Category Archives: Oceanography

Taking the Pulse of Petermann Gletscher

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

23-August-2015 at 80:57.3 N 061:27.1 W

(note correction below)

I just may have made a discovery that I cannot share with anyone on the ship right now. The giant mass of ice that is Petermann Gletscher just slowed down moving only 1 meter per day for the last 3 days rather than the 3 meters per day that it usually does and that has been reported in the scientific literature. This measurement comes from the newly deployed University of Delaware weather station that also contains a not-so-fancy $300 Garmin GPS as well as 5 ocean sensors that measure temperature and salinity about 95-m, 115-m, 300-m, 400-m, and 810-m below the surface of the floating and moving ice.

Time Series of Glacier Drift

Time Series of Glacier Drift (correction appears below)

As the glacier puts on the breaks, I also see a rather dramatic increase in ocean temperature from -0.6 to -0.35 degrees Celsius within about 10-m of the ice-ocean interface. The saltiness of the ocean also increased from below 34.1 to above 34.2 practical salinity units that you can think of as grams of salt per kilogram of water, roughly. Only 20 m below in the water column, the opposite is happening: The water there cools a little bit and becomes fresher. This suggests some mixing as the salinity differences become smaller and heat from the lower layer moves up towards the ice. Some force must be applied to the fluid to do this. Recall that a force is mass times acceleration. The force of a mosquito splashing on the wind shield of your car is small, because the mass of the mosquito is small even though its acceleration (from zero to the speed of your car) is large. Now imaging this glacier: Its mass is enormous, so you only need to change its velocity a tiny amount, from 3 to 1 meter per day, say, to generate a massive amount of force.

Photo of helicopter deck with Belgrave (left) and Petermann (right) Glaciers in back Aug.-23, 2015; view is to the north-east.

Photo of helicopter deck with Belgrave (left) and Petermann (right) Glaciers in back Aug.-23, 2015; view is to the north-east.

As I look outside my cabin window right now, I see the terminus of Petermann sitting there innocently not appearing to do much, but it is literally changing the face of the earth as it moves fast, slows down, moves some more, and over 1000s of years cut a very deep fjord and perhaps canyon deep into the mountains and even deeper into the sea floor. The helicopters are whizzing overhead right now returning all the gear that was needed to drill through 100s of meters of hard glacier ice to provide access holes to both ocean and sediments that has been in total darkness for many 100s of years.

Photo of helicopter delivering cargo from the finished ice camp back to the ship on 23 Aug. 2015.

Photo of helicopter delivering cargo from the finished ice camp back to the ship on 23 Aug. 2015.

Still, there is life down there, lots of it Anne Jennings, who closely looks at the sediment cores, tells me. We speculate that the life is supported by vigorous ocean flow that connects the open fjord with the glacier covered deep ocean. Food stuff like plankton may move some distance under the floating glacier to support a population of other critters that I know nothing about. No narwhals this year so far, though.

So why I am writing this up here rather than share it with people on the ship? Well, this is Sunday morning and there was much to celebrate last night when the ice drilling team returned after 2 weeks camping on the ice and collecting data from their three drill holes. Furthermore, the the ocean weather station reported for the first time in over 2 days uploading all the data I show above. This happened well past midnight and several of us discussed the data and future plans in the cafeteria until 1:30 am. So the people not working right now are all sleeping (10:30 am here) as we probably will work through the night to map the Atlantic waters flowing into the fjord at its sill towards Nares Strait …  which we have not yet done over the 3 weeks we have been in the area. I probably also should help with unloading the helicopters or getting the Chief Scientist Alan the data files he needs to catalogue the water samples we collected last night. Work on Oden never stops … as there is so much to do as we are barely scratching the surface or bottom of the ocean here. [Incoming helicopter, 4th one since I wrote these lines too fast, perhaps.]

Screenshot of a successful RS-232 serial connection from ship to ocean weather station on Petermann Gletscher and ocean sensors deployed 810 m below the glacier’s ice surface with active real time data transmissions. This session uploaded new codes to the secondary data logger to activates its secondary back-up memory.

