Category Archives: Ice Island

Coastal Oceanography off North-East Greenland

Greenland is melting, but it is not entire clear why. Yes, air temperatures continue to increase, but what does it matter, if those temperatures are below freezing most of the time. What if the ocean does most of the melting a few 100 m below the surface rather than the air above? It means that gut feeling and everyday experience can be poor guides for science, it means that there is more than meets the eye, and it means that some of Greenland’s melting happens out of sight without the dramatic imagery of a rapidly disintegrating glacier that sends icebergs out to sea.

Floating section of 79N Glacier in north-east Greenland as seen from LandSat in march 2014.

Floating section of 79N Glacier in north-east Greenland as seen from LandSat in march 2014.

In order to “see” where changes may happen out of sight American tax payers supported me via the National Science Foundation (NSF) to use available University of Delaware ocean sensors from an available German ship to investigate the ocean near two large glaciers off north-east Greenland. The sensors are in the water for over a year now and will stay there for another to collect data every half hour. The data are stored on computers inside the sensors and it is a marvel of smart engineering that we can measure water temperature, salinity, and velocity at the bottom of an ice-covered ocean. Now what would I do with such data?

Two ocean sensor packages ready for deployment near Isle de France, Greenland 10 June 2014.

Two ocean sensor packages ready for deployment near Isle de France, Greenland 10 June 2014.

First, one needs to know that in the Arctic Ocean temperature increases as one moves a thermometer from the surface towards the bottom for the first 900 feet or 300 meters. This only make sense, if the warm water is heavier than the cold water above. This is the case in the Arctic, because the warm water at depth is also very salty. The cold waters above contain less salt and that’s why they float. The warmest waters originate from the Atlantic Ocean to the south-east of Iceland. Lets call it Atlantic Water for this reason. The surface waters contain sea ice and its fresh melt water and thus are always close to the freezing point, so lets call them Polar Waters.

Vertical profiles of temperature and salinity across Norske Ore Trough, Greenland. The insert shows station locations for profiles (small symbols) and moorings (large circles). The red dot marks the location of the red profile.

Vertical profiles of temperature and salinity across Norske Ore Trough, Greenland. The insert shows station locations for profiles (small symbols) and moorings (large circles). The red dot marks the location of the red profile.

All along the East Coast of Greenland, we find a strong southward flow of ice and Polar Water called the East Greenland Current. On a rare clear day one can “see” this flow as a beautifully structured undulating band separating the deep Greenland Sea from the shallow and broad continental shelves. Now recall that the warmest waters are in the Atlantic layer way down and somewhat offshore. How do these waters cross the East Greenland current and the very wide continental shelf to reach the glaciers along the coast? It is this question my project tries to answer with lots of help from NSF and German friends.

Satellite image ocean current instabilities on Aug.-19, 2014 as traced by ice along the the shelf break, red lines show 500, 750, and 1000 meter water depth. Small blue triangles top left are ocean moorings.

Satellite image ocean current instabilities on Aug.-19, 2014 as traced by ice along the the shelf break, red lines show 500, 750, and 1000 meter water depth. Small blue triangles top left are ocean moorings.

We think that the warm and salty waters flow near the bottom below the East Greenland Current at deep bottom depressions such as canyons. Testing this idea, we placed our sensors in a line across the canyon with a small ice-capped island called the Isle of France on one side and Belgica Bank on the other. We deployed seven instrument as an array across the canyon to measure the speed and direction of the flow as well as its temperatures and salinities. Our canyon connects the deep Greenland Sea 150 miles to the east with two glaciers another 100 miles to the north-west. We all anxiously hope that no iceberg wiped out bottom moorings and that they all record data faithfully until the summer of 2016 when we plan to recover instruments and data.

Section of temperature across Norske Ore Trough with Isle de France, Greenland on the left and Belgica Bank towards Fram Strait on the right. The view is towards 79N Glacier.

Section of temperature across Norske Ore Trough with Isle de France, Greenland on the left and Belgica Bank towards Fram Strait on the right. The view is towards 79N Glacier.

Before and after the placement of our moored instruments, however, we did survey the section from the ship and I show the temperature and salinity across our canyon. We now see that the water below 200 m depth are indeed very warm and salty as expected, but there is a detail that I cannot yet explain: notice the slight upward sloping contours of salinity near km-80 at the rim of the canyon and the downward sloping contours on the other side near km-10. Such sloping contours represent a flow out of the page at km-80 and into the page at km-10 which is exactly the opposite of what I expected. All I can say at the moment is that this snapshot does not resolve motions caused by the tides, the winds, and the seasonal cycles properly, but our moorings do. So, there are still mysteries to be solved by the data sitting on the bottom of the ocean guarded by towering spectacles of ice.

