Sarah Aciego doesn't anticipate that her upcoming trip to Greenland will be as dangerous as her fieldwork in Antarctica, where finding shelter within seconds during a sudden storm meant the difference between life or death. But the LSA assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences does know this trip could be just as important as her Antarctic fieldwork—if not more. Her new method of studying glacial meltwater will yield data that hasn't been accessible to scientists before, and will help paint a more detailed picture of climate change.

Glacial melting occurs where an ice sheet is in contact with the earth. As the pace of global warming accelerates, scientists like Aciego are trying to learn more about this process. “We can’t climb under the glacier to see what's happening under there,” explains Aciego, “so we'll be collecting meltwater samples very close to the outlet, where it enters the sea.”

Because meltwater starts out with almost no impurities, Aciego's samples will help determine how many minerals and nutrients the meltwater picks up on its way to the sea. Aciego’s data can then be used by oceanographers who are tracking the effect of global warming on the world's oceans. The nutrients in glacial meltwater are crucial for the growth of microorganisms like plankton, which absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and also produce as much as half of the oxygen humans breathe. As melting speeds up, scientists don’t exactly know what will happen to the production of plankton, carbon dioxide, and oxygen over time. It’s a critical question to answer, as atmospheric gases seriously impacts human life and health.

Sarah Aciego, Packard Fellowship winner for Science and Engineering, pioneered a new chemical method to determine the age of dust trapped in glacial ice in Antarctica. Her research will provide scientists with key data to help correlate and more precisely align an all-encompassing picture of climate change.
Photo: © S. Pipes

Over the next five years, Aciego will collect meltwater from three key sites in Greenland where the ice sheet is melting faster than elsewhere on the island. The ice sheet is currently a mile thick in most places, and consists of layers of ice that have accumulated over at least 100,000 years and possibly 2.5 million years. But satellite data shows the Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than ever before in the geophysical record—faster than any other ice sheet on Earth, revealing soil and rock that has not been exposed since the last interglacial period, about 127,000 years ago.

Aciego’s research has the potential to provide scientists from many disciplines with key data to help correlate and more precisely align an all-encompassing picture of climate change. It would be prohibitively expensive without the prestigious five-year $875,000 grant that she won from the Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering last fall. The grant is designed to encourage promising young scientists to think big without having to worry about getting fast results, and the University nominated Aciego after she pioneered a new chemical method to determine the age of dust trapped in glacial ice, in conjunction with her work in Antarctica.

The award is often a predictor of who will make a significant impact on their field. “This is a huge honor,” said Aciego. “When I look at past recipients, I feel very humble.”

Now her research, teaching, conferences, and lab where she supervises an on-campus research team of twelve are so all-consuming that she has little time to get outside. But she believes that the relevancy of her work makes the tradeoff worthwhile.

Government leaders, she says, will eventually have to contend with the dire projections she and other climate scientists are making. “Global warming is leading to melting of these large ice sheets, which is raising sea level at a rate and magnitude that is expected to displace millions of people. And unfortunately, most of them are the poorest people in the world, who won't be able to help themselves.

“We can see from the geological record that the Earth has always gone through long periods of warming and cooling, each lasting tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years,” she continues. “The glaciers have expanded and receded as part of this cyclical process.” But Aciego adds that she and almost all scientists in related disciplines are concerned that the Earth's current warming trend is “unprecedented” for its speed, and the results are uncertain.

“We can already predict a one-meter seawater rise” within the next hundred years, says Aciego. “If this were happening over a couple thousand years, as in the past, people would have time to migrate. Ecosystems would have time to adjust. But anthropogenic [human] influences are changing the Earth's systems in ways that we currently cannot predict. And meanwhile, we'll likely have more extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy. I fear we just don't have the time or tools to mitigate the consequences.”