Hokkaido Researchers Break New Ice In Cryosphere Science

Researchers at the Institute of Low Temperature Science at Hokkaido University are uncovering secrets of the climate buried in ice cores.

AsianScientist (Dec. 5, 2019) – The combination of thick down parka, snow pants, insulated boots and thermal gloves amounted to a bit too much winter protection, even for northern Japan. And this was summertime.

But Dr. Yoshinori Iizuka, a research scientist at Hokkaido University, assured his guest that this was the standard gear required of all visitors to the cold storage room. “You’ll need these,” he insisted.

He wasn’t lying.

Though residents of Sapporo were enjoying beautiful 25 °C conditions outside that day, deep within the walls of Institute of Low Temperature Science (ILTS), temperatures are continually kept at a freezing -20 °C, to better mimic conditions at the poles and to protect some 10,000 ice core samples scientists use here to trace the history of Earth’s climate.

Higher valued core samples are kept in their own separate area, the freezer within the freezer, at a bone chilling -50°C. At that extreme temperature even the thick down parka jacket seemed inadequate at times. Remove your gloves and numbness at the fingertips quickly sets in.

The ILTS at Hokkaido University is not only the coldest place in Sapporo, it is also the oldest facility of its kind in Japan and throughout Asia.

Founded in 1941 to study Hokkaido’s cold environs and the sea ice that drifts to northern Japan from Russia every winter, scientists at Hokkaido University’s ILTS have long since extended their reach to cover the entire globe, and beyond.

Teams are dispatched from here to Greenland every year to investigate what is happening to the island’s famous ice cap. Antarctica’s ice cap and glaciers are no stranger to ILTS scientists, either.

This frigid work at the opposite ends of Earth and in the cold storage labs on campus has kept the Institute surviving and thriving, a rarity in Japanese academia lately.

While universities throughout the nation are struggling with budget shortfalls, a declining applicant pool from a shrinking youth population, and pressure by the central government to downsize and get rid of expensive programs, scientists at ILTS say they are experiencing none of this turmoil. The Institute is increasingly a gathering place for researchers from across Asia to investigate past and present changes to the poles. Staff and student recruitment and retention is strong, officials at ILTS said.

Scientific research on the Arctic and Antarctic has also never been in greater focus than it is today, drawing a further spotlight on the work at ILTS and some of its scientists’ most recent groundbreaking new discoveries.

A recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, warns that the summer melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice caps is accelerating, and that most high altitude glaciers are at risk of losing up to 80 percent of their ice mass over the coming decades should global warming continue unabated, as it is expected to.

None of this is news to Dr. Shin Sugiyama, who has spent years collecting ice core samples from Greenland and investigating changes underway there. In an interview he confirmed that his experiences in Greenland this past summer showed that the IPCC is right to raise the alarm.

“Yes it’s true,” Sugiyama said, nodding. “It was warm and there was a lot of melting. I’ve been [to Greenland] every year since 2012 and 2012 was also a hot summer, and this year was next to 2012.”

Sugiyama and his team have therefore set out to improve the accuracy of measuring the rate at which Greenland is losing its ice every year, critical information for forecasting how bad sea level rise will get and how quickly the rising seas will begin swamping low-lying coastal cities.

With collaborators from the Austral University of Chile, Sugiyama devised a new method for measuring the precise volume of ice lost when a chunk of glacier falls off Greenland and into the surrounding seas.

Researchers put sensors in front of the calving ice and measured the energy of the waves generated by the newly broken-off icebergs. They found the wave patterns and energy from the calving events to be remarkably consistent. As they explained in their paper, they thus discovered “a positive correlation between the volume of calving ice and wave amplitude, and confirmed that the distance to calving events can be measured with a single pressure sensor from a frequency dispersion of water waves.”

Sugiyama said the usual methodologies—such as visual assessments and satellite images—still work fine, but by utilizing underwater pressure sensors and then measuring the waves or the miniature ‘tsunamis’ these icebergs generate, researchers can measure ice loss with much greater resolution. Their results were published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

“The basic thing is how much of the ice is thinning or retreating, but we also study how fast it moves or how much it melts and how much it slides against bedrock, processes which control the change of the glaciers and ice sheets,” Sugiyama explained. “It’s important to know how much ice goes into the ocean, and that was what we measured, by waves caused by this calving.”

Back in the cold storage room, Iizuka pulled ice core samples and slides to demonstrate how ILTS faculty and students study the Earth’s climate past in these sub-zero conditions. A jacket-clad PhD student was busy peering at one slide under a cold-weather microscope, paying particular close attention to tiny air bubbles, trapped samples of an atmosphere that existed thousands of years ago.

The vast majority of these samples came from Greenland or Antarctica, but Iizuka has set out to change this. In another recent breakthrough, ILTS reported Iizuka’s success in extracting core samples from deep within the Alaskan permafrost.

Most ice cores studies avoid permafrost ice because it is too difficult to age and is frequently warped by geologic changes—the layers may have accumulated vertically, but seismic events or shifting soils could twist and turn layers to more horizontal configurations. Permafrost ice is also notoriously dirty.

But Iizuka says he has found a way around these challenges, and is now using Alaska ice core samples in an effort to get a fuller picture of the history of the Arctic beyond just one geographic area, Greenland. Among other findings, Iizuka says the new Alaska samples are already telling him that the Beaufort Sea experienced frequent periods of ice-free, open-ocean conditions, even at the height of the last ice age.

“If we reconstruct such atmospheric proxies from permafrost it can be used to understand the total Arctic environment,” Iizuka explained. He is confident that the same research methods can be taken next to Canada and Russia, as he seeks to complete a fuller picture of the history of the Arctic Circle.

Beyond studying ice core samples from Antarctica, Greenland and now Alaska, ILTS researchers are also venturing into the stars. A study published by Professor Yasuhiro Oba and colleagues in Nature Communications provided evidence for how some of the essential ingredients for DNA—and thus life in the Universe—may have formed in interstellar ice clouds.

It is this variety of low-temperature research that helps to explain the Institute’s near 80-year success story despite the pressures facing academia elsewhere in Japan today, Sugiyama argued.

“Some [of our scientists] are doing molecular-scale research, such as the influence of cold on molecular biology, for example,” he explained. “Others are studying the hibernation of mammals, and others are studying ice and snow processes in space.

“I’d say the Institute is very stable now, and this is really unique,” Sugiyama concluded. “We can maintain our size and our faculty and staff. I hope we can keep this in the future.”

This article won second place at the 2019 Asian Scientist Writing Prize.

Click here to see photos of the the prize presentation ceremony held on December 4, 2019.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Nathanial Gronewold is a PhD candidate at the Hokkaido University Graduate School of Environmental Science, Japan.

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