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Pluto’s Cthulhu mountains are covered in ice, but not like Earth


The methane-capped mountains of Pluto’s Cthulhu region. False color images, in purple, show methane across the region correlates with the snow caps.


Gazing at Pluto’s Cthulhu mountain range from space, you could mistake it for the Alps, Europe’s picturesque spine of rock dusted with snow. When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zipped past the dwarf planet in 2015, it imaged Cthulhu and the region’s dazzling, reflective spine of mountains, which ascend to almost half the height of Mount Everest. It’s cold on Pluto, way out at the edge of the solar system, and while peaks in Cthulhu may resemble the Alps, they’re not capped with snow. They’re frozen over with methane-rich ice.

Not the best place to go skiing, then.

A new study, published in the journal Nature on Tuesday, attempts to understand the mechanisms driving the formation of the Methane Alps, which has been something of a mystery. Some of the regions imaged by New Horizons showed features strikingly similar to those on Earth. Using high-resolution simulations, a team of planetary scientists have shown that looks can be deceiving — the methane-ice mountains are likely formed in the opposite way to the Alps’ snow-capped peaks.

On Earth, winds drive moist air up the side of mountains where cold temperatures cause water to condense and form snow which falls onto mountaintops. But that process is due to Earth’s atmospheric conditions. Pluto’s atmosphere is much thinner and even collapses as it moves from from the sun. And unlike Earth, temperature increases as you move upward in the atmosphere. The methane-ice can’t be explained by processes we understand down here. 

But by recapitulating Pluto’s climate and methane cycle in numerical simulations, the team were able to create a model that agreed with the observations from NASA’s New Horizons and other observations taken from Earth.

The new work suggests Pluto’s methane-ice peaks are like a Bizarro-Alps where everything is backward.

The thin atmosphere of Pluto is warmer than its surface and carries methane gas from the northern hemisphere to equatorial plains like the Cthulhu region. The air above these regions is rich with methane gas, which condenses at night across the entire area. But during the day, much of the frozen methane sublimates, turning from solid to gas. But in higher altitude terrains, like Cthulhu’s peaks, it persists during the day and slowly builds up over time. 

The team conclude that it’s remarkable to find two phenomena producing similar landscapes that are formed by such dissimilar processes. Understanding the methane cycle on Pluto, they suggest, might help explain other unique features of the dwarf planet’s surface. The Tartarus Dorsa mountains, photographed by New Horizons, are bizarrely textured, showing “intricate by puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between,” according to NASA. This “bladed” texture may be a result of methane condensation. 

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After Year on Ice, the Biggest Arctic Research Mission Is Done

The Polarstern amidst Arctic sea ice.

The Polarstern amidst Arctic sea ice.
Photo: NOAA, University of Colorado, Boulder, and MOSAiC

The largest Arctic research campaign in history just came to a close. For more than a year, a rotating group of roughly 500 scientists and staffers have been traveling the region on a research vessel called the Polarstern as part of the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate expedition, or MOSAiC.

The expedition began last September, when a team packed the ship with 1 million pounds of equipment and set off from Norway toward the North Pole. They then attached the vessel to an ice floe north of Siberia and let it carry them westward for thousands of miles. This allowed the multidisciplinary group of researchers to closely observe the Arctic’s air, ice, and ecosystems to learn more about them and their bearing on our changing climate.

The team studied everything from zooplankton and polar bears to sea ice and wind patterns. Along the way, they encountered many difficulties. At several points, for instance, the ice broke up more than they expected it would and forced them to change their planned path. They also saw dangerous storms, which in more than one case damaged their equipment. At one point, an Arctic fox chewed through data cables—seriously. And of course, there was the covid-19 pandemic, which forced them to pause the expedition for three weeks after a crew member getting ready to deploy to the vessel tested positive, delaying some of their research.

Illustration for article titled After More Than a Year on the Ice, the Biggest Arctic Research Mission Is Complete

Photo: Lianna Nixon, CIRES/University of Colorado, Boulder

The unique nature of the science and circumstances of the pandemic wasn’t the only time the expedition made news; its controversial, sexist dress code prohibiting women from wearing tight clothes also garnered backlash. Despite these challenges, the scientists arrived back on cozier shores with treasure troves of data.

