iceland glaciers

A recent slowdown in the melting of Iceland’s glaciers is likely caused by a patch of unusually cold water in the North Atlantic Ocean, according to a new study published in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters. (Credit: Finnur Pálsson)

WASHINGTON — A giant “Blue Blob” near Iceland appears to be saving glaciers from the effects of climate change, a new study reveals. Researchers say this region of cooling water in the North Atlantic Ocean has already slowed the melting of glaciers in Iceland and may help keep the region cold for another 30 years.

While scientists have a few theories on how the Blue Blob formed, the exact cause is still unclear. The chilly water just south of Iceland and Greenland reached its coldest point during the winter of 2014-2015, when ocean surface temperatures were 2.52 degrees Fahrenheit colder than normal.

A team from Iceland and the Netherlands used climate models and observations in the field to prove that the Blue Blob is chilling the air over Iceland enough to slow down ice melting. Their models predict that this phenomenon will continue in the North Atlantic until around 2050. Unfortunately, the models also point to climate change increasing ocean and air temps after that — leading to more melting by the year 2100.

Without taking steps to stop or reverse the effects of global warming, the scientists believe the Blue Blob will eventually vanish, and glaciers in Iceland will lose one-third of their ice by 2100 and disappear completely by 2300.

“In the end, the message is still clear,” says lead author Brice Noël, a climate modeler specializing in polar ice sheets and glaciers at Utrecht University, in a media release. “The Arctic is warming fast. If we wish to see glaciers in Iceland, then we have to curb the warming.”

“It’s crucial to have an idea of the possible feedbacks in the Arctic because it’s a region that is changing so fast,” Noël adds. “It’s important to know what we can expect in a future warmer climate.”

The Arctic is a climate change hotspot

Recent studies find the Arctic is warming up four times faster than the global average. Iceland contains roughly 800 cubic miles of ice. Study authors report that the country’s glaciers shrank at a constant rate between 1995 and 2010 — seeing 11 gigatons of ice melt away each year.

However, all that changed in 2011. Researchers found that the Blue Blob contributed to a slowdown in glacier melting, cutting the annual amount lost in half. Study authors note they did not see this same improvement in nearby Greenland and Svalbard.

To find out why, Noël’s team looked at the glaciers’ mass balance — the amount these structures grow or melt — between 1958 and 2019. Their high-resolution climate models then examined how much snow glaciers in the area received during winter and how much they lost during the summer months. Results show the cold waters in the Blue Blob have a strong connection to dropping air temperatures over nearby Iceland and the slowing glacial melting taking place over the last decade.

What’s causing the Blue Blob?

Researchers speculate the blob is actually part of the normal sea temperature changes in the Arctic. During the region’s coldest period between 2014 and 2015, there were particularly cold winters which led to an upwelling of cold, deep water.

Before the discovery of the Blue Blob, scientists already noticed a cooling trend near Iceland, called the Atlantic Warming Hole. The trend reduced ocean surface temps by 0.72 to 1.44 degrees over the last 100 years. Researchers add that climate change may actually be responsible to the creation of the Atlantic Warming Hole, as it has slowed the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation — an ocean current which brings warm water up from the tropics to the Arctic. Cutting off that current limits the amount of heat reaching the area.

In the meantime, Noël’s model projects that this area of the North Atlantic near Iceland (where the Blue Blob sits) will stay cool for several years. That will slow and possibly even stop ice loss completely until the mid-2050s in Iceland.

The findings are published in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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