Ice Sheets Play Key Role in Handling Earth’s Carbon

This 2016 photo provided by NASA shows the Getz Ice Shelf from 2016’s Operation Icebridge in Antarctica. According to a 2019 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Antarctica is melting more than six times faster than it did in the 1980s. (Jeremy Harbeck/NASA via AP)

(CN) – Ice sheets, once thought to be frozen wastelands, play a much larger role in Earth’s carbon cycle than previously believed.

In a study published Thursday in Nature Communications, researchers examined climate data from the past two decades to better understand what kind of influence Earth’s ice sheets have on our planet’s biological cycles. Specifically, they sought to explore a long held scientific belief that ice sheets – which make up nearly a tenth of Earth’s surface – play little to no role in Earth’s carbon cycle.

What Jemma Wadham, professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences and lead author of the study and the team discovered, however, is that our frozen wastelands actually play an integral role in the regulation of carbon.

Researchers discovered ice sheets possess vast amounts of carbon materials in the form of microbes and gases that are trapped under the surface of the ice and within certain melt zones where the ice has eroded. The Antarctic ice sheet alone, researchers believe, acts as a storage container for nearly 20,000 billion metric tons of organic carbon – 10 times more than what is stored in all the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost.

The study reports that as the ice naturally shifts, these compounds run off into nearby oceans where they have a tremendous influence on the ocean’s chemical and carbon makeup. These findings directly indicate ice sheets have a serious role to play in our carbon cycle, a role that goes against decades of previously held assumptions.

The study concludes by suggesting the role of ice sheets in our carbon cycle are also being affected by climate change. The study reports that while data models can use historical climate data to help predict how rising temperatures could influence carbon runoff in the polar regions, anticipating the consequences of climate change on ice sheets remains challenging.

“Despite these clues from the past, the impact of future climate warming in the polar regions on the feedbacks between ice sheets and the global carbon cycle is highly uncertain,” the researchers said.

Wadham did not respond to request for immediate comment by press time.

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