Tabular iceberg and sea ice cover near Isle de France 10 June 2014

Tabular iceberg and sea ice cover near Isle de France 10 June 2014

[This entry will be submitted to NSF as a Final Outcome Report for award 1362109 “Shelf-Basin Exchange near 79N Glacier and Zachariae Isstrom, North-East Greenland.” The work would not have been possible without the generous support of NSF as well as the German Government as represented by the Alfred Wegener Institute who sponsored the expedition to North-East Greenland in 2014. Torsten Kanzow, Benjamin Rabe, and Ursula Schauer of AWI all deserve as much and even more credit for this work than do I.]

Budéus, G., & Schneider, W. (1995). On the hydrography of the Northeast Water Polynya Journal of Geophysical Research, 100 (C3) DOI: 10.1029/94JC02024

Hughes, N., Wilkinson, J., & Wadhams, P. (2011). Multi-satellite sensor analysis of fast-ice development in the Norske Øer Ice Barrier, northeast Greenland Annals of Glaciology, 52 (57), 151-160 DOI: 10.3189/172756411795931633

Reeh, N., Thomsen, H., Higgins, A., & Weidick, A. (2001). Sea ice and the stability of north and northeast Greenland floating glaciers Annals of Glaciology, 33 (1), 474-480 DOI: 10.3189/172756401781818554

Wadhams, P., Wilkinson, J., & McPhail, S. (2006). A new view of the underside of Arctic sea ice Geophysical Research Letters, 33 (4) DOI: 10.1029/2005GL025131

A Short Summary of Nares Strait Physics

The Arctic Ocean is a puddle of water covered by ice that melts, moves, and freezes. Grand and majestic rivers of Siberia and America discharge into the puddle and make it fresher than Atlantic Ocean waters. The fate of the Arctic freshwater helps decide if Europe and the US become warmer or colder, experience more or less storms, droughts, or floods, and if global sea level will rise or fall. In a nutshell: the fate of Arctic freshwater determines climate.

Arctic Ocean with Nares Strait study area (red box) with tide gauge locations as blue symbols and section of moored array as red symbol. Contours are bottom topography that emphasize ocean basins and continental shelf areas.

Arctic Ocean with Nares Strait study area (red box) with tide gauge locations as blue symbols and section of moored array as red symbol. Contours are bottom topography that emphasize ocean basins and continental shelf areas.

Nares Strait connects the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to the west of Greenland. It is narrower than Fram Strait, but it transports as much fresh ocean water as does its wider sister facing Europe. Few people know this, including climate scientists who often model it with a bathymetry that is 10,000 years out of date from a time when Nares Strait did not yet exist. This is why the US National Science Foundation funded a group of oceanographers to use icebreakers, sensors, computers, and innovative engineering to collect and analyze data on the ice, the water, and the atmosphere.

Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler mooring deployment in Nares Strait from aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen in 2009.

Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler mooring deployment in Nares Strait from aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen in 2009.

Within days of the start of the grant I had to appear before the US Congress to answer questions on Petermann Glacier that discharges into Nares Strait. In 2010 a large 4-times Manhattan-sized ice islands broke off and people wanted to know if global warming was to blame. I was asked how ocean temperatures and currents relate to this and other events and what may happen next. My few data points were the only existing data for this remote region, but I had not yet had the time to analyze and publish much. Two years later another large 2-Manhattan sized ice island formed from the same glacier, but this time we were better prepared and people world-wide went directly to our data, thoughts, and stories when this blog was sourced in news papers in France, Germany, and China. Al Jezeraa, BBC, and PBS reported on it, too, giving me chance to connect via TV, radio, and pod-casting to a larger public.

Petermann Gletscher in 2003, 2010, and 2012 from MODIS Terra in rotated co-ordinate system with repeat NASA aircraft overflight tracks flown in 2002, 2003, 2007, and 2010. Thick black line across the glacier near y = -20 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008).

Petermann Gletscher in 2003, 2010, and 2012 from MODIS Terra in rotated co-ordinate system with repeat NASA aircraft overflight tracks flown in 2002, 2003, 2007, and 2010. Thick black line across the glacier near y = -20 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008).

