Glaciers in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert actually shrank during the last ice age

Posted: March 6, 2018 by oldbrew in climate, Ice ages, research
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Tavan Bogd Mountains in Mongolia [imagecredit: Altaihunters @ Wikipedia]


Why glaciers are not always climate thermometers.

High in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, the climate is so dry and cold that glaciers shrank during the last ice age. Dating of rock deposits shows how glaciers in this less-studied region behave very differently as the climate shifts.

The simple story says that during the last ice age, temperatures were colder and ice sheets expanded around the planet, says EurekAlert.

That may hold true for most of Europe and North America, but new research from the University of Washington tells a different story in the high-altitude, desert climates of Mongolia.

The recent paper in Quaternary Science Reviews is the first to date ancient glaciers in the high mountains of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. It compares them with glacial records from nearby mountains to reveal how glaciers behave in extreme climates.

On some of the Gobi mountain ranges included in the study, glaciers started growing thousands of years after the last ice age ended. In contrast, in slightly wetter parts of Mongolia the largest glaciers did date from the ice age but reached their maximum lengths tens of thousands of years earlier in the glacial period rather than at its culmination, around 20,000 years ago, when glaciers around most of the planet peaked.

Both trends differ from the typical chronology of glacier growth during an ice age.

“In some of the Gobi mountains, the largest glaciers didn’t happen during the last ice age,” said first author Jigjidsurengiin Batbaatar, a UW doctoral student in Earth and Space Sciences. “Some of these glaciers were starving for precipitation then. Our measurements show that they actually shrank as cold, dry conditions of the ice age became more intense. Then they grew when the warming climate of the Holocene brought more moist air, feeding the glaciers with more snow.”

Batbaatar and co-author Alan Gillespie, a UW research professor emeritus in Earth and Space Sciences, collected samples from moraines, which are long ridges of rocky debris dropped at a glacier’s edge. They used a dating technique perfected in the last 20 years that measures elemental changes in the rock that occur when the rock gets bombarded by cosmic rays after the glacier’s retreat.

“We were expecting to find rocks exposed for 20,000 years, the date of the peak of the last ice age, but these moraines were much younger. That means that these glaciers were smaller when the climate was the coldest,” Batbaatar said. “The results were so surprising that we went back to double check.”

The study was possible both because of advances in the cosmic-ray dating method, and political changes that allow more access to Central Asia.

“After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia opened up, China opened up, and Mongolia opened up to Western researchers with these novel dating techniques. And we see a very different pattern of glacial advances compared to North America and Europe,” Batbaatar said.

The data collected in 2007 and 2010 confirm a theoretical study by Summer Rupper, a former UW doctoral student now at the University of Utah, and UW faculty member Gerard Roe. In very cold and dry environments, where rain and snow are scarce, it predicted that temperature would not always be the main factor driving a glacier’s growth.

“Because the melting is so dominant a process, and the melting is mostly controlled by temperature, people think of glaciers as thermometers. But we all know that precipitation plays a role,” Batbaatar said.

The new study confirms that so-called “starving glaciers” in dry, high-altitude environments are indeed controlled by precipitation. They grow so slowly that they seldom reach the lower altitudes where melting is possible. Instead, they shrink when sunlight hits the surface and transforms ice into water vapor, a process called sublimation. These glaciers are thus less sensitive to temperature shifts, but very sensitive to precipitation amounts.

“Generally, people have assumed from well-documented North American and European records that the largest glaciers should have come in the peak of the last ice age,” Batbaatar said. “But in Mongolia, our results show that this was not the case. Glacier behavior there was different from the better-studied areas of the Alps or the Sierra Nevada in the U.S. Even within Mongolia we observe very different behavior from range to range.”

Continued here.

Comments
  1. Nidhi says:

    Beautiful picture and beautifully written too!

  2. ivan says:

    What is it with these so called scientists? Obviously non of them think, they all take what they are told as gospel truth.

    Any thinking person should realise that for glaciers to grow they have to get snow/ice from somewhere and that is usually the sea – hence the drop in sea level during an ice age. The corollary to that is they will shrink if there is no water available through sublimation.

    The one redeeming thing of this research is the fact it is now documented, not that any other climate scientists will read and learn from it.

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