Tag Archives: Greenland

Men and Women on the Edge 1

EDIT: Original post was too long and rambling. One advice by wise female council, I decided to turn this into two separate posts. This is the first. July 5, 2014.

The “Quiet American” is not a popular book in the United States of America, but to me it described the dilemma and dangers of being American very well. The book by Graham Greene can be read as a simple love triangle between an old and corrupt French colonial officer of Indochina. His mistress is a young Vietnamese girl. She is delicate and beautiful, but also full of youth and potential who is eager to please her masters whom she shapes subconsciously. This relation becomes a volatile triangle when a young and innocent American enters full of good intentions. He falls in love with Indochina, sets out to free it from all the shackles of a corrupt past, but being ignorant and well-educated, his actions destroy all corners of the triangle in an unintended violent crescendo of people who follow their emotions that nobody can control once the equilibrium is disturbed.

The_Quiet_American

About 10 years after Graham Greene wrote his book, a friend of mine, Ron, served as a 20-year old as the door machine gunner with the First US cavalry. He does not talk much about his time with this Army helicopter unit that was fighting hard in Vietnam along many honorable Vietnamese most of whom, he says, vanished. Ron credits the war in Vietnam to have saved his life as it provided him a way out of the gang-infested poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles that he grew up in. The Army also provided him with an education and element of temporary stability that gave him one basic element for a somewhat crazy but happy life. He did not go to Vietnam with intentions to change the world, and he did not, but he came back with an education more profound and deeply human than any arm-chair writer or sailor could ever wish for.

Ron’s education is not as formal as that of almost everyone aboard FS Polarstern a German research icebreaker where I spent my last 5 weeks working off Greenland, but Ron’s mechanical skill, common sense, and independent spirit matches several people aboard who have not had the privilege or luck to go to university, graduate school, and all that follows. Nevertheless, Ron, Jo, and many like them do know and care deeply about nature and people and how to make things work that are difficult to penetrate for most academics. Great new things happen, however, when the formal and the informal, the male and the female, the pacifist and the warrior come together with respect and humility to listen to each other without blowing screens of smoke into each other’s faces.

Sunset over the North Sea heading to north-east Greenland.

Sunset over the North Sea heading to north-east Greenland.

And a happy 238th Birthday to my adopted country on this 4th of July.

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

Andreas Muenchow

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, open water to the east, and Greenland proper appeared just
faintly above the western horizon. We arrived at 5 am in the morning, but
the northern summer light changes more with the clouds, absent this day,
than it does as day becomes night. We are more than 1000 km to the north
of the Arctic Circle and about half-way between Bremerhaven and the North
Pole.

Image

Image

Waiting for the mooring work to begin, we sailed along a row of large
and grounded tabular icebergs and ice islands that appeared strung out
like pearls on a line where the ocean’s water was about 100 meters deep.
Sea- and ice-scape looked the same eons ago when massive ice-sheets
covered much of northern Europe and North-America before people invented
agriculture and turned from nomadic hunters and gatherers to settled
farmers and peasants. And while everyone awake admired Greenland’s beauty
and serenity that Sunday morning, I had only one thought: Here go my
moorings.
Image

The ship paused for a few hours to wait for me and Jonathan to ready
instruments that we needed to placed on the ocean floor. They are
designed to measure ocean currents for the next 2-3 years and will give
us better ideas on how ocean heat and currents melt
Greenland’s glaciers from below. We already had deployed four such
instruments the day before out of sight of land and icebergs. Now we were off Isle de France to complete our shelf mooring program with 3
instruments placed across the south-western slope of Norske Ore Trough.

ModisMoorBath

This ‘trough” is really a broad and deep submarine valley that connects
the deep Fram Strait 150 km to the east to Greenland’s largest glaciers
100 km in the West and North. The valley may act as a pathway, so we
think, to move warm ocean waters from Fram Strait near the bottom across
the broad and confused continental shelf of Greenland. It is coastal oceanography that we do, but the heat that our coastal flows
transport towards the glaciers does impact a changing climate that
changes land, sea, and icescape both here around Greenland and
elsewhere as ocean sea level rises when ice on land becomes ice on water
and eventually water in the ocean.

As fast-flowing floating glaciers disappear, such as Zachariae Isstrom did
the last 10 years, the ice-sheet behind them on land often accelerates and
thins because ice-shelves attached to glaciers act a little like a cork
does to a bottle of Champagne. The bubbly inside exerts a high pressure
against the cork separating the Champagne from the lower pressure outside,
especially if shaken. If you loose the cork or remove it explosively, then
the bubbly will spill out quickly. The friction of an ice-shelf may have
retarded the advancement of the ice-sheet behind in a subtle balance of
forces. Now, as the ice shelf is removed, a new
balance of forces will have to establish itself. The transition from one
to another stable state usually occurs via accelerations: The glacier
speeds up, stretches, and as it stretches, it thins and may allow the sea
water to advance deeper shoreward to melt more ice that was before not
in contact with the ocean. It is a positive feedback and the potential
exists, that the glacier keeps retreating faster as a result. Both
Jacobshavn Glacier in South-West Greenland and Pine Island Glacier in
Antarctica do this now.