“Direct observations and physical samples collected during the MOSAiC expedition represent a quantum leap in our understanding of natural processes and cycles in the central Arctic Ocean across all seasons,” Frank Rack, the National Science Foundation’s Arctic research support and logistics manager for the trip, said on a press call.

The data could greatly improve scientists’ understanding the ways aerosols, clouds, precipitation, and sea ice interact, and improve climate models and forecasts about the trajectory of global warming. That’s particularly true because they were able to obtain rare winter data, which is hard to do since temperatures in the Arctic are so extreme and access is all but impossible unless you’re already locked in the ice.

The Arctic is warming over twice as fast as the rest of the planet, which can be seen by the recent record-setting heat waves and fires in Siberia and the recent near record-low summer sea ice extent seen throughout the region.

These changes are wreaking havoc on animal populations in the area. They could also harm local Indigenous communities, and communities around the world. Changes in sea ice can disturb

Ice Sheets Are Walkways and Penguins Come Visiting

It is almost impossible to imagine what working in Antarctica is like. There are a few people who have been there to work and here’s what they have to say

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When we think of Antarctica, we imagine penguins, auroras, ice sheets and glaciers. We rarely ever think of it as a workspace. But, there are many researchers and logistics professionals who go to Antarctica and stay there on government research stations for six months at a stretch. As a workspace, Antarctica is more exciting than anyone could ever dream of. According to Ankitha Reddy, a recent researcher at the Indian Antarctic Expedition, “Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest and most serene workspace. Going through every challenge gives you the learning of a lifetime. The mere sunrises and sunsets are a delight to watch.” For many of us, it may be impossible to imagine what working in Antarctica is like, but here’s a sneak peek.

Working in Antarctica brings out the artist inside you: Living in a serene untouched continent makes you realize that the experience of being there is special. It creates an urge to go back home and explain the wonder of the experience to the rest of the world which has never been to Antarctica. Dr. Madhubala Chinchalkar was selected to go to Antarctica as a medical officer in 2016. Though Dr. Chinchalkar is a doctor by profession, Antarctica brought out the artist in her as she compiled an award-winning documentary, “…And Skua Returned Early”, about her experiences. Other people who are selected to go to Antarctica also tend to find intersections between their work and art. Most of them take photos of their lifetime in Antarctica because they feel like they are experiencing something different. According to Dr. Chinchalkar, “When I went to Antarctica, I was awestruck by the space. I wanted to come back and show everyone what it looked like so I made the documentary.”

Keri Nelson who has been working at the US base in Antarctica started a blog called Simply Antarctica which has images of penguins, birds, glaciers and the aurora in Antarctica. Though Nelson has no professional experience in photography, she started taking images over her time there and growing her photography handle.

Living in Antarctica teaches you to be an effective and versatile leader: The climate in Antarctica is tough to accommodate in. During winter, there is no sunrise for 4 months and the temperatures are as low as -35 to – 45 degrees Celsius. There are blizzards which last for weeks. While researchers are working in these harsh conditions, it teaches them effective skills for leadership which they can apply to other industries when they are back. “I learned to stay calm yet to act fast, to work as a

COVID and ice hockey: outbreaks chill Nordic national pastime

GOTHENBURG, Sweden (Reuters) – Health authorities in Sweden and Finland are looking into a series of COVID-19 outbreaks on ice hockey teams that are believed to be one of the drivers of a sharp increase in new cases in the two hockey-loving countries.

The day after Swedish ice hockey team BIK Karlskoga defeated Vasteras in a game in late September, one of its players complained of a fever. Three days later, half of Karlskoga’s players and staff had tested positive for COVID-19 along with six players on Vasteras.

“I felt the earth shake beneath my feet when we got the results back. I thought maybe three or four players were infected and that it would be enough to isolate them,” BIK Karlskoga manager Torsten Yngveson told Reuters.

The club shut down completely for two weeks, disrupting preparations just as the hockey season was kicking into full swing. All the players and staff have since recovered.

The two Nordic countries are now jointly investigating why hockey teams appear more affected by the coronavirus than other sports. Both countries enjoyed relatively calm summers in terms of cases before the resurgence last month. Sweden’s Health Agency singled out hockey as a factor.

“Sports, especially ice hockey, seem to be very affected right now,” Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist of Sweden’s public health agency, said in a news conference late last month.

Sweden, whose soft-touch strategy for containing the virus has gained global attention, registered 919 new cases on Friday, its highest daily total since June, while Finland registered 235, one of its highest daily tolls since the pandemic began.

