conduct modern-day science. For example, the international and inter-institutional collaborations that went into enterprises such as the International Geophysical Year, in 1957-1958, led to coring through the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, uncovering long records of climate change and initiating studies of ice sheet dynamics. These studies now tell us that ice sheets can trigger climate change and do not just respond passively to the slow, long-term variations in insolation that get so much attention in Macdougall’s book.

Another cooperative venture not mentioned is CLIMAP (Climate: Long-range Investigation, Mapping and Prediction), a project of the International Decade of Ocean Exploration from 1970 to 1980. Headed by John Imbrie, it developed “transfer functions” that allowed ocean surface temperatures to be mapped globally for the past 20,000 years or more, by using the abundances of environmentally sensitive microorganisms recovered as fossils in ocean-sediment cores.

A third international technological breakthrough has been the use of Earth-orbiting satellites to provide continuous data on Earth’s weather and climate, and ongoing dynamic changes in the planet’s two remaining ice sheets. These new technologies and projects will allow us to better understand how our activities may alter the future climate and glaciation, and in the meantime, books like Frozen Earth will continue to open a window to the past.

Hughes is a professor of earth sciences and Quaternary and climate studies with the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. E-mail:

"Space dust and snowball Earth," Geotimes, April 2005

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Mapping Sinkhole Risk in Maryland

Karst is a hidden hazard affecting many regions. It forms when water dissolves limestone, gypsum and other rocks, and can create sinkholes, sinking streams and springs. The Maryland Geological Survey has recently completed a four-year investigation of karst and the geologic factors that may influence the number, size and distribution of sinkholes in the Frederick, Md., region. A geologic map forms the basis of the study, as it can generate a predictive model to show the relationship between specific rock units and karst development.

In the fall of 1995, minor injuries resulted from the catastrophic collapse of South Street in Frederick, Md. Photo by J.P. Reger

Funded by the Maryland State Highway Administration, the 101-page study, Maryland Geological Survey Report of Investigations No. 75, describes in detail the varying character of the soluble rocks that underlie the area around Frederick, and discusses how sinkholes and other solution features are distributed with respect to these rocks. The study utilized GPS, for precision, to locate the more than 1,800 solution features that are identified on the map. All of these karst features are summarized, along with the geology, on the 1:50,000-scale map.

Detailed 1:24,000-scale digital geologic and karst feature maps of individual 7.5-minute U.S. Geological Survey quadrangles comprising the project area are available from the Maryland Geological Survey for the Buckeystown, Point of Rocks, Frederick, Walkersville, Woodsboro and Catoctin Furnace quadrangles.

For more information or to purchase either the report or individual maps, visit

David K. Brezinski contributed to the Maps section this month and is the paleontologist/stratigrapher for the Maryland Geological Survey.

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