Penn State Ice and Climate Research Center aims to understand our rapidly warming world

Sierra Melton on field trip in 2019.
Ph.D. candidate Sierra Melton at Penn State concentrated her focus on glaciology. (Photo courtesy of Penn State professor Byron Parizek.)

By Chelsea Zhao, Dilpreet Raju and Ilana Wolchinsky
Medill Reports

As the Earth warms, researchers at the Ice and Climate Exploration Research Center (PSICE) at Pennsylvania State University are interested in how we can expect glaciers, those dense bodies of ice that move under their own weight, to react to a drastically changing environment.

Penn State Ice and Climate Exploration Research Center group smile for a picture on field trip to Iceland
Collaborative research group trip to Iceland in 2019, near the Sólheimajökull glacier. (Photo courtesy of Penn State professor Byron Parizek.)

Extreme hurricanes and floods and increasing wildfires and drought make the impact of climate change increasingly obvious, but what happens to glaciers and ice sheets is important for the future of so many coastal cities that lie in potentially devastating floodplains.

Veteran geoscientist Richard Alley of Penn State University revealed a bleak future during the annual Comer Climate Conference this fall, one where a changing climate will affect the Earth and all of its inhabitants, not just humans, at a systemic level. The conference draws scientists from across the world sharing their latest findings and documenting the urgent need to address climate change.

Alley said to study climate science is to steep your way into worry and anxiety about the future.

But it presents solutions to those very worries as well.

“I suspect the students need a sign over the door that says, ‘We are the ark,’” Alley said. “We’re going to get through this by preserving (various) species so we can get them back out, ’cause some of them are in such deep trouble now and they’re going to need help.”

By 2100, projected global sea-level rise could be slowed to a half meter lower than prior projections, but only if global temperature increase is kept at 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of 2 degrees Celsius, according to estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Alley considers the projection a modest estimate and seeks, along with his research group, to estimate a worst-case scenario resulting from no climate action.

“We can hope, but I think the biggest thing is to limit CO2 (carbon dioxide), and then as much collateral damage (as possible),” he said.

CO2 levels drive global warming from fossil fuel emissions, and many scientists calculate that increasing levels over the past decades are already rolling 2 degrees Celsius of temperature rise into the atmosphere. Alley said that carbon dioxide spells devastating damage for lots of organisms that live in seawater even before those rising tides can impact humans. Marine life is the canary in the cage for the threat to other life.

Organisms like coral are subjected to toxic underwater levels of carbon dioxide, and the effort to cultivate nature-resiliency and human-resiliency can only go so far as long as carbon dioxide level continues to rise.

“Too much CO2 too fast looks like a really bad prescription for coral reefs,” he said. “It’s very clear that the more CO2 we put in the air, the harder the task we’re setting to keep the reefs.”

Pollution remains a prime catalyst for deadly disease in coral reefs, however.

Over the past decade, the reefs have seen a visible change from what they once were. No longer filled with bright colors and thousands of fish, the dying reefs are now dull, muted colors.

“If you’re dumping poisons on the reef,  it dies faster, whether that’s your sewage outflow or whether that’s your sunscreen,” Alley said. “Keeping those things off the reef is good.”

Alley has studied the great ice sheets to predict future climate and sea level change. He participated in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and was the co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize the IPCC received along with former Vice President Al Gore. Alley was also the first recipient of the Stephen Schneider Award for climate communication.

Sierra Melton, a geosciences Ph.D. student of Alley’s, currently focuses her studies on one of the largest glaciers in Greenland, Helheim Glacier. The glacier drains from the Greenland ice sheet straight into a fjord and, upon touching the water, breaks into icebergs. Melton is studying the complex hydrology behind the phenomenon as it is not totally understood by researchers yet.

“With more melting and warming, and glacier collapse, studying Helheim is kind of one way to look into the future where these glaciers might look like,” Melton said.

“It’s really a very interesting glacier because there’s a lot of meltwater, both on the glacier and draining from up the glacier,” she said.

Professors, students and alumni of the research group smile for the photo.
Pennsylvania State Ice and Climate affiliated professors, students and alumni in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Penn State professor Byron Parizek.)

Climate change research is the only major avenue Melton ever considered for a career path, long before she started work on large-scale glaciology projects.

“I don’t know exactly why, but I was just always concerned about it,” Melton said. “Even for one of my birthdays in elementary school, I asked for donations to the World Wildlife Fund to save the polar bears. So yeah, so I guess I’ve always been concerned about climate change.

“I am very concerned about what climate change is going to do for our future. And that’s why I’ve gotten into this work” she said. “And I think it does motivate me more than it makes me anxious.”