Sun Set in Nares Strait, Greenland

The sun bathed the southern reaches of Nares Strait in light again after four months of total darkness of the polar night. It is still cold, about -30 degrees centigrade, but the long shadows cast by mountains, hills, and even icebergs from Humbold Glacier are a feast for my eyes:

Kane Basin with Humbold Glacier, Greenland in the east, Ellesmere Island, Canada in the west as well as Smith Sound in the south, and Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait in the north. The visible image was taken Mar.-2, 2015 at 17:30 UTC by MODIS Terra.

Kane Basin with Humbold Glacier, Greenland in the east, Ellesmere Island, Canada in the west as well as Smith Sound in the south, and Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait in the north. The visible image was taken Mar.-2, 2015 at 17:30 UTC by MODIS Terra.

The sun dipped above the southern horizon just for a few hours. The light reflected by the ice and snow of North Greenland was captured by a satellite overhead. From these data I constructed the above image with the axes in km. The frame is big enough to fit both Denmark and Massachusetts into it. The image shows the southern entrance to Nares Strait with its prominent ice arch and the “North Water” polynya in the south. You can “see” individual ice flows in this 250-m image as well as rows of sea smoke over the thin ice of the polynya. Petermann is still dark and not shown, but give it a week, and we’ll get sun there also.

I will be watching this ice arch closely, because together with a group of 50 international scientists I am scheduled to sail these icy waters aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden this summer for a multitude of experiments to take place in Petermann Fjord with data sampling of adjacent ice, ocean, and land. As a group we will try to reconstruct climate and its physical processes that impact change from tidal to glacial cycles.

Tribal Interactions and Arctic Research

Arctic field work connects people of different backgrounds, disciplines, and tribes. Last week I spent 3 days in Maine where I met with Arctic archeologists, anthropologists, and students of all ages. Susan Kaplan and Genevieve LeMoine run the Arctic Peary-McMillan Museum and do extensive field work in Labrador, Cape Sheridan atop Ellesmere Island (Canada), and northern Greenland. A class of smart sophomore asked more questions than I could answer in the morning and a diverse group of citizen did the same in the evening. I represented the “physics tribe.”

We learnt of each other after I posted an illustrated essay “Ruins of Fort Conger” that contained this image taken near Petermann Fjord in 2012

Fort Conger rebuilt 1900 by Peary

Carl Rose on the left was a seaman on our last 2012 expedition while Jonathan Poole is a marine field technician with whom I work often. They stand before a hut built by Admiral Robert Peary in 1900 on one of his early excursions to reach the North Pole. The 2012 photo bears remarkable similarity to one taken in 1909 that Genevieve LeMoine describes on her blog with title “Tides of the Arctic.”

Donald MacMillan and Jack Barnes at Fort Conger, spring 1909 [From LeMoine, 2013]

Donald MacMillan and Jack Barnes at Fort Conger, spring 1909 [From LeMoine, 2013]

It shows Donald McMillan and Jack Barnes in 1909 during a later Peary expedition. The pictures and histories are displayed at the “Glimmer of the Polar Sea” exhibition at the Bowdoin’s Peary-McMillan Arctic Museum. These huts are the closest “shelter” to Petermann Fjord about 50 miles to the east. The men visiting Fort Conger in 1909 and 2012 look towards the ocean which in 2012 looked like this

Discovery Harbor off Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island as seen from helicopter in 2012.

Discovery Harbor off Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island in 2012.

We visited the site in 2012 to recover an ocean sensor that, so we hoped, had measured tides and temperatures for 9 years earlier. For 9 long years we had no way to tell, if either sensor or data existed. Only after recovery in 2012 did we jubilantly find sensors and data. At the time we deployed this sensor in 2003 technology did not exist to get data out from the ice-covered ocean. We are trying to develop technology to change this. The non-trivial goal is to get such data out as it is collected without waiting for 9 years. That’s what my crowd-funding project is about: Develop new technologies and share all data, results, and excitement.

If funded, this project will produce results immediately as ocean temperatures (and salinities) will be transmitted to the word wide web for anyone to use as she or he sees fit. Please help and be part of the cutting edge of Arctic Oceanography: Tell your friends, tell your family, and tell your colleagues about the science, about the Arctic, about the beauty, about the climate, and about the physics of the ocean.

Heartbeat of Ocean and Air of Greenland

While cables are designed at a small company in southern California,while instruments are shipped to friends at the British Antarctic Survey in England, while instrument locations are contemplated by a small group of scientists, technicians, and graduate students, I am also on a journey back in time to check up on the heart beat of the air we breath and the oceans we sail. The Arctic heartbeat to me is the annual change from the total darkness of polar night to total sunlight of polar day. This cycle, this heartbeat takes a year. There is 24 hours of day in summer the same way that there is 24 hours of night now. Let me first show, however, where we are heading before I look at the heartbeat.

I love making maps and this is a rich and pretty one that shows North America from the top where Petermann Fjord and Glacier are (tiny blue box on left map). The colors are water depths and land elevations. The thick dotted red line is where a very large iceberg from Petermann traveled within a year to reach Newfoundland. Teresa, one of the contributors to my crowd-funding project, sailed up there to Newfoundland to see this iceberg. And she made a movie out this voyage. So, what happens up there in northern Greenland only takes a year, maybe two, to reach our more balmy shores. What happens in Greenland does NOT stay in Greenland. Vegas, Nevada this is not.


