BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


GIRAF: Geoscience InfoRmation AFrica. Logo



The cryosphere is those portions of Earth's surface where water is in solid form, including sea ice, lake ice, river ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, and frozen ground (which includes permafrost). Thus, there is a wide overlap with the hydrosphere. The cryosphere is an integral part of the global climate system with important linkages and feedbacks generated through its influence on surface energy and moisture fluxes, clouds, precipitation, hydrology, atmospheric and oceanic circulation. Through these feedback processes, the cryosphere plays a significant role in the global climate and in climate model response to global changes. The term deglaciation describes the retreat of cryospheric features. Cryology is the study of cryospheres.

Most of the world's ice volume is in Antarctica, principally in the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. In terms of areal extent, however, Northern Hemisphere winter snow and ice extent comprise the largest area, amounting to an average 23% of hemispheric surface area in January. The large areal extent and the important climatic roles of snow and ice, related to their unique physical properties, indicate that the ability to observe and model snow and ice-cover extent, thickness, and physical properties (radiative and thermal properties) is of particular significance for climate research.

The thermal properties of cryospheric elements also have important climatic consequences. Snow and ice have much lower thermal diffusivities than air. Thermal diffusivity is a measure of the speed at which temperature waves can penetrate a substance. Snow and ice are many orders of magnitude less efficient at diffusing heat than air. Snow cover insulates the ground surface, and sea ice insulates the underlying ocean, decoupling the surface-atmosphere interface with respect to both heat and moisture fluxes. The flux of moisture from a water surface is eliminated by even a thin skin of ice, whereas the flux of heat through thin ice continues to be substantial until it attains a thickness in excess of 30 to 40 cm. However, even a small amount of snow on top of the ice will dramatically reduce the heat flux and slow down the rate of ice growth. The insulating effect of snow also has major implications for the hydrological cycle. In non-permafrost regions, the insulating effect of snow is such that only near-surface ground freezes and deep-water drainage is uninterrupted.

Snow cover is an extremely important storage component in the water balance, especially seasonal snowpacks in mountainous areas of the world. Though limited in extent, seasonal snowpacks in the Earths mountain ranges account for the major source of the runoff for stream flow and groundwater recharge over wide areas of the midlatitudes. For example, over 85% of the annual runoff from the Colorado River basin originates as snowmelt. Snowmelt runoff from the Earth's mountains fills the rivers and recharges the aquifers that over a billion people depend on for their water resources. Further, over 40% of the world's protected areas are in mountains, attesting to their value both as unique ecosystems needing protection and as recreation areas for humans. Climate warming is expected to result in major changes to the partitioning of snow and rainfall, and to the timing of snowmelt, which will have important implications for water use and management. These changes also involve potentially important decadal and longer time-scale feedbacks to the climate system through temporal and spatial changes in soil moisture and runoff to the oceans.(Walsh 1995). Freshwater fluxes from the snow cover into the marine environment may be important, as the total flux is probably of the same magnitude as desalinated ridging and rubble areas of sea ice. In addition, there is an associated pulse of precipitated pollutants which accumulate over the Arctic winter in snowfall and are released into the ocean upon ablation of the sea-ice .

Ice forms on rivers and lakes in response to seasonal cooling. The sizes of the ice bodies involved are too small to exert other than localized climatic effects. However, the freeze-up/break-up processes respond to large-scale and local weather factors, such that considerable interannual variability exists in the dates of appearance and disappearance of the ice. Long series of lake-ice observations can serve as a proxy climate record, and the monitoring of freeze-up and break-up trends may provide a convenient integrated and seasonally specific index of climatic perturbations. Information on river-ice conditions is less useful as a climatic proxy because ice formation is strongly dependent on river-flow regime, which is affected by precipitation, snow melt, and watershed runoff as well as being subject to human interference that directly modifies channel flow, or that indirectly affects the runoff via land-use practices.

Ice sheets and glaciers are flowing ice masses that rest on solid land. They are controlled by snow accumulation, surface and basal melt, calving into surrounding oceans or lakes and internal dynamics. The latter results from gravity-driven creep flow ("glacial flow") within the ice body and sliding on the underlying land, which leads to thinning and horizontal spreading. Any imbalance of this dynamic equilibrium between mass gain, loss and transport due to flow results in either growing or shrinking ice bodies.

Relationships between global climate and changes in ice extent are complex. The mass balance of land-based glaciers and ice sheets is determined by the accumulation of snow, mostly in winter, and warm-season ablation due primarily to net radiation and turbulent heat fluxes to melting ice and snow from warm-air advection,(Munro 1990). However, most of Antarctica never experiences surface melting. Where ice masses terminate in the ocean, iceberg calving is the major contributor to mass loss. In this situation, the ice margin may extend out into deep water as a floating ice shelf, such as that in the Ross Sea. Despite the possibility that global warming could result in losses to the Greenland ice sheet being offset by gains to the Antarctic ice sheet, there is major concern about the possibility of a West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is grounded on bedrock below sea level, and its collapse has the potential of raising the world sea level 67 m over a few hundred years.

Most of the discharge of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is via the five major ice streams (faster flowing ice) entering the Ross Ice Shelf, the Rutford Ice Stream entering Ronne-Filchner shelf of the Weddell Sea, and the Thwaites Glacier and Pine Island Glacier entering the Amundsen Ice Shelf. Opinions differ as to the present mass balance of these systems (Bentley 1983, 1985), principally because of the limited data. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is stable so long as the Ross Ice Shelf is constrained by drag along its lateral boundaries and pinned by local grounding.


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782