Category Archives: Oceanography

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.

Figure1

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:

AlertDiscTemp

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 IcySeas.org 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:

Koni2002raw

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:

Koni2002Gade

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

https://experiment.com/projects/ocean-warming-under-a-greenland-glacier

Greenland Glacier Ocean Warming

The Swedish icebreaker Oden will visit Petermann Fjord in northern Greenland in 6 months time. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) funded a large geophysical and geological experiment after excruciating peer-review over a 4-year period. The experiment shall reveal climate histories from sediment cores, geomagnetics, and both bottom and sub-bottom sonar profiling. Besides this main mission Oden also supports several smaller auxiliary projects some of which are funded by NSF while others are not. It will be a fine collaboration between Swedish and American scientists working together in perhaps one of the most difficult to reach and beautiful places on earth.

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 towards the south-east across Petermann Fjord with Petermann Gletscher to the left (east). [Photo Credit: Erin Clarke, Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

I will aboard the ship to deploy sensors some of which exist and are funded while others are neither. Let me outline first the funded part and then part where you the reader and I can perhaps join forces. First, we will test first elements of an underwater acoustic communication system. Think cell-phones, except the phone towers are under water where they are called modes. The modems talk to each other by sending sound back and forth the same way that whales do talk to each other.

Here is a narwhals sound

that you can use as a ringtone, credit goes to Voices of the Sea web-site at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. These whales visit Petermann Fjord in summer and we saw many of them frolicking in August of 2012 when I visited the area with the Canadian Coast Guard whom I credit for these photos:

Our man-made sound is very quiet, but because it is quiet, it only moves 3-10 km through the water. To increase our range, we plan to install several quiet sound sources that whisper from one water-phone (=hydrophone) to the next. The goal is to get data from ocean sensors moved along this whispering system of underwater “cell phones” to reach a listening station that we plan to install at the edge of Petermann Gletscher’s floating ice shelf. The ice is 200 meters or 600 feet thick and it is not trivial to drill through that much ice, but it can be done, and the British Antarctic Survey is aboard with a team of experts to do so to get sediment cores from the bottom below the ice:

Makinson1993-Fig04

Today I ordered a first cable that will connect the underwater modem hanging under the 200-m thick ice to the surface where a fancy computer connects it to the internet via to a satellite phone. All data calls that the underwater listening station receives will move up the cable to the glacier surface and on to us all via the internet. This challenging engineering project is funded, but I like to use the same hole, computer, and satellite link to get additional ocean and air data.

Additional stations will be drilled through the ice-shelf farther inland to reach the ocean also. Here we also need cables and instruments that tells us how the glacier is melted by the ocean at different location along its 50 km long floating ice shelf. The incremental costs are small relative to the cost of getting a ship and helicopters there, but NSF cannot easily fund small projects rapidly. It takes a long time to pass scientific peer review. This is where you, my dear reader come in: I need your help to raise $10,000 to add science and observations to an engineering feasibility study that is the underwater whispering sound system.

The motivation and details are described with videos, pictures, laboratory notes, plots, ideas, as well as some short, quirky, yet technically correct descriptions at the crowd-funding site

https://experiment.com/projects/ocean-warming-under-a-greenland-glacier.

I created and launched it today, it will be up for 30 more days. If you can and if you like the science, work, and fun that I describe on these pages, please consider making a small donation. You have the power to make this happen and I will share all data both from below and above the ocean and glacier surface with you.

As a physicist, gardener, teacher, writer, traveler, ping-pong player, and geocacher I am naturally curious about both our natural and social world. I love experiments and to me the crowd-funding at Experiment.com is a most enjoying experiment to connect to people in a new way. Full disclosure, however, this company takes 8% of all funds generated to supports its wonderful software and staff. Perhaps you like to join this experiment by spreading the word and, if you can afford it, help pay for some of the technology needed to bring Greenland and its mysteries to everyone who wants to connect to it.

Changing Weather, Climate, and Drifting Arctic Ocean Sensors

Three people died in Buffalo, New York yesterday shoveling snow that arrived from the Arctic north. The snow was caused by a southward swing of air from the polar vortex that is all wobbly with large meanders extending far south over eastern North-America where I live. Physics deep below the thinly ice-covered Arctic Ocean hold a key on why we experience the Arctic cold from 2000 km north and not the Atlantic warmth from 100 km east.

A wobbly jet stream that separates cold Arctic air from warmer mid-latitude air. Note the strong gradients over eastern North America. [From wxmaps.org]

A wobbly jet stream on Nov.-19, 2014 that separates cold Arctic air from warmer mid-latitude air. Note the strong differences over eastern North America and how balmy Europe, Russia, and Alaska are. [From wxmaps.org]

The Arctic Ocean holds so much heat that it can melt all the ice within days. The heat arrives from the Atlantic Ocean that moves warm water along northern Norway and western Spitsbergen where the ocean is ice-free despite freezing air temperatures even during the months of total darkness during the polar night. As this heat moves counter-clockwise around the Arctic Ocean to the north of Siberia and Alaska, it subducts, that is, it is covered by cold water that floats above the warm Atlantic water.

North-Atlantic Drift Current turning into the Norwegian Current that brigs warm Atlantic waters into the Arctic Ocean to the north of Norway and Spitsbergen. [Credits: Ruther Curry of WHOI and Cecilie Mauritzen of Norwegian] Meteorological Institute]

North-Atlantic Drift Current turning into the Norwegian Current that brigs warm Atlantic waters into the Arctic Ocean to the north of Norway and Spitsbergen. [Credits: Ruther Curry of WHOI and Cecilie Mauritzen of Norwegian] Meteorological Institute]

But wait a minute, how can this be? We all learn in school that warm air rises because it is less dense. We all know that oil floats on water, because it is less dense. Well, the warm Atlantic water is also salty, very salty, while the colder waters that cover it up are fresher, because many larger Siberian rivers enter the Arctic Ocean, ice melted the previous summer, and fresher Pacific waters enter also via Bering Strait. So, the saltier and more dense Atlantic water sinks below the surface and a colder fresher layer of water above it acts as a insolation blanket that limits the amount of ocean heat in contact with the ice above. Without this blanket, there would be no ice in the Arctic Ocean and the climate everywhere on earth would change because the ocean circulation would change also in an ice-free Arctic Ocean, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

A single profile of temperature and salinity from an ice-tethered profile (ITP-74) off Siberia in July 2014. Note the warm Atlantic water below 150 meter depth.

A single profile of temperature and salinity from an ice-tethered profile (ITP-74) off Siberia in July 2014. Note the warm Atlantic water below 150 meter depth.

Some wonderful and new science and engineering gives us a new instant perspective on how temperature and salinity change over the top 700 meters of the Arctic Ocean every 6 hours. Scientists and engineers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution with much support from American tax-payers keep up many buoys that float with the ice, measure the oceans below, and send data back via satellites overhead to be posted for all to see on the internet. Over the last 10 years these buoys provide in stunning detail how the Arctic Ocean has changed at some locations and has been the same at other locations. I used these data in an experimental class for both undergraduate and graduate students to supplement often dry lecture material with more lively and noisy workshops where both I and the students learn in new ways as the data are new … every day.

For well over 50 years the Soviet Union maintained stations on drifting Arctic sea ice that stopped when its empire fell apart in 1991. Russia restarted this program in 2003, but unlike the US-funded automated buoys, the Russian-funded manned stations do not share their data openly. No climate change here …