Reconstructing extinct glaciers in Patagonia to better comprehend southern climate mechanisms


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Note, the original goal for this campaign was £4,500 however as the project can go ahead with the funding secured and the project was listed as flexible funding, all funds are being processed. Thank you for your support!

The Goal

The main objective of this study is to shed light on the poorly understood behaviour of natural mechanisms responsible for past climate change in the southern hemisphere. Such information from the past will help improve future climate change predictions in this part of the world. 

And because sensitive glaciers are fantastic tools to reconstruct past climate change, we want to establish the first glacial reconstruction of north-eastern Patagonia over the past 1.5 million years. Why Patagonia? Because the Patagonian Andes was once host to the biggest Ice-Sheet in the southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica.

This will be done by using a dating technique named ‘cosmogenic radionuclide dating’ to determine the age of former glacial advances.

My team and I went to Patagonia in early 2019 to collect preliminary samples and explore the area’s potential for our study. The site is perfect, but extremely vast (2500 km2), and the large quantity of samples required for a robust reconstruction could not all be collected in one expedition, given the limited funding initially available for this project.

For the chronology to be robust, and lead to a contributory climate reconstruction, it is vital for us to organise a second expedition to Patagonia in 2020. This would allow collecting more samples, date all preserved glacial advances, and enable this research to reach its full potential.

Therefore, our aim with the CrowdScience campaign is to raise enough funding to support this second expedition to Patagonia. 

Watch this great video if you want to learn more about cosmogenic dating of glacial deposits! 

Our work is very similar but is done in Patagonia rather than New-Zealand.

What we know:

Glaciers are extremely sensitive to climate fluctuations, such as changes in atmospheric temperature, precipitation, wind intensity and direction, etc. When cold and wet climates prevail, more snow accumulates on mountain tops, causing glaciers to advance and erode entire valleys like bulldozers. The tremendous volume of rocks picked up will be transported within the ice over hundreds, in some cases thousands of kilometres, before reaching the terminal margins of the glacier where it will be deposited on the ground.

During a significant period of stable climate, a glacier doesn’t advance or retreat. All the sediment transported in the ice will accumulate at the same location and form a ridge outlining the margins of the glacier. Those ridges are called “glacial moraines”. 

The strong presence of glacial moraines, alongside with evidence of glacially eroded valleys, certifies that the Patagonian Andes once accommodated a colossal (2000 km long) Ice-Sheet, which has now almost completely disappeared.  

During the last ice age (past 2.6 million years), Patagonian glaciers advanced and withdrew many times over, leaving behind a unique record of glacial moraines. On the eastern front of the Andes, arid conditions and low population densities enable exceptional preservation of fragile glacial deposits. Such properties make this glacial moraine record one of the best in the world.

Patagonia is also the only continent in the world located at the southern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes (45°- 55° S). Consequently, it is the only place where one can use former glaciers to understand the behaviour of natural mechanisms influencing the climate at those latitudes.

This diagram indicates the background and methodology of Cosmogenic Radionuclide Exposure Dating for glacial moraine boulders,: a technique used to directly date glacial advances and thus date periods of stable, cold and wet climates. This dating technique has been used increasingly for this purpose over the past 20 years.

What we don’t know:

Paradoxically, large areas of the Patagonian Andes remain completely unstudied for this purpose. This is the case for the eastern plains of northern Patagonia (46.5°- 39° S), where only a handful of scientists (including me) are reconstructing past glacial behaviour in a region bigger than Scotland, where dozens of large undocumented glaciers once advanced. By studying glacial landscapes on the field and analysing satellite imagery, one can determine the extent of those glacial expansions. However, nobody has produced a robust chronology for glacial advances of that region yet.

This is where my team comes in. We now have the tools, techniques and knowledge to date specific glacier advances, by sampling moraine boulders and determining the accurate timing of their deposition by the glacier. Establishing this chronology is vital. Without it, it is infeasible to compare our results with other reconstructions since we cannot associate climate signals with any timeline. 

Today, forecasting climate behaviour over future decades is still extremely challenging, because climate scientists do not fully understand how oceanic and atmospheric circulation mechanisms function under different global climate conditions.

Why is this work important?

Importance of new glacial information

Understanding the sensitivity of Ice-Sheets to rapid climate transitions is more important than ever, as the Greenland and Antarctic Ice-sheets are starting to respond to today’s climate change in a way that could threaten human livelihoods through rapid sea level rise in future decades.

Importance of new climate information:

This study can shed critical light on the past evolution of natural circulation systems at the southern hemisphere’s mid latitudes, under radically different climates than today’s. Let me give you an example illustrating why this can be quite important .

One of the southern hemisphere’s major atmospheric mechanisms is a dominant jet system called the ‘southern westerly winds’; a band of west-to-east blowing winds located between 45°- 60° S. Recent studies have argued that those winds can migrate under changing climates, but the detailed mechanisms and amplitude of such migration remain uncertain. 

