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UM researcher studies melting glaciers to learn about climate change

University of Michigan/S. Pipes

With all the heat and humidity we've been having, ice sounds pretty good right about now.

Sarah Aciego is going a long way for some ice this summer: she’s heading to Greenland to study glaciers. She’s an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan.

She pioneered a new way to determine the age of dust trapped in glacial ice.

"The dust that I measure is in ice cores. We also measure it in surface ice. Dust is always deposited across all of us now. We could be outside and getting dust from China or Canada or South America on us because we have deflation into the upper atmosphere and it travels really, really far distances before it gets deposited," Aciego says.

Unlocking the secrets in glacial dust

By going back in time and studying the age of the dust that's in the ice, the idea is that the data can then be used to make predictions about what might happen with the ice sheets in the future.

"That's kind of the holy grail. One of the reasons that our methodologies for looking at the age of dust - and we also work on the age of water, the meltwater that's under the ice - is important is because one of the things that we don't really understand is timing, or rates," she says.

"That's because we can say 100,000 years ago or 120,000 years ago it was warmer, but what we don't quite understand is how fast melting happened in the past. And predictions for the future on how melting is going to impact sea level rise, which is one of the things people think about, sea level rise and coastal communities and displacement of people - that's the huge human implication."

From volcanoes to glaciers

Sarah Aciego started her career studying volcanoes. Then, she was invited on a trip to Antarctica.

"Then I fell in love. There's just no going back after you go down there."

So, why was she smitten?

"I think it's the closest you can be to being on another planet, where you're having this sense of discovery, where you might be the first person to step in a certain valley."

"It's such a unique place. You fly down there and get out of the helicopter and it's very strange, once the helicopter leaves there's no noise. There's no trees, there's no buildings, so there's nothing for it to really whistle around. I think it's the closest you can be to being on another planet, where you're having this sense of discovery, where you might be the first person to step in a certain valley."

Watching glaciers recede

Aciego studies glaciers as they melt, so she's on the front lines of the science of climate change.

"I almost do a disconnect. You know, when you see how much a glacier has retreated, you really feel the impact of climate change. There's a certain pessimism that we're going to be able to do anything about it, or at least do anything about it before it's too late for people to go and see these things," she says.

She says the first year she was in Antarctica it was really cold - that's what you expect when you're in Antarctica: it will always be really cold.

"Then, the next year I was down there was the first year we had that really, really warm summer in the southern hemisphere, it was, I think, 2003. And there were days when I was out on this glacier and I was in a T-shirt and I just thought, 'this is not right,'" she says.

"So I think, when you're out there and you see it right up in your face, it's really clear what's happening, and then when we come back, trying to explain to somebody that this is not normal is hard."

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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