Screenshot of a successful RS-232 serial connection from ship to ocean weather station on Petermann Gletscher and ocean sensors deployed 810 m below the glacier’s ice surface with active real time data transmissions. This session uploaded new codes to the secondary data logger to activates its secondary back-up memory.

Correction:

Petermann Gletscher did slow down the last few days by about 10% as measured by the GPS at the UDel ocean-weather station. The suggested slow-down to 300 meters per year, however, is false, because I did not properly take into account how the station was moved by 30 meters to the south-west. The correct and updated estimate is the figure below. Please discard the the above figure erroneous.

Sorry for the confusion … more data coming from this station will place the short term change in glacier speeds into a larger context. Furthermore, the present “cheap” GPS system will need to be verified by a set of three “fancy” differential UNAVCO GPS that were recovered today, but we have not yet decoded the data contained on those units.

Back to CTD profiling the water properties across the sill at the entrance to Petermann Fjord that we will have to complete by 3 am or in about 6 hours.

Time Series of Glacier Drift (Corrected)

Time Series of Glacier Drift (Corrected)

Petermann Glacier Tidal Heaving

Some glaciers float on the ocean around Antarctica and Greenland. Petermann Gletscher in North Greenland is one of these. It spawned massive Manhattan-sized ice islands in 2010 and 2012. Could tides influence when and where such break-ups occur? After all, the tides under the floating glacier move the ice up and down. But how does a 50 km long, 15 km wide, and 300 m thick floating glacier pivots about its “hinge?” Does it do so like a rigid plate of steel or does it bend and buckle like jelly? I do not know, because nobody has measured the tidal motions of Petermann’s floating ice. So, one of many projects this summer will be to measure tides on Petermann with fancy GPS systems.

Shape of the floating part of Petermann Gletscher (right panel) drom laser altimeters along two tracks flown along the glacier in 2014 (left panel).

Shape of the floating portion of Petermann Gletscher from laser altimeters (right panel) along two tracks flown along the glacier in May of 2014 (left panel).

Martin Jakobsson of Stockholm University posed these questions, sort of, when he asked us American oceanographers, if we had any fancy GPS units to work with one he plans to put high on a cliff overlooking Petermann Fjord. He needs exact positions to map the bottom of the ocean. The cliff-GPS station is fixed while he moves about in a small boat that also has a GPS. Taking the difference of the raw travel times received by the cliff-GPS and the boat-GPS, he can reduce GPS position errors from several meters to several centimeters. People call this differential GPS and he wondered if we oceanographers had any use of it to perhaps give him the tidal corrections he also needs as the measures bottom depths from a boat. Well, this was not initially part of our plan and we did not get funded to study the glacier or the tides under it, but his question got me thinking while Alan Mix of Oregon State University did some organizing. One always squeezes extra science into such great opportunities. Discoveries lurk everywhere to inquiring minds.

Small survey boat loaded onto I/B Oden in Landskrona, Sweden, June 2015.

Small survey boat loaded onto I/B Oden in Landskrona, Sweden, June 2015.

Alan managed to find not one, not two, but three fancy GPS units from an organization that I had never heart of. It is called UNAVCO:

UNAVCO, a non-profit university-governed consortium, facilitates geoscience research and education using geodesy. We challenge ourselves to transform human understanding of the changing Earth by enabling the integration of innovative technologies, open geodetic observations, and research, from pole to pole.

“Geodetic observations” are measurements of locations on the earth’s surface. In the old days surveyors walked about with sextant, clocks, tripods, and optical devices to fix a location and reference it to another. Nowadays satellites and lasers do this faster, but I digress. Suffice it to say, UNAVCO is giving us 3 fancy GPS system to carry with us to Petermann Gletscher to make measurements of tides on the ice. So we can pick 3 locations on the ice where we leave these GPS for the 3-4 weeks next month. I have never done this before, so there will be lots of new learning.

Navigation during early Arctic exploration. Photo taken during a visit of the Peary MacMillan Arctic Museeum at Bowdoin University in Brunswick, Maine.

Navigation during early Arctic exploration. Photo taken during a visit of the Peary MacMillan Arctic Museeum at Bowdoin University in Brunswick, Maine.