When the earth is in a stage of atmospheric warming (like today), those winds are thought to migrate to the south and become stronger. In fact, this exact change in wind behaviour has been observed over the southern ocean for the past 50 years (the southern ocean is the global ocean that surrounds Antarctica, and it is one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks). Those changes in wind properties modifies ocean circulation in a way that brings natural carbon (normally stored in the deep ocean) back to the surface. A poleward migration and increase in strength of the southern westerly winds can thus enhance southern ocean upwelling and release more CO2 from the ocean into the atmosphere. 

Therefore, because the southern westerly winds have an important role to play in the global carbon cycle and could enhance global warming by the end of this century substantially, it is important that we use the past to try to learn what we can about the behaviour of those winds, under different climate conditions.   

Moreover, a poleward migration and intensification of the southern westerly winds could lead to a rapid degradation of Antarctic sea-ice. This could destabilize Antarctic glaciers and increase future global sea level rise substantially. 

Therefore, It is vital to improve our ability to predict the future behaviour of those winds, which are still poorly understood today. Comprehending how they behaved in the past is a powerful method to provide this knowledge, but how can we study wind behaviour in the past?   

Well, the southern westerly winds control the pathway of storms which can deposit snow on the Patagonian Andes. If temperatures are low enough, this substantial snow supply enables the build-up of north-Patagonian glaciers. Reconstructing the former behaviour of those glaciers allows us to better understand, among other parameters, the timing of the southern westerly winds’ migrations under different climates. 

Consequently, this example highlights how former glaciers can be used as powerful tools to solve significant mysteries concerning the Earth’s climate system, thus proving that this study goes beyond simply trying to reconstruct extinct glaciers (although I think that’s pretty cool in itself!).

Potential Outcomes if you support us

This project will produce the first robust chronology of preserved former glaciations for this region of Patagonia. The reconstruction will provide rare empirical past climate information for those latitudes, and will therefore help gathering data from the past to better predict future climate change. Our goal is for this study to stand as a benchmark for future studies in the area.  

The chronology targets the reconstruction of two major former glaciers: the Rio Corcovado and Rio Huemul paleo-glaciers (43.5° S, 71° W), chosen during our previous expedition. We believe those former glaciers were highly representative of the Patagonian Ice-Sheet’s behaviour at those latitudes, and their expansions, once successfully dated, will provide vital past climate information. 

To give you a sense of scale; when the two glaciers advanced into the valleys we are studying, their areal extent approximated the area of 350 thousand football pitches. Our mapping has revealed that those glaciers advanced and fully retreated at least 6 times over the last glacial cycle (past 120 thousand years). The field site also presents evidence of several older advances, possibly up to 1 million years old (hypothetically). 

Our project outcome will be to establish a robust chronology for each of these former glacial advances and relate them to a dominant climate forcing mechanism.

Our Budget

For the chronology to be robust and lead to a valid climate reconstruction, it is vital to conduct a second expedition to Patagonia in 2020 to collect more samples, date all preserved advances, and allow this research to reach its full potential. 

We expect the costs of this 2-months expedition to approximate £6000. Our budget is currently short of £4500, which is what we aim to raise through crowdfunding. The money will be used primarily to cover the cost of UK-Patagonia flights, hiring of a 4×4 vehicle for the full duration of the expedition, camping logistics and food supplies on the field, as well as sending heavy rock samples from Chile to the UK after collection. The technical equipment required for sampling has already been purchased for our first trip.  

The Team

Tancrède Leger

My name is Tancrède, I am a French researcher conducting a PhD in glaciology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. I grew up in the mountains of the French Alps, spending all my spare time enjoying outdoor activities such as mountaineering. Throughout my childhood, I grew more and more fond of these giant ice streams called glaciers. The fact that I was, in a few years, able to witness with my own eyes the speed of their demise due to global warming has always astonished and alarmed me. 

Today, I study the earth system. Firstly because I find ‘mother nature’ fascinatingly complex, but also because I believe the only way to reduce our negative impact on the Earth is by better understanding how it works. After high school in France, I moved to the UK to complete a physical geography BSc at the University of Glasgow. I was then offered a PhD position at the University of Edinburgh.  

https://www.ed.ac.uk/profile/tancrede-leger-profile
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Tancrede_Leger

Dr. Andrew,S. Hein

Dr. Andrew,S. Hein, my primary collaborator, is a Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Andy has experience of seven field seasons in Patagonia and several field seasons in Antarctica working on the stability of the west Antarctic Ice-Sheet. He led the field in novel ways of dating ice limits using cosmogenic dating and has been involved in over 52 published scientific papers. This project was originally his brainchild, prior to handing the leadership to me. His knowledge, teaching and support along the way is absolutely vital to the success of the expedition and project.

