Category Archives: Ice Island

Petermann Ice Island Breaks while Plowing into the Bottom

The Manhattan-sized ice island that last year broke free of Petermann Gletscher in North Greenland plowed into the bottom and broke apart. Force equals mass times acceleration. When 18 giga tons (mass) of moving ice crashes into the ocean’s bottom 200 meters below the surface (acceleration), then something gotta give. And give it did, Continue reading

Petermann Ice Island visited by Vagabond

An ice-cube with a mass of 18 giga tons left Petermann Gletscher in the summer of 2012 and thus became PII-2012 for Petermann Ice Island 2012. The CCGS Henry Larsen visited and surveyed the waters, bottom, and ice of the fjord that same year. Since then PII-2012 traveled 300 km southward, grounded in shallow water, but continued its voyage south a month or so again. Last thursday it was visited by a 47′ sail boat called “Vagabond.” I just discovered the report by its Master Eric Brossier, Continue reading

Land-Fast Ice Cover off North Greenland: Will NASA bite?

When a large outlet glacier of North Greenland (Petermann Gletscher) discharged an ice island four times the size of Manhattan in August of 2010, the United States’ Congress held formal inquiries on its cause within days of the event. Congressmen, scientists, and the global media speculated that this event and concurrent severe droughts in Russia and floods in Asia were tied to record-breaking air temperatures and global warming. Reviewing available data, Johnson et al. (2011) cautioned that most melting of floating ice shelves such as Petermann Gletscher is dominated by physical ocean processes below, not above the ice (Reeh, 2001, Rignot and Steffen, 2008). The National Journal asked me to write an essay to answer the question: “Is Climate Change Causing Wild Weather?” which I answered with a nerdy No, but …. Motivated by questions asked during the congressional hearing, I showed that waters in Petermann Fjord (a) originate from the Arctic Ocean to the north, (b) contain heat of Atlantic origin, and (c) have warmed significantly since 2003 (Muenchow et al., 2011).

Petermann Gletscher from MODIS Terra. Repeat NASA along-glacier flight tracks are shown in the left and middle panels. White line across the glacier are ICESat tracks. Thick black line across the glacier near y = 0 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008). Dark areas within 2 km off the western wall are mountain shadows.

Petermann Gletscher from MODIS Terra. Repeat NASA along-glacier flight tracks are shown in the left and middle panels. White line across the glacier are ICESat tracks. Thick black line across the glacier near y = 0 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008). Dark areas within 2 km off the western wall are mountain shadows.

When I reported here that the same glacier discharged yet another ice island in July 2012, this one “only” twice the size of Manhattan, I was not so sure anymore, that this was merely another extreme event caused by natural processes. Continue reading

Petermann Photos, Places, and People

Petermann Gletscher sent off Manhattan-sized islands of ice in 2010 and 2012 that now litter the eastern seaboard of Canada from its farthest northern Ellesmere Island to its farthest eastern Newfoundland. The ice is streaming south along thousands of miles within icy Arctic waters. Petermann Gletscher itself is flat, hard to grasp by the naked eye, its endless expanse of white vanishes into the horizon when we look towards the Greenland Ice Sheet ALONG the glacier:

North-eastern section of Petermann Glacier on Aug.-11, 2012, the meandering river is the centerline, view is almost due east. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen.]

North-eastern portion of Petermann Glacier on Aug.-11, 2012, the meandering river is the centerline, view is almost due east with Kap Fulford and Kap Agnes on the left center and Daugaard Jensen Land in the background on the right. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen.]

Next, lets look ACROSS Petermann from roughly the same latitude. This perspective is more dramatic as vertical cliffs give shape, cliffs are cut by smaller side-glaciers. More specifically, we see the CCGS Henry Larsen helicopter flying down Belgrave Glacier as we look across Petermann which flows from the Greenland Ice Sheet on the left out to sea on the right. On the other (south-western) side we see Faith Glacier in the background about 10 miles away.

