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

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

By Chelsea Zhao, Dilpreet Raju and Ilana Wolchinsky,

Dec. 21, 2022 – 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.

Research group trip to Iceland in 2019 near the Sólheimajökull glacier. The whole group of collaborators in Iceland with the goal to plan future joint Antarctica work. Photos taken by 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.

Pennsylvania State Ice and Climate affiliated professors, current students, and alumni. (Byron Parizek/ Penn State)

Climate change research was the only major avenue Melton ever considered for a career path, long before she started her 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.”

Photo at Top:

Sierra Melton, Ph.D. candidate Sierra Melton at Penn State concentrated her focus on glaciology.(Byron Parizek/Penn State)










Scientists Track the Tipping Points of Climate Change

Scientists Track the Tipping Points of Climate Change

By Chelsea Zhao

Crystal Rao, a geoscience graduate student at Princeton University, bases her research on the environmental changes and climate impacts on the species in clues from nitrogen isotopes in fossils.

Rao uses the ratio of two common forms of nitrogen as a standard, and compares it with the nitrogen inside the tooth of the megalodon shark. She has reconstructed a picture of when and where megalodon sharks topped the food chain in Arctic waters. Rao said this fierce predator could “basically eat anything in the ocean”.

Yet this 50-foot long shark, went extinct some 3.5 million years ago. Rao said the food source the sharks relied on to fuel their massive bodies caused their downfall.

“As climate shifts, maybe the production in the ocean could change,” Rao said. “And depending on what the ecosystem responded to, there could be less food availability” for marine life today just as those causing the demise of the megalodon sharks.

And that’s where the nitrogen fingerprint in the teeth comes in. The nitrogen isotope levels change in warm spells compared to ice ages so that Rao can track climate change in the distant past. Nitrogen isotopes from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans mix during warm spells but ice ages lower sea levels, cutting off Atlantic from Pacific waters and and leaving a distinct isotope in each ocean. ,

Rao shared her research at the Comer Climate Conference this fall, an annual gathering of global climate scientists held virtually for the third year due to COVID-19. Comer conference veteran climate scientists, graduate students and post-docs investigate the effect of climate change from ancient life forms to theoretical models.

While Rao’s work examines a species belonging to an ancient era, another Comer scientist’s work takes estimations of the possibilities for the future.

Edmund Derby, a climate science Ph.D. student at Oxford University, utilizes simple models of Arctic sea ice from his past research in 2009 to examine the bifurcation or tipping point accompanying ice cover changes throughout the season.

Derby’s research presents climate from basic principles to its core behavior. In the scientific model, when atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeds a certain point, after all the Arctic ice melts, it is no longer possible to gain back the ice. His research presented at the conference investigates this tipping point under a model when the Arctic is covered in ice all year round.

“When you’ve reached this tipping point, you don’t get a reversible change once you’ve lost your ice cover,” Derby said.

The temperature of the Arctic is intrinsically connected with global warming across the rest of the world. In a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification where the Arctic warms twice as fast as the rest of the world, which has warmed in excess of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees F) with global warming due to emissions from human reliance on petroleum-based fuels.

The ice has the light reflective property that redirect the heat. But as it melts, the heat-absorbent ocean water takes its place, according to Derby.

With heat transport to lower latitudes, as the Arctic warms up, the transfer of heat to the Arctic would be expected to decrease.

However, in a changing climate, the transport of water vapor or clouds into the Arctic can counteract the cooling of the heat transport. The water vapor causes local temperature in the Arctic to rise.

In his research, Derby is adding more factors into the model to make it more realistic to the Arctic ice cover, and to investigate how the global rise of greenhouse gas will impact the ice melt at a local level.

Rao said, in her field of geoscience, the past informs the present and the future. Studying the ancient past of Earth’s environment builds a better understanding of the complex systems involved.

“Only when we can really understand or estimate the future better, then we can come up with better plans in terms of how we do climate adaptation and climate mitigation,” Rao said.

The numbers of climate change may seem small, but  a small change now may mean a colossal shift into the future. <The changes are occurring now – we don’t want to suggest this is a problem for the next millennium.

Through Rao and Derby’s research of both the past and the future, concerns of climate change continue to loom in both the vanishing fabric of the Arctic and the demise of a species.

Photo at top: Arctic water and the atmosphere help scientists reconstruct the past climate record and inform models for the future. (Photo by Kai Boggild, distributed via

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