The neighbouring countries have been at opposite ends of the pandemic spectrum, with Sweden one of Europe’s hardest-hit nations while Finland, which adopted tougher restrictions, has had fewer deaths. Yet they have the hockey-linked outbreaks in common.

The extent of the problem has been difficult to gauge, the Swedish health agency said, as players, of which there are about 135,000 registered across Sweden and Finland, are mostly young and may experience few or no symptoms from COVID-19.

Cramped changing rooms and bulky equipment that forces players to change at venues are highlighted as probable main causes for the outbreaks, but the damp and cold climate at indoor hockey rinks is also being scrutinized.

“Obviously the fact that it’s played on ice is having an impact – it’s likely that the virus preserves better in the cold. Also the warmer air rises and there is heavy ventilation at the rink,” said Lasse Lehtonen, head of healthcare diagnostics in the Helsinki region.

Reporting by Johan Ahlander in Gothenburg, Sweden, additional reporting by Tarmo Virki, in Helsinki, Finland; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Paul Simao

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Ice melt projections may underestimate Antarctic contribution to sea level rise

Ice melt projections may underestimate Antarctic contribution to sea level rise
Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, pictured in 2019. Credit: NASA

Fluctuations in the weather can have a significant impact on melting Antarctic ice, and models that do not include this factor can underestimate the global impact of sea level rise, according to Penn State scientists.

“We know ice sheets are melting as global temperatures increase, but uncertainties remain about how much and how fast that will happen,” said Chris Forest, professor of climate dynamics at Penn State. “Our findings shed new light on one area of uncertainty, suggesting climate variability has a significant impact on melting ice sheets and sea level rise.”

While it is understood that continued warming may cause rapid ice loss, models that predict how Antarctica will respond to climate change have not included the potential impacts of internal climate variability, like yearly and decadal fluctuations in the climate, the team of scientists said.

Accounting for climate variability caused models to predict an additional 2.7 to 4.3 inches—7 to 11 centimeters—of sea level rise by 2100, the scientists recently reported in the journal Climate Dynamics. The models projected roughly 10.6 to 14.9 inches—27 to 38 centimeters—of sea level rise during that same period without climate variability.

“That increase alone is comparable to the amount of sea level rise we have seen over the last few decades,” said Forest, who has appointments in the departments of meteorology and atmospheric science and geosciences. “Every bit adds on to the storm surge, which we expect to see during hurricanes and other severe weather events, and the results can be devastating.”

The Antarctic ice sheet is a complex system, and modeling how it will evolve under future climate conditions requires thousands of simulations and large amounts of computing power. Because of this, modelers test how the ice will respond using a mean temperature found by averaging the results of climate models.

However, that process smooths out peaks caused by climate variability and reduces the average number of days above temperature thresholds that can impact the ice sheet melt, creating a bias in the results, the scientists said.

“If we include variability in the simulations, we are going to have more warm days and more sunshine, and therefore when the daily temperature gets above a certain threshold it will melt the ice,” Forest said. “If we’re just running with average conditions, we’re not seeing these extremes happening on yearly or decadal timescales.”

To study the effects of internal climate variability, the researchers analyzed two large ensembles of climate simulations. Large ensembles are generated by starting each member with slightly different initial conditions. The chaotic nature of the climate system causes each member to yield slightly different responses, and this represents internally generated variability, the scientists said.

Instead of averaging the results of each ensemble, the scientists fed the atmospheric and oceanic data representing this variability into a three-dimensional Antarctic ice sheet model. They found atmospheric variations had a larger and more immediate impact on the ice sheet, but ocean variability was also a

Proglacial lakes are accelerating glacier ice loss

Proglacial lakes are accelerating glacier ice loss
Credit: Dr Jenna Sutherland

Meltwater lakes that form at glacier margins cause ice to recede much further and faster compared to glaciers that terminate on land, according to a new study. But the effects of these glacial lakes are not represented in current ice loss models, warn the study authors.

Therefore, estimates of recession rates and ice mass loss from lake-terminating glaciers in the coming decades are likely to be under-estimated.

Many mountain glaciers now terminate in such lakes, formed as meltwater becomes trapped behind ridges of glacier debris. They are known as proglacial lakes. Climate change has increased glacier melt worldwide and this in turn has led to a dramatic increase in the size and number of proglacial lakes. But the effects of proglacial lakes on the rates of deglaciation and on glacier behavior have previously been poorly understood.