While it was exciting and fun to share Nares Strait and Petermann Gletscher physics with a global audience, it is not what we had planned to do. Our goal was to put real numbers to how much water, ice, and freshwater was moving from the Arctic to the Atlantic via Nares Strait. So the next 3 years we labored through our extensive records to first describe and then to understand what was happening in Nares Strait. We found that ocean currents move water always to the south no matter if ice covers Nares Strait or not, no matter if the ice is moving or not, no matter which way the wind is blowing. The physical cause for this southward flow is that the sea level is always a few inches higher in the Arctic Ocean than it is in Baffin Bay and the Atlantic Ocean to the south.

Linear regression of volume flux  through Nares Strait from current meters with along-strait sea level difference from tide gauges (unpublished).

Linear regression of volume flux through Nares Strait from current meters with along-strait sea level difference from tide gauges. (unpublished).

We know, because we measured this with tide gauges that we placed in protected coastal bays. We recovered 3 sensors; most rewarding was the recovery of one sensor that we had failed to reach in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009, but in 2012 we finally got the instrument and 9-years of very good data. Batteries and computers inside were still running and recording. I have never seen as clean and as long a time series.

Results from a 2003-12 tide record shows as power spectra with named tidal constituents at diurnal (~24 hours) and semi-diurnal (~12 hours) periods. The red line is a modeled red noise spectra (unpublished).

Results from a 2003-12 tide record shown as a power spectra with named tidal constituents at diurnal (~24 hours) and semi-diurnal (~12 hours) periods. Data are shown as the relative amplitudes of oscillations at frequencies in cycles per day or cpd. The red line is a modeled red noise spectra (unpublished).

From satellite data that we analyzed as part of this grant, we know when the ice moves and when it stops moving. The freeze-up of Nares Strait comes in one of three forms: 1. Ice stops moving in winter, because an ice barrier (ice arch or ice bridge) forms in the south that blocks all southward motion of ice; 2. only new and young ice moves southward, because an ice barrier forms in the north that blocks all entry of Arctic ice into Nares Strait; and 3. Arctic ice moves freely through Nares Strait, because no ice barriers are present. Our 2003-12 study period covers years for each of these different ice regimes. And each of these regimes leads to very different ocean (and ice) flux as a result of very different ocean physics.

Data alone cannot make definite statements on what will happen next with our climate, but we know much new physics. The physics suggest certain balances of forces and energy for which we have mathematical equations, but these equations must be solved on computers that can only approximate the true physics and mathematics. These computer models are our only way to make predictions ito the future. The data we here collected and our analyses provide useful checks on existing models and will guide improved models.

June-10, 2012 MODIS-Terra image showing location of moored array that was deployed in Aug. 2009 to be recovered in Aug. 2012.

June-10, 2012 MODIS-Terra image showing location of moored array that was deployed in Aug. 2009.

Johnson, H., Münchow, A., Falkner, K., & Melling, H. (2011). Ocean circulation and properties in Petermann Fjord, Greenland Journal of Geophysical Research, 116 (C1) DOI: 10.1029/2010JC006519

Münchow, A., Falkner, K., Melling, H., Rabe, B., & Johnson, H. (2011). Ocean Warming of Nares Strait Bottom Waters off Northwest Greenland, 2003–2009 Oceanography, 24 (3), 114-123 DOI: 10.5670/oceanog.2011.62

Münchow, A., Padman, L., & Fricker, H. (2014). Interannual changes of the floating ice shelf of Petermann Gletscher, North Greenland, from 2000 to 2012 Journal of Glaciology, 60 (221), 489-499 DOI: 10.3189/2014JoG13J135

Münchow, A., Falkner, K., & Melling, H. (2014). Baffin Island and West Greenland Current Systems in northern Baffin Bay Progress in Oceanography DOI: 10.1016/j.pocean.2014.04.001

Rabe, B., Johnson, H., Münchow, A., & Melling, H. (2012). Geostrophic ocean currents and freshwater fluxes across the Canadian polar shelf via Nares Strait Journal of Marine Research, 70 (4), 603-640 DOI: 10.1357/002224012805262725

Icebergs, Islands, and Instruments off Isle de France, North-East Greenland

Leaving all land behind when FS Polarstern sailed for Greenland almost 2
weeks ago, we saw land again for a few hours last Sunday. A small
ice-capped island called Isle de France was ahead of us. Solid ice was to
the west, Continue reading

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