Seaward front of Petermann Glacier Aug.-11, 2012. View is from a small side-glacier towards the south-east across Petermann Fjord with Petermann Gletscher to the left (east). [Photo Credit: Erin Clarke, Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

Seaward front of Petermann Glacier Aug.-11, 2012. View is from a small side-glacier (Belgrave Gl.) towards a similar glacier (Faith Gl.) across Petermann Fjord with Petermann Gletscher flowing from the left out to sea on the right. [Photo Credit: Erin Clarke, Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

Contrasting large Petermann Gletscher, the many smaller glaciers on both its sides evoke drama as ice plunges down from 3000 feet above in a rage of forms, colors, and shapes. These side glaciers have their own side glaciers that sometimes rival the Alpine glaciers in Europe, Asia, and the Americas that most of us are more familiar with.

Some side glaciers have names, but they are rarely seen on maps and charts. The side glaciers are mapped, but photos are hard to find. Flying over them last year, I was utterly lost. Reviewing photos now, I remember people, smells, computer troubles, and exciting ocean discoveries. Nevertheless, I am hard pressed to place the places we saw on a map or name them. Distances are deceiving, the air is clean and 50-80 miles of visibility are common. A moment later, I cannot see the other side of the ship as we are suddenly in clouds and fog. Everything is always in motion, the ice, the water, the ship, the clouds, all of this without strong reference points like the exit or distance signs on a Turnpike, Interstate, or Autobahn.

Northern Kennedy Channel near the entrance to Petermann Fjord with Kap Morton in cloud banks. [Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

Northern Kennedy Channel near the entrance to Petermann Fjord with Kap Morton in cloud banks. [Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

And along comes Espen Olsen, a frequent contributor to Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice blog and forums, and discovers a plethora of names that I can check, google, and use to remember expeditions to Petermann over the last 10 years with many good friends. So with his help and that of other explorers like Lauge Koch, Tony Higgins, and the collected wisdom of the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency, I labeled some prominent glaciers and capes on an Aug,-21, 2012 MODIS-Terra image that I constructed from data that NASA provide to anyone free of charge. I chose this image and time, because the 2012 ice island is already in Nares Strait and thus out of sight:

Names of glaciers, capes, islands in Petermann Region over MODIS of Aug.-21, 2012.

Names of glaciers, capes, islands in Petermann Region over MODIS of Aug.-21, 2012.

Espen tells me that his Danish sources are protected by copyright (I still like to cite them), but the aviation maps of the U.S. military are in the public domain and can be downloaded from the University of Texas in Austin Library, e.g.,

Petermann Gletscher and surroundings extracted from U.S. Defense Mapping Agency Chart ONC A5 (January 1991).

Petermann Gletscher and suroundings extracted from U.S. Defense Mapping Agency Chart ONC A5 (January 1991).

while the modified version of Figure-2 from Dr. Tony Higgins 1990 publication is available at the Alfred Wegener Institute. Nevertheless, it should only be used for non-profit educational purposes or as a reference:

Petermann Gletscher extend and topography from 1953 through 1978 (from Higgins, 1990) with 2012 terminus position drawn in by hand.

Petermann Gletscher extend and topography from 1953 through 1978 (from Higgins, 1990) with 2012 terminus position drawn in by hand.

With all these details out-of-the-way, we can now start placing photos into places and add names to them. Perhaps others like Espen Olsen can write or edit Wiki entries or correct the false latitude and longitudes that populate the many databases that provide such information on the web. Over the next weeks and months I will try to post as many photos of Petermann’s natural beauty along with an evolving MODIS map that names and shows places. Here are just a few teasers without further comment except what’s in the captions.

The merging of Sigurd Berg and Hubert Glaciers which discharge into Petermann Gletscher on its eastern wall. The view is landward towards the north-east as the helicopter flies in from Petermann. [Credit: Barbara O'Connell, Canadian Coast Guard]

The merging of Hubert (left) and Sigurd Berg (right) Glaciers which discharge into Petermann Gletscher on its eastern wall. The view is landward towards the north-east as the helicopter flies in from Petermann. [Credit: Barbara O'Connell, Canadian Coast Guard]

Petermann Gletscher and Fjord in Aug.-2012. View is to the north-west with Faith Glacier (top left) and Kap Lucie Marie (top right) showing the western wall of Petermann. [Photo Credit: CCGS Henry Larsen]

Petermann Gletscher and Fjord in Aug.-2012. View is to the north-west with Faith Glacier (top left) and Kap Lucie Marie (top right) showing the western wall of Petermann. [Photo Credit: CCGS Henry Larsen]

