Organization: Department of Interior (DOI)

Research Title: Cold Regions Research

Funding Level (millions of dollars):

FY94 1.4
FY95 1.2
FY96 1.2

Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) Component:
(a) Subcommittee: Global Change Subcommittee (100%)
(b) Environmental Issue: Climate Change (41%), Large-Scale Changes in Land Use (34%), Natural Variability (25%)
(c) Research Activity: System structure and function: Understanding (50%), Observation (8%); Assessment (20%); Data Management (22%)

Organizational Component:
U.S. Geological Survey
104 National Center
Reston, VA 22092

Point of Contact: :
Michael Carr
Phone: 703-648-4408

Research Goals:
The Cold Regions Program includes studies (1) to document and improve understanding of the processes that lead to glacier expansion and contraction, (2) to confirm the accuracy and reliability of precision temperature profiling in continuous permafrost areas as a recorder of recent climatic events, (3) to measure and monitor changes in the areal distribution of permafrost zones, (4) to assess the importance of the Arctic as a source of greenhouse gases that may amplify the rate of global warming, and (5) to use satellite remote sensing technology to periodically monitor changes in global glacier area (present capability) and volume (future capability).

Research Description:
Observing, understanding, and predicting changes in the cryosphere, glaciers, frozen ground (permafrost), snow cover, and floating ice (sea, lake, and river) are important to the U.S. Global Change Research program, because the cryosphere is sensitive to global climate warming. General circulation model (GCM) simulations indicate that any warming will be magnified in polar regions, potentially causing a (1) reduction in area and volume of glaciers (producing a change in the Earth albedo and contributing to a rise of sea level); (2) reduction in the area of permafrost (releasing methane, a radiatively active gas 15 times more efficient than carbon dioxide); (3) reduction in seasonal extent of snow cover (again producing a change in albedo); and (4) reduction in the ice, leading to a change in albedo and increase in the ocean-atmosphere exchange of water vapor. This program addresses goals of USGCRP concerning glacier and ice- sheet mass balance and polar hydrology; sea level; identification and quantification of natural sources and sinks of greenhouse gases, and detection of environmental change.

Accomplishments include initiating an international effort to establish areal extent of world's glaciers in the mid-1970's, demonstrating that methane is being released into the atmosphere from Arctic permafrost and gas hydrates, and obtaining bore hole temperature profiles indicating that surface air temperature on the Alaskan North Slope have increased several degrees in the last century.

Program Interfaces:
The USGS has strong cooperative ties with the governmental and academic glaciological community inside and outside the U.S. The USGS project "Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World" involves cooperation with 55 scientists from 35 institutions in 25 countries. The permafrost and methane clathrate efforts involve collaboration with U.S. and non-U.S. governmental and academic communities. This program contributes to understanding processes in cold regions, including sources and sinks of greenhouse gases, sea level fluctuations, and ecosystem response to changing climate.

Program Milestones:
FY 1995: Complete installation of a network of temperature profiling wells in permafrost regions of the U.S., Canada, and Russia. Network will provide information on latitudinal and longitudinal variation and magnitude of temperature changes in the Arctic during the past century. FY 1995: Completion of satellite image atlas of the world's glaciers. Data and reports are peer reviewed and results are published in USGS reports or scientific journals. This program is reviewed annually by an external panel of specialists from universities and other government agencies, and their recommendations are used to make program adjustments.

Policy Payoffs:
Establishing rate and amount of methane released from Arctic permafrost and gas hydrates will improve estimates of future atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Completion of the atlas of world's glaciers will provide a baseline for detecting any future changes in global ice extent. The expanded bore hole temperature profile network will establish the average temperature history of the Arctic for the last 100 years, thus identifying any long-term trend.