Now, an international team of researchers, led by the University of Leeds, has quantified for the first time the influence of proglacial lakes on mountain glaciers using computer simulations. They found that the presence of a proglacial lake causes a glacier to recede more than four times further and accelerate ice flow by up to eight times when compared to the same glacier terminating on land under the same climate.

The findings, published today in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, show that a land-terminating glacier took 1000 years to succumb to the same amount of recession as a lake-terminating glacier experienced in 100 years.

Study lead author Dr. Jenna Sutherland undertook this research while a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Geography at Leeds. She said: “An ice cube in a bowl of water is going to melt much more quickly than an ice cube sitting on a table, and the effect proglacial lakes have on glacier ice is roughly the same.

“The simulations show that the influence of a proglacial lake on a glacier predominantly takes place over decades to centuries rather than over millennia, meaning the glacier recedes much faster than it ever could from climatic changes alone.”

Study co-author Dr. Jonathan Carrivick, a senior lecturer in geomorphology at Leeds, said: “Our findings suggest that simulations of past, contemporary or future glaciers ignore the effects of ice-contact lakes and will likely mis-represent the timing and rate of recession, especially the changes to the timing and rate that will occur once a proglacial lake forms.

“This effects need to be included in all future models and simulations if we are to have an accurate global picture of glacial ice loss.”

The team used the BISICLES ice-flow model, to analyze the effects of a proglacial on the Pukaki Glacier, New Zealand, during recession from the end of the last ice age.

Study co-author Professor James Shulmeister, from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand said: “While this study focussed on New Zealand, proglacial lakes are prevalent during glacial retreat worldwide and this paper should therefore be of global interest and importance.”

In addition, he noted: “This study is also critical

Arctic odyssey ends, bringing home tales of alarming ice loss

The biggest Arctic expedition in history will return to the German port of Bremerhaven on Monday after a year-long mission, bringing home observations from scientists that sea ice is melting at a “dramatic rate” in the region.

Coronavirus restrictions mean there will be no grand fanfare when the German Alfred Wegener Institute’s Polarstern ship docks.

But the information gathered by researchers as the ship drifted through the ocean trapped in ice will be vital to helping scientists understand the effects of climate change.

In the summer, the researchers saw for themselves the dramatic effects of global warming on ice in the region, considered “the epicentre of climate change”, according to mission leader Markus Rex.

“We could see broad stretches of open water reaching nearly to the Pole, surrounded by ice that was riddled with holes produced by massive melting,” Rex said.

His sobering conclusion: “The Arctic ice is disappearing at a dramatic rate.”

– ‘Magical moment’ –

The researchers’ observations have been backed up by US satellite images showing that in 2020, sea ice in the Arctic reached its second-lowest summer minimum on record, after 2012.

The Polarstern mission, dubbed MOSAIC, spent 389 days collecting data on the atmosphere, ocean, sea ice and ecosystems to help assess the impact of climate change on the region and the world.

To carry out the research, four observational sites were set up on the sea ice in a radius of up to 40 kilometres around the ship.

The researchers collected water samples from beneath the ice during the polar night to study plant plankton and bacteria and better understand how the marine ecosystem functions under extreme conditions.

The 140-million-euro ($165 million) expedition is also bringing back to shore more than 1,000 ice samples.

With the odyssey drawing to a close, work will begin in earnest on analysing the samples and data retrieved or recorded on site.

The analysis process will take up to two years, with the aim of developing models to help predict what heatwaves, heavy rains or storms could look like in 20, 50 or 100 years’ time.

“To build climate models, we need in situ observations,” Radiance Calmer, a researcher at the University of Colorado who was on board the Polarstern from June to September, told AFP.

The team used drones to measure temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speeds to create a picture of conditions in the region that will be “very useful for establishing a climate model”, Calmer said.

Recounting her experience on the mission, the researcher said being able to walk across the ice and experience those conditions first-hand was a “magical” moment.

“If you concentrate, you can feel it moving,” she said.

“It’s important to take the time to observe, not just focus on your work.”

– 20 polar bears –

Since the ship departed from Tromso, Norway, on September 20, 2019, the crew have seen long months of complete darkness, temperatures as low as -39.5 Celsius (-39.1 Fahrenheit) — and around 20 polar bears.