I have worked with tides since plunging my head into tidal mud-flats of north-west Germany where I grew up and camping on the shores of the Conwy Estuary in North-Wales where I collected data for my MS thesis. Below I show a 4 week record from three locations in Nares Strait where the tidal elevations range from more than 4 meters at the southern entrance to less than 2 meters in Hall Basin next to Petermann Fjord. The data are from bottom pressure sensors that were deployed for 3-9 years, but I here only want to show the spring-neap cycle. So we already have some idea on how the tides in the ocean next to Petermann Glacier behave.

Sea level fluctuations in meters for 28 days at Discovery Harbor or Fort Conger, Canada near 81.7 N latitude (top), Alexandra Fjord, Canada near 78.9 N latitude (middle), and Foulke Fjord, Greenland near 78.3 N latitude (bottom).

Sea level fluctuations in meters for 28 days at Discovery Harbor or Fort Conger, Canada near 81.7 N latitude (top), Alexandra Fjord, Canada near 78.9 N latiude (middle), and Foulke Fjord, Greenland near 78.3 N latitude (bottom).

Models of tides in Nares Straits do really well if, and only if, the bottom topography is known. And this is where Martin’s mapping of the ocean floor in Petermann Fjord and our tidal observations on the floating glacier come together: We both need good bottom topography, we both use fancy GPS, and we both need to know tides to get accurate bottom depths and we need to know bottom depths to predict tides.

Oceanography of Nares Strait Ice Flushing

I need the ice out of Nares Strait, a 20 mile wide and 300 miles long pathway to the North Pole between northern Canada and Greenland. The ice blocks our way to Petermann Fjord where a large glacier pushes thick ice out so sea as a floating ice shelf. We plan to drill through the floating section of the glacier that is about as thick as the Empire State Building is high. The ship to get us there is the Swedish icebreaker Oden (Location Map). She is passing the Faroe Islands to the north-west of Scotland and will arrive in 2 weeks at Thule Air Force Base where we will meet her.

Image of northern Greenland (top right) and Ellesmere Island (center) showing open water as black, land as gray, and sea ice as gray/white. The two red dots are Thule Air Force Base in the south and Petermann Glacier in the north. Note the bands of black water along the coast of Ellesmere Island that result from east to west blowing winds that move ice offshore.

Image of northern Greenland (top right) and Ellesmere Island (center) showing open water as black, land as gray, and sea ice as gray/white. The two red dots are Thule Air Force Base in the south and Petermann Glacier in the north. Note the bands of black water along the coast of Ellesmere Island that result from east to west blowing winds that move ice offshore and reduce the southward flow in Nares Strait.

The voyage from Thule to Petermann usually takes about 2-3 days, but if the sea ice does not flush out with the generally southward currents, then it may take a week or two wrecking havoc to our busy science schedule. So, why is the ice still lingering in Nares Strait this year?

Nares Strait ice cover in July of 2015 (left), 2014 (center), and 2013 (right) from MODIS Terra.

Nares Strait ice cover in July of 2015 (left), 2014 (center), and 2013 (right) from MODIS Terra.

There are three parts to the answer: First, a sturdy ice arch at the southern entrance of Nares Strait has to break. It has done so only last week. Second, a strong and perhaps oscillating flow has to thoroughly collapse the large pieces of ice at a narrow choke point that is Smith Sound. This has not happened yet. And third, a persistent flow to the south has to flush out ice into Baffin Bay to the south faster than it enters from the Arctic Ocean in the north. This flow is much weaker at the moment than is normal, because winds in the Arctic Ocean have been from east to west right now. These winds moved water (and ice) offshore to the north, so sealevel along northern Greenland and Canada drops. We can see this in today’s satellite imagery as prominent black bands of open water along the coast of northern Canada.

Lets take a closer look of this same image and zoom in on the southern part of Nares Strait as it looked this morning.

Collapsing ice arch at the southern entrance to Nares Strait on 13 July 2015 from MODIS AQUA.

Collapsing ice arch at the southern entrance to Nares Strait on 13 July 2015 from MODIS AQUA.

