From satellites to ice cores, Rowan prof studies climate change

From satellites to ice cores, Rowan prof studies climate change

Assistant Professor Luke Trusel measures an ice core in Antarctica.
Assistant Professor Luke Trusel measures an ice core in Antarctica.

Just beyond his window it’s searing outside, but Dr. Luke Trusel is trying to keep his cool.

Trusel, Rowan University’s sole glaciologist, spends most days researching the coldest places on earth, in particular the ebb and flow of the polar ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland.

But his temperature, like that of the Earth itself, is rising as his findings – which investigate how the ice sheets are responding to a warming climate  – line up with the vast majority of climatological research worldwide.

Unambiguous, the research shows that humankind’s burning of fossil fuels since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and continued emissions today and in the future, have a direct influence on the melting of the ice sheets.

Trusel’s work is largely centered on ice shelves in Antarctica, where vast portions of the Antarctic ice sheet meet the ocean, and which help hold back the ice from adding to rising sea levels. This summer from his Rowan Hall office he is studying how much they are melting, and how the lakes and rivers that are forming on the ice shelves may impact their viability.

“If Antarctica was to fully melt it would cause global sea levels to rise about 60 meters (around 200 feet),” said Trusel, an assistant professor in the Department of Geology within Rowan’s School of Earth & Environment. “With that amount of melting, we’d have to fundamentally redraw all of our maps. The good news is, that Antarctica will not fully melt any time soon, but, worryingly, scientists have seen accelerating sea level rise in recent years because of (a partial) melting of the polar ice sheets.”

By studying melting and those spreading glacial lakes with colleagues at the University of Colorado (one ice shelf has enough surface water to fill about 200,000 Olympic pools, and a single lake that is 50+ miles long), Trusel hopes to improve predictions of melt patterns and their impacts on the stability of Antarctic ice.  Trusel notes that because Antarctica is so massive, it will be responding to current climate changes for millennia, and because it contains so much ice, even small changes in its melting can make large and important contributions to sea level change globally.  

“When lakes form ice shelves as they’re doing now, those can act as precursors to ice shelf collapse,” he said.  “We’ve seen this play out before our eyes in recent decades -- melt leading to lakes, then ice shelf collapses, and then increased contributions to sea level.”

In addition to impacts on sea level, Trusel said polar ice serves as an important global thermo-regulator of sorts, reflecting the Sun’s energy back out to space. As the ice in the ocean and on land diminishes, less of this energy is reflected away from Earth and more is absorbed by the Earth, causing land and water temperatures to rise. The consequences can include hotter summers and more extreme and persistent weather patterns including more severe hurricane seasons in which storms feed off the energy contained in warmer waters.

Time to act

In 2016, an accord signed by representatives from nearly every country known as the Paris Agreement sought to limit a global rise in temperatures to two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by reducing the use of fossil fuels. Since then, the Trump administration has signaled an intent to withdraw the U.S. from the accord but that does not mean results sought by the agreement will not be met, Trusel said.

“There’s a big push globally to address emissions,” he said. “Whether the U.S. leads or not, most countries are working toward it.”

Trusel also noted promising efforts underway in the U.S. at regional, state, and local levels, including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative which New Jersey re-entered earlier this year.

Trusel this summer presented studies at Polar 2018, a conference in Davos, Switzerland, of roughly 3,000 leading polar researchers, many of whom are studying the impacts of human-caused global warming on the poles, and in turn, what that means to those who live at lower latitudes.

He has also recently secured a $100,000 National Science Foundation grant to fund his study of satellite data from Antarctica and to support his “Cryolab” research group in Rowan Hall from which he’ll study ice sheets and their interactions with other parts of the “cryosphere” – Earth’s frozen elements including sea ice and snow cover.  Trusel is further supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which will provide another $218,000 for Trusel and his research team to help identify how changes in the ocean impact melting and snowfall in Antarctica.

The funding also supports Rowan student research including that of Leanne Cioffi, a junior GIS major with a minor in geoscience from Barrington.

“I’ve used satellite imagery to monitor a rift, a giant crack in the Larsen D ice shelf in Antarctica,” said Cioffi, who is also playing an important role in processing data to help Trusel study surface melting in Antarctica.

Cioffi, whose concerns about climate change have led her to consider a career helping to control it, said it’s a calling she can’t ignore.

“This type of work gives me a deeper connection to the earth and makes me want to do all I can to nurture a healthy environment,” she said.

Before it’s too late

Trusel, whose work has also involves studying ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, a process that involves removing the cores meter by meter, shipping them to labs in the U.S., and evaluating climate change records contained within them, said there is no doubt that the earth is warming and that the consequences are becoming clearer and clearer from rising sea level, heat waves, wildfires and more extreme weather.

Still, he said, it’s not too late to take action by reducing the use of fossil fuels but that action must be dramatic and it must be global.

“The longer we push this off into the future, the greater the impact will be and the harder it will be to rein in,” he said. “For Antarctica, my research and others’ shows that humans basically control the thermostat. But it’s not like right now we can’t change the future. We can. And we must.”