Image

But I digress and want to return to Isle de France with its pearl string
of tabular icebergs within about 5 km off our first moorings. At 170
meters below the surface a strike by one of these stunning mountains and
islands of hard ice will perhaps wipe out a mooring, but perhaps the
goddess of the sea will steer the perhaps 50,000 year old towers of ice into shallow
water where they will ground for a few years. Either way, I will be
watching these icy islands from afar for the next few years in what
becomes a most exciting and pleasurable puzzle with many pieces. Some may
fit and some may be missing. Perhaps the best we can hope for is
a sketch or an outline. Control of nature is vanity, we are merely
temporary sailors on a mighty ocean with ice that will last longer than
either us or whatever sensor we may place in her ways.

posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

First steps to Greenland

I am on my way to northern Greenland and just arrived badly time-lagged in Diez near Frankfurt from Philadelphia. Together with fellow scientists and technicians from Germany, Poland, and Canada, I hope to board Germany’s research icebreaker FS Polarstern early next week in Bremerhaven. Her departure has been delayed by two weeks for engine troubles that needed repairs beyond routine maintenance after she returned from Antarctica last month. She is the most heavily used science ice-breaker and spends more than 300 days at sea every year.

R/V Polarstern in Arctic ice 2008. [Credit: Alfred-Wegener-Institute,  Bremerhaven]

R/V Polarstern in Arctic ice 2008. [Credit: Alfred-Wegener-Institute, Bremerhaven]

We hope to deploy instruments to measure ocean currents that transport heat to melt Greenland’s glaciers, but more on that elsewhere. This work is facilitated mostly by Germany’s Alfred-Wegener-Institute and limited funds from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The mooring program on the continental shelf off Greenland near 79 degrees North latitude is a pilot experiment. It is one small part of a range of science missions in biological, chemical, and physical oceanography that will all take place within a more compressed schedule because the loss of almost 10 science days. Stuff happens.

For an experiment like this to take place, lots of stuff has to happen “right.” After sketching out a first science idea at a small meeting in rural Maine in May 2013, a formal research proposal and budget was written, submitted, reviewed, and approved with the added challenges of the U.S. government shut-down in October 2013. Then about 7000 pounds of equipment in British Columbia had to be prepared, packed, documented, and shipped via truck, ferry, train across Canada to Montreal to then be sailed via a huge container ship, the “Montreal Express,” to Hamburg and by truck under “custom’s seal” to Bremerhaven, Germany. If this sounds complicated, it was.

Luckily, I had an awesome Canadian broker, Julia Hooper of Internet Freight Services who handled all shipping and custom issues fast and professionally with the logistics and custom’s experts at the Alfred-Wegener-Institute. [Thank ye Nina, Klaus, and Mathias.]

Hapag Loyd's Montreal Express sailing between Montreal, Canada and Hamburg, Germany [Photo Credit: MarineTraffic.com

Hapag Loyd’s Montreal Express sailing between Montreal, Canada and Hamburg, Germany [Photo Credit: MarineTraffic.com

Oh, we also had an exceptionally cold winter along eastern North-America with heavy ice in the Strait Lawrence Waterway in Canada that wrecked havoc to Trans-Atlantic shipping schedules between Canadian and European ports. Our load of equipment was scheduled to arrive March 20 with ample time to meet the April 1 deadline, but it only got to Bremerhaven April 10. Two of our eleven crates arrived broken … and I do not yet know if any critical instrumentation was damaged. This is why I like to get to the ship as early as possible.

Further potential complications ahead: My mooring technician is now in Resolute, Nunavut pop. 229 as part of another Arctic experiment. He tries to deploy a mooring using a small plane that can land on sea ice. This work depends on good weather, ice, and superior pilot skills. The technician will have to leave saturday to join me in Germany monday, but this is tricky, because the small airport of Resolute has only one departure at 6:30 am six days per week. Bad weather often leads to delayed and canceled flights, I once was stuck in Resolute for a week in August because of excessive snow drifts in 1997. In 2011 the regular small plane crashed and killed all but three of the 15 passengers aboard. They included Marty Bergman, a friend and fellow sailor of Arctic waters.

Reading Arctic travel logs and scientific reports alike, it is all too easy to forget the large number of people and circumstances that make “stuff happen.” For me, it is nerve-wrecking as hundreds of things have to go right, but just one oversight, one wrong shackle, one forgotten anode, one wrong computer command, one missed connection … and all earlier efforts go down the drain. Please wish us luck, I know we can use it.

P.S.: Right now I am staying with my brother near Frankfurt typing these lines from this lovely garden he keeps –

Burkhard-Garten2014

North Greenland Glacier Ice-Ocean Interactions 2014

I will travel to Spitsbergen in six weeks to board the German research icebreaker Polarstern. She will sail west across the Fram Strait towards northern Greenland where some of the last remaining glaciers exist that still discharge their ice via extensive floating ice-shelves. If all goes well, we will deploy instruments on the bottom of the ocean across a 30 km wide submarine canyon (Norske Ore Trough). The instruments profile ocean velocities from the bottom to the surface of the canyon that connects the deep (warm) ocean to the shallow continental shelf areas which then connect to two large outlet glaciers, Zachariae and 79N Glaciers. These are two of three glacier that terminate the North-East Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS) which contains about 15 per cent of Greenland’s ice sheet:

Speed of Greenland's ice sheet movements. NE indicates the fast-moving (red) North-East Greenland Ice