Now on to the map on the right. This is the tiny blue box made much larger. It looks like a photo, and in a way it is, but a photo taken by a satellite, well, only one “channel” of this specific satellite, the many shades of gray are mine, it is NOT the real color. The glacier is in the bottom right as the white tongue sticking out towards 81 N latitude. Red lines there are water depths of 500 and 1000m. The blue dot in the top-left is where I had to leave an ocean sensor in a shallow bay for 9 years, because we could not get there to retrieve it for 6 years. Lucky for me (well, some smart design helped), the instrument was still there, collecting and recording data that we knew nothing about for 9 long years. It took smart and hardy fishermen from Newfoundland aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen to dangle my sensor out of the icy waters. And here is the heart beat it revealed:


Top graph is ocean temperature, bottom panel is air temperature nearby. And as you go from left to right, we move forward in time starting in 2002 until the end of 2012 when the last ocean measurements were made. The red lines are a linear trend that represents local (as opposed to global) warming. Both go up which means it gets warmer, but careful, the bottom one for air is no different from a straight line with zero slope meaning no warming. It does go up, you say correctly, but if I do formal statistics, this slope is no different from zero just due to chance. The top curve for the ocean, however, is very different. It does not look different, but the same statistics tell me that the warming is NOT due to chance alone. Oh, in case you wondered, the two dashed lines in the top panel are the temperatures at which seawater freezes and forms ice for the salinity range we see and expect at this embayment. As you add salt to water, it freezes at a lower temperature. This is why we put salt on our roads in winter, it makes the water freeze less fast.

I am a doctor, so here is my conclusion: Ocean heart beat is a little irregular and the trend is not good news for the ice. Air heart beat looks normal, the trends may need watching, but I am not too worried about that just yet. Watch the oceans … that’s where the heat and the action is these days.

Lab Notes of a Physical Oceanographer

I go to sea to learn about oceans, glaciers, weather, and climate. Despite dramatic photos of exciting field work, those action-packed scenes or serene nature shots of beauty and violence are misleading. Most of my time is spent sitting an a desk in a spacious office with books, papers, telephone, and most important of all, my computers.

Most of my time is spent writing. The writing is varied and ranges from illustrated essays on to computer code. Add technical writing of research proposals, papers, and reviews for funding agencies and scientific journals. My screen rarely looks like what is shown above with the beautiful LandSat image of 79N Glacier as a screen-saver, it actually looks like this

Picture 2

The blog-writing window is open on the right while a Fortran computer code is in the top left. The code processes temperature, salinity, and pressure data from Petermann Glacier. When the code is run in the bottom-left window, it produces numbers. In this specific case, the numbers are from the only profile of temperature and salinity that exists from Petermann Glacier. Koni Steffen collected the data in 2002. Columns are depths that start at -68 (meters), salinity at 33.774 (no units, think of this as grams per kilogram), temperature at -1.885 (degrees centigrade), and the last column is the density anomaly These numbers are better presented as a graph:


Notice that temperature and salinity start only at -68 meters. This is because the ice at this location was about 68-m thick. The Big Ben clock in London is about 96-m high, but this piece if Petermann was chosen because it was less hard to drill through 2/3 of Big Ben’s height when compared to drilling through the glacier ice a mile away where the ice is thicker than the Empire State Building in New York; but I digress.

The profile above reveals a pattern we find almost anywhere in deeper Arctic Waters: Temperature increases with depth. Under the ice at 68-m depth, water is at its freezing point. As you move down the water towards the bottom, salinity increases and so does temperature. It is still cold, about +0.2 degrees Celsius, but this is heat from the North Atlantic Ocean that for perhaps 20-50 years circled all the way around the Arctic Ocean from northern Norway, past Siberia, past Alaska, past Canada to reach this spot of Greenland. While this appears marvelous, and it is, this is NOT what gets a physical oceanographer excited, but this does:


It is the same data, but I did some reading, physics, algebra and code-writing in that order. First, instead of temperature, the blue line shows the difference between temperature T and the temperature Tf above the freezing. The difference T-Tf relates to the amount of heat available to melt the ice somewhere. The black line is the real killer, though. It combines salinity and temperature observations to reveal where the glacier water resides at this location that was melted somewhere else. Without going into the physical details, glacier meltwater is present where the black line touches zero (the so-called Gade-line, so named after a Swedish oceanographer who proposed its use in 1979). This happens at a depth from about 280-m to 500-m depth. This means that the glacier is NOT melting where it is as thin as Big Ben, but instead where it is as thick as the Empire State Building. So this is where we will need to place our instruments.

Proving my initial point, I spent two hours of fun writing this blog. I now will have to focus on more technical writing to pay the many bills of sea-going research. These “lab-notes” also serve as a document to raise $10,845 to install instruments this summer through Petermann Gletscher, have a look and give a little, if you can at

Jon Steward on Climate Change

I missed this episode when it aired last year, but it is one of the very best Daily Shows and it is on Climate Change to boot (3 minutes into the video the good stuff starts):

Partial credit to Nick Clark who included it a rich and wonderful Al Jazeera essay entitled Global doom and gloom? Here’s some sunshine.