Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental and societal issues. Our student Sarah Cantwell makes this connection here…

The news entitled “Greenland Ice Stores Liquid Water Year Round” was reported by the News Center at the University of Utah in their December 22, 2013 online news. This news relates to the WRE domain of hydrology and the specific issue of changing sea levels. In summary, this news article describes how Professor Rick Forster of the University of Utah and his team have discovered a large aquifer of perpetually liquid water in the Greenland Ice Sheet. This particular ice sheet is the largest contributor to sea level rise, so this new information about the composition of the ice sheet means that current sea level prediction models will likely need to be reevaluated as current models assume all liquid water either refreezes in the ice sheet or flows along the surface of the glacier. Forster does not know yet whether this discovery will mean that the rate of glacial melting will increase or decrease. Based on my engineering education my informed opinion is the WRE facts in the news article are accurate, as I show with the following citations. Wurbs and James (2002) explain how accurate modeling and computing methods are important for WRE, and the international team led by Rick Forster is collecting data to help update and improve the current models. Other recent research teams (Price et al., 2011) have determined that melting ice sheets in Greenland have occurred at a moderate rate in the past and suggest that the potential for these glaciers to have the most impact on sea levels is in the near future. This means that synthesizing Forster’s team’s information with other research will be necessary to predict what will happen to sea levels. Based on critical thinking of the news story, I think the article has missed reporting on the variety of non-science issues related to mispredicting sea level rise. Tourism, economics and social issues should be considered as many people live and survive on coastal areas which would be the most directly impacted by either more flooding than predicted or less flooding than expensive infrastructure was designed for.

I have identified the broader WRE context areas of global and environmental as being impacted by this hydrology aquifer issue. These broader context areas are defined as follows: the global context relates to how this issue could impact people around the world far from the site of the issue, in terms of policy, health, or economics; the environmental issue relates to how the WRE issue will impact the environment at the site and how it relates to environmental policy or research. Based on the article, this aquifer has the potential to adversely affect the globe because the current models for predicting sea level rise are not accurate, so places may be devoting too much funding to infrastructure or they may not be prepared for sea level rise. Environmentally, this aquifer is good because it can supply drinking water to Greenland if other sources are inadequate. However, because the melting of ice sheets like this one is contributing to sea level rising, it also has a negative environmental impact. I found that the importance of sea level rise predictions is a global issue, as reported by S. Jeffries Williams (2013), who synthesized the history of global sea level. Because this issue is global, that means that the rise in sea level due to the melting of this ice sheet will not only impact Greenland, but sea level will rise along the coast of every continent. It is important for the people living along these coasts to be able to predict how it will affect them so that they can take precautionary measures to the best of their abilities. This new research will help people to do this on a global scale.

Location of Greenland Ice Sheet. The measured changes combined with aquifer data, can be used to create more accurate predictions of glacial melt and sea level rise. Source: ESA

Location of Greenland Ice Sheet. The measured changes combined with aquifer data, can be used to create more accurate predictions of glacial melt and sea level rise. Source: ESA

Graph showing historical surface melting as a percentage. The aquifer will help adapt models to better predict how melting will change. Source: NOAA

Graph showing historical surface melting as a percentage. The aquifer will help adapt models to better predict how melting will change. Source: NOAA

References

Price, S.F., Payne, A.J., Howart, I.M., Smith, B.E. Committed sea-level rise for the next century from Greenland ice sheet dynamics during the past decade. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2011, 108, 8978-8983.

Williams, S.J. Sea-level rise implications for coastal regions. Journal of Coastal Research. 2013, 63, 184-196.

Wurbs, R.A., James, W.P. Water Resources Engineering. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2002.

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