What used to be a solid frozen mass of ice along the Greenland coast (bottom right) has become a broken and loose mass of smaller ice floes. The larger blocks farther from the coast are now sliding southward as the loose ice along the coast reduces friction or lubricates the edges. The sides lose their grip on the ice and the entire construction fails and collapses. A most beautiful video on the stability of arches is posted by Open University here about lines of action or thrust.

All we now need for the ice to flush out of Nares Strait is a weakening or reversal of the winds at the other northern entrances to Nares Strait. Much of the generally southward flow is caused by the ocean’s surface being higher in the north than it is in the south. There are details that I am skipping, but basically much of the flow rolls downhill like a ball. And with the winds up north being from east to west, there is not much of a hill that the water can flow down, so we got somewhat stagnant waters. I have actually measured the height of this “hill of water” many times over the many years with ocean sensors that measure how much water is above them. This figure summarizes 3 years of data collected every 3 hours or so

Graph showing how water flow (called “volume flux”) varies with the steepness of the hill (called “pressure gradient”). The “hill” is at most 10 centimeters or 3 inches) high. [Adapted from Muenchow, 2015]

Now there is more to the “hill” story that is modified near the surface by the earth’s rotation in a fluid that has different densities at different depths. In a nutshell, the surface flow is 2-3 times as strong as the depth averaged flow. Furthermore, the surface flow on the Canadian side of Nares Strait is often twice as strong as that closer to Greenland, but all these spatial variations in flow actually help to smash large pieces of ice by moving and rotating them different sides of the same large piece of ice differently.

So, lets all hope that we get a few days of strong winds from the north flowing south, that should clear Nares Strait quickly before Oden arrives there in 2 weeks time. Those winds from the north not only flush out ice from Nares Strait, they also keep it nicely on one, the Canadian side. Earth rotation does wonderful and magical things to fluids such as water and air.

Muenchow, A, 2015: Volume and freshwater flux observations from Nares Strait to the west of Greenland at daily time scales from 2003 to 2009. J. Phys. Oceanogr., re-submitted July 2015, .pdf

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

Sweden’s Icebreaker for Petermann Gletscher 2015

Sweden’s icebreaker I/B Oden will sail for Greenland this summer to pick up about 50 scientists to work the ice, land, water, and glaciers of north-west Greenland with Petermann Gletscher as its focus. I will be working with Celine Heuze of Gothenburg University, Jari Kruetsfeldt of Stockholm Technical University, and Christina, a Swedish High School teacher. Together we are responsible to run the water sampling and ocean sensing.

We met 3 weeks ago on the ship in Landskrona, Sweden where we loaded all our boxes filled with computers, electronics, bottles, rubber hoses, and some more computers. We also met the ship’s crew and a larger group of scientists and engineers from Oregon State University in the US, Gothenburg and Stockholm Universities in Sweden, and the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat that runs the ship. For 3 days we worked, ate, slept (somewhat), and worked some more to get ourselves and our equipment unpacked and organized.

There is nothing romantic about working in an industrial area lugging boxes and stuff up and down stairs from back to front and back again. Despite all the cranes, winches, fork lifts, A-frames, and other tools, it is still back-breaking labor as much is still carried to and fro by hand while watching for heavy loads overhead, sharp corners below, and tight corners to maneuver around. Hard-hats and steel-toed boots are NOT optional. The only positive here is that shared pain brings people together to lower the pain via teamwork.

While most people seem fresh and happy, this wears off after 3 days of intense work not captured in photos. Sleep deprivation sets in as everyone tries to cram too much work into the 24 hours available. And yet, it is during these short and intense work periods, that new friendships and scientific collaborations emerge quickly even though people do not always look their best.

As an example, here is me as a zombie after about 4 nights with little sleep

As always, I try too much as I perform my duties on the water sampling and ocean sensing during the day and fight a nasty Iridium satellite communication problem  at night.  At the University of Delaware we designed, assembled, and shipped off to Sweden an air and ocean weather station to be deployed above and below the floating tongue of Petermann Gletscher. There was no time for testing as all gear to deployed on Petermann Gletscher in August had to be in Landskrona in May.

Despite the looks, I was ecstatic on the inside, because I had just solved a crucial sub-problem when an e-mail reached me that a small NASA grant was coming my way to actually pay for the science that I hope to do during this summer. This, however, is another story for another day.