Glaciers and Treasures of the Snow

Glaciers and Treasures of the Snow
Glacier National Park

In Job 38:22, God refers to “the treasures of the snow” and “the treasures of ice.” In Job’s day, that may not have made a lot of sense. Even today, most people are not aware of the role glaciers play in our lives.

We are living in what scientists call an interglacial period when changes in Earth’s orbit have caused glaciers to melt. This interglacial period has been going on for some 12,000 years and is unrelated to any human-induced climate change. When scientists find evidence of forests, other life-forms, and human remains under the ocean’s surface, we can be sure that the sea level has been very different in the past.

Water molecules are designed in a way that allows glaciers to exist. A glacier is not a block of ice. When water is frozen and put under pressure, it behaves like a fluid. When I was teaching physics, we had a demonstration in which we froze a metal container of water and then used a piston to put it under pressure. The metal container had holes, and the ice would shoot out through the holes in a cylindrical form, just as any liquid or gas would do. Snow falls on the ground in a cold place and piles up, putting pressure on the snow on the bottom. The pressure changes the snow, and it begins to flow like toothpaste. Those gorgeous blue ice flows, the treasures of the snow, are glaciers.

So why is this a good thing for you and me? First, it locks up water, so it is available year-round. The amount of land area available to humans would drop radically if we lost all the glacial ice on the planet. As the ice melts, it does so gradually. Many areas of the world have water year-round only because slow-melting glaciers supply water in a controlled manner.

Many plants and animals depend on glaciers for their survival. Glacial algae get their water by producing dark pigments, which absorb enough sunlight to melt glacial ice. In that way, plants can grow in places like Greenland. The algae provide food for fish and other marine organisms in northern latitudes. Without the glaciers to supply drinking water for the bottom of the food chain, life couldn’t exist in northern marine environments.

Glaciers are also one of the strongest erosional agents in existence. Because of that, mountainous areas have u-shaped valleys with numerous cirque lakes and moraines. Glaciers have allowed a whole biosphere to exist in those mountainous areas. Human habitation in much of the Rocky Mountains is only possible because of the work of glaciers. Here in Michigan, we see and enjoy a continental glacial area where a vast ice sheet shaped the land and created thousands of lakes.

Job could not comprehend the full meaning of the words God spoke to him. Today, people who live where the glaciers have worked and are working can be thankful for God’s design of the “treasures of the snow.”

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Reference: Discover Magazine December 2020, page 66.

Ice Core Data and Global Warming

Ice Core Data Sampling
Many years ago I did a master’s degree thesis on what we can learn by studying ice core data. To do this, I looked at a core taken from Mt. Rainier and another taken from Alaska.

Those ice cores were taken in a place where it never gets warm enough for the ice and snow to melt. In the winter it snows, and the snow doesn’t melt but gets buried by the next winter snow. In the summer the snow from the previous winter gets dirty on top. Dust, insects, pollen, and the remains of plants and animals that died on the ice accumulate and are buried by the next winter’s snow. This happens year after year, so each summer leaves a line in the snow. Looking at these lines with a stereoscope I could count how many summers had passed and what lived during that summer.

Since my studies when I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, techniques for getting ice core data have improved. We can now get deeper cores in places like Antarctica and Greenland. Also, we now have tools which can measure the composition and abundance of atmospheric gases dissolved in the ice. We now have drill cores that go down over a mile. In 1984, scientists took a core at Vostok in the Antarctic that was 6,560 feet and contained about 420,000 summers. That means we can analyze the gases in Earth’s atmosphere for every year going back over 400,000 years.

Scientists then compared the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere and the average temperature for each location. They could see that when the carbon dioxide content went up, the average temperature also went up. Global warming is not a new thing, but how much human activity has affected the current warming is still unknown. What other factors might be involved is still pretty much conjecture.

Already we see some changes that the warming is producing with the melting of ice sheets and altered weather patterns. Not all of the changes are bad. Some places that have had a drought for a very long time are getting much-needed moisture. Fortunately, these changes are slow so that we can adapt. We can see the design of Earth to allow life to exist more clearly as the ice core data reveals its history.
–John N. Clayton © 2019

Data from Saturday Evening Post, January/February 2019, page 44.