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Andrew_Hein
https://www.geos.ed.ac.uk/homes/ahein/

Dr. Robert Bingham

Dr. Robert Bingham, my secondary collaborator, is a Professor of glaciology and geophysics at the University of Edinburgh. He was awarded the Polar Medal by H.M. the Queen of the United Kingdom in 2013 for contributions to Arctic and Antarctic science. His 20 years of experience of leading hundreds of research projects and dozens of field expeditions around the world is invaluable and his support for this project will assure that we remain on the right track.

https://www.geos.ed.ac.uk/homes/rbingha2/
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Robert_G_Bingham

Some Images

This photograph shows the sampling of a granite boulder in Patagonia, in early 2019. This boulder was deposited at this specific location by the former Rio Corcovado glacier; as it formed a moraine, thus indicating that the glacier front remained here for a significant period of time. By analysing this sample, we can establish the timing of the glacial advance responsible for eroding, transporting (over tens of kilometers), and depositing this boulder.

This photograph shows a small part of large, unique machine called an Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS). This incredible machine is able to separate a target atomic element from other elements with different atomic properties in my samples. It can therefore help us calculate the amount of cosmogenic isotopes which accumulated on the surface of specific moraine boulders we sample, as a result of their exposure to the atmosphere and consequently to incoming (invisible) cosmic radiation. This AMS is located at SUERC, Glasgow.

To thank you for your support

PLEDGE £10.00

A personalized thank you Email. Gratitude is always nice when it comes in the form of direct communication. I will personally write an email to thank you for your donation and for your support for this project.

PLEDGE £15.00

The above + a copy of the final publications released as a result of this project. We will be sure to share the results and the manuscript you helped us make to thank you for your contribution.

PLEDGE £100.00

All of the above + official ‘shout out’ on our social media pages. We love you and we want the world to know about your fantastic support!

PLEDGE £500.00

All of the above + Exclusive 1 to 1 video meeting with me to discuss the results of the project! The meeting can be in person rather than video if you are willing to travel to the University of Edinburgh.

PLEDGE £1000.00

All of the above + official acknowledgment on the scientific papers published as a result of this investigation. Anyone who reads the final papers in the years to come will be aware of your amazing contribution! 

PLEDGE £4,500.00

All of the above + personalized tour of the research lab and the extraordinary machine allowing us to date our glacial rocks: the accelerator mass spectrometer. This research facility is located at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), Glasgow (Scotland). We will also cover 1 night stay in a hotel for your accommodation during your visit.

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  • 5 Backers

    A personalized thank you Email. Gratitude is always nice when it comes in the form of direct communication. I will personally write an email to thank you for your donation and for your support for this project.

  • 17 Backers

    The above + a copy of the final publications released as a result of this project. We will be sure to share the results and the manuscript you helped us make to thank you for your contribution.

  • 11 Backers

    All of the above + official ‘shout out’ on our social media pages. We love you and we want the world to know about your fantastic support!

  • 2 Backers

    All of the above + Exclusive 1 to 1 video meeting with me to discuss the results of the project! The meeting can be on person rather than video if you are willing to travel to the University of Edinburgh.

  • 1 Backer

    All of the above + official acknowledgment on the scientific papers published as a result of this investigation. Anyone who reads the final papers in the years to come will be aware of your amazing contribution!

  • Backers

    All of the above + personalized tour of the research lab and the extraordinary machine allowing us to date our glacial rocks: the accelerator mass spectrometer. This research facility is located at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), Glasgow (Scotland). We will also cover 1 night stay in a hotel for your accommodation during your visit.

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General Overview

This Campaign has ended. No more pledges can be made.

  • 5 Backers

    A personalized thank you Email. Gratitude is always nice when it comes in the form of direct communication. I will personally write an email to thank you for your donation and for your support for this project.

  • 17 Backers

    The above + a copy of the final publications released as a result of this project. We will be sure to share the results and the manuscript you helped us make to thank you for your contribution.

  • 11 Backers

    All of the above + official ‘shout out’ on our social media pages. We love you and we want the world to know about your fantastic support!

  • 2 Backers

    All of the above + Exclusive 1 to 1 video meeting with me to discuss the results of the project! The meeting can be on person rather than video if you are willing to travel to the University of Edinburgh.

  • 1 Backer

    All of the above + official acknowledgment on the scientific papers published as a result of this investigation. Anyone who reads the final papers in the years to come will be aware of your amazing contribution!

  • Backers

    All of the above + personalized tour of the research lab and the extraordinary machine allowing us to date our glacial rocks: the accelerator mass spectrometer. This research facility is located at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), Glasgow (Scotland). We will also cover 1 night stay in a hotel for your accommodation during your visit.