Looking down Belgrave Glacier discharging into Petermann Gletscher at its terminus in Aug. 2012 [Credit: CCGS Henry Larsen]

Looking down Belgrave Glacier discharging into Petermann Gletscher at its terminus in Aug. 2012 [Credit: CCGS Henry Larsen]

Higgins, A.K. (1990). Northern Greenland glacier velocities and calf ice production Polarforschung, 60, 1-23 Other: 0032-2490

Shades of White as the Sun Rises over Nares Strait

After four months of total darkness the sun is back up in Nares Strait. It transforms the polar night into thousand shades of white as mountains, glaciers, and ice take in and throw back the new light. Our satellites receive some of the throw-away light as the landscape reflects it back into space. During the long dark winter months these satellites could only “see” heat, but this will change rapidly as Alert atop of Arctic Canada receives 30 minutes more sun with each passing day.

Surface temperature in degrees centigrade over northern Baffin Bay on March-4, 2013 16:20 UTC from MODIS Terra.

Surface temperature in degrees centigrade over northern Baffin Bay on March-4, 2013 16:20 UTC from MODIS Terra. Warm colors (reds) show thin and/or ice while cold colors (blues) suggest thick ice stuck in place.

A very strong ice arch at the southern entrance to Nares Strait separates thick (and cold) ice to north from thin (and warm) ice to the south. The thick and cold ice is not moving, it is stuck to land, but the ocean under the ice is moving fast from north to south. The ocean currents thus sweep the newly formed thin ice away to the south. This ice arch formed way back in early November just after the sun set for winter over Nares Strait.

Now that the sun is up, we can also “see” more structures in the ice by the amount of light reflected back to space. A very white surface reflects lots while a darker surface reflects less. We are looking at the many shades of white here … even though I color them in reds and blues:

Surface reflectance at 865 nm in northern Baffin Bay on March-4, 2013 16:20 UTC from MODIS Terra.

Surface reflectance at 865 nm in northern Baffin Bay on March-4, 2013 16:20 UTC from MODIS Terra. A true color image (which this is not) would show only white everywhere. Hence I show the very bright white as red and the less bright white as blue. This artificial enhancement makes patterns and structures more visible to the eye.

Zooming into the area where the ice arch separates thick ice to the north that is not moving from thin ice in the south that is swept away by ocean currents, I show this image at the highest possible resolution:

Surface reflectance at 865 nm at the southern entrance to Nares Strait on March-4, 2013. Contours are 200-m bottom depth showing PII2012 grounded at the north-eastern sector of the ice arch.

Surface reflectance at 865 nm at the southern entrance to Nares Strait on March-4, 2013. Contours are 200-m bottom depth showing PII2012 grounded at the north-eastern sector of the ice arch.

Note, however, that the sun is far to south and barely peeking over the horizon. This low sun angle shows up as shadows cast by mountains. And since the sun is still far to the south, the shadows cast are to the north. This “shadow” makes visible the ice island from Petermann Gletscher that anchors this ice arch as it is grounded. I labeled it PII2012 in the picture.

From laser measurements we know that the ice islands stands about 20 meter (or 60 feet) above the rest of the ice field. This height is enough to cast a visible shadow towards the north (slightly darker = less red) as well as a direct reflection off its vertical wall facing south (brighter = more red) towards the sun. At its thickest point, PII2012 is about 200 meters (~600 feet) thick. For this reason, I also show the 200-m bottom contour that moves largely from north to south along both Ellesmere Island, Canada on the left and Greenland on the right.

The sun brings great joy to all, especially those hardy souls who live in the far north. The sun’s rise also shows the delicate interplay of light and shadows that we can use to solve puzzles on how ice, oceans, and glaciers work. At the entrance of Nares Strait the playful delights of the sea ice, ocean currents, and ice islands gives us a large area of thin ice. The thin ice will soon melt and perhaps has already started to set into motion a spring bloom of ocean plants. Ocean critters will feed on these to start another cycle of life. Whales, seals, and polar bears all depend on it for 1000s of years now.

Sketch of the biological pieces that a large area of open water near a fixed ice edge like that of a polynya may support. [From Northern Journal>/a>]

Sketch of the biological pieces that a large area of open water near a fixed ice edge like that of a polynya may support. [From Northern Journal]