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University of Silesia in Katowice

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Cold Week: scientists are not afraid of the cold

04.01.2024 - 13:28 update 16.01.2024 - 11:08
Editors: OO

Each of 50 Weeks in the City of Science features a text about selected research in a given subject area carried out by scientists from the universities forming the Academic Consortium Katowice City of Science. The texts we publish give insight into the diversity of issues scientists deal with and show the research potential that is dormant in the universities of the consortium. During Cold Week, we present the research of the Centre for Polar Studies in greater detail.

| Agnieszka Kliks-Pudlik |

Cold Week opens a series of events as part of 50 Weeks in the European City of Science Katowice 2024. Cold means frost, frost means ice, ice means glaciers, and an example of glaciers are those on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic, where scientists from the Centre for Polar Studies conduct their research.

Lodowiec Hansa, który uchodzi do fiordu Hornsund, jest jednym z najlepiej zbadanych lodowców Arktyki

The Hans Glacier, which flows into the Hornsund Fjord, is one of the best-studied glaciers in the Arctic | Photo by Prof. Jacek Jania

This research and scientific unit is over 10 years old and is created by: Institute of Earth Sciences at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Silesia (leading unit; formerly Faculty of Earth Sciences), Institute of Geophysics of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, and Institute of Oceanology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Sopot. Its aim is to conduct interdisciplinary research on the natural environment of the Arctic and Antarctica, as well as to educate young scientific staff.

“In Sosnowiec, neighbouring Katowice, where the Centre for Polar Studies is located at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Silesia, we study processes and phenomena that are of significant importance on a global scale. Glaciers are a model indicator of ongoing climate changes”, says Prof. Jacek Jania, glaciologist, geomorphologist and Chair of the Centre for Polar Studies.

A group of scientists from the University of Silesia conducts their research mainly in the Arctic, and more precisely on the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago – Spitsbergen, where the Polish Polar Station is located on the shores of the Hornsund Fjord (77oN, 15o33’E). Material for research is collected during expeditions (the University of Silesia has already organised 60 of them). Scientists also use data collected on site by automatic recorders.

The specialty of Prof. Jacek Jania’s team are glaciers. Their often almost vertical cliffs are up to 40 meters high and create a spectacular landscape. One of them – Hans Glacier – is located near the Hornsund Polish Polar Station. As Prof. Jacek Jania says, it is one of the glaciers with the longest series of observations in the Arctic, which allows tracking the response of glaciers flowing into the sea to climate changes over the decades.

“We started our research on the Hans Glacier in 1982, thanks to which we have developed a reliable model of the response of glaciers to the warming of the ocean and atmosphere, not only for southern Spitsbergen, but for all glaciers of this type in the Northern Hemisphere. In 2022, an article on this topic was published in the prestigious ‘Nature Communications’ journal, co-authored by scientists from the Centre for Polar Studies. Together with an international team, we analysed nearly 1,500 Arctic glaciers and showed that glaciers flowing into the sea are the most sensitive to climate warming, and their disappearance has accelerated in the last decade”, explains Prof. Jacek Jania.

Where did this conclusion come from? The warmer the atmosphere and the ocean, the more ice ‘flows’ down the glacier from the top of the valley towards the sea, where icebergs break off from the ice mass (this is the phenomenon of glacier calving, also known as frontal ablation). In other words, the warmer it is, the faster the glaciers melt and the more icebergs they produce, which enter the global ocean circulation, raising its level, in accordance with Archimedes’ principle.

Currently, the average global sea level rise is approximately 3.3 mm per year. But this process is accelerating. It depends not only on the melting of glaciers, i.e. the conversion of glacial ice into water, but also – and perhaps above all, as scientists from the Centre for Polar Studies argue – on the rate of calving of glaciers (i.e. the rate of “production” of icebergs).

“In one year, this increase is unnoticeable, but after a decade it amounts to about 3.5 cm more! This slow growth is destabilising the glaciers of West Antarctica. If the most pessimistic scenario of the rapid movement and calving of Antarctic glaciers comes true, the ocean level may rise by 3.3 m in a short time. Then countries like the Netherlands and Bangladesh will be flooded. The effects will also be visible on the Polish coast, because higher sea level means higher than before waves during storms, which may flood not only beaches, but also ports, cities and, for example, the Żuławy Wiślane area. That is why the study of glaciers and their response to climate change is so important for the entire globe”, sums up Prof. Jacek Jania.

If you want to learn more about the research conducted by the Centre for Polar Studies, we encourage you to read, among others: ‘Aphids of Svalbard | Research by Prof. Karina Wieczorek’, as well as other articles on polar research

The detailed programme of Cold Week is available at: us.edu.pl/tydzien-zimna-1-7-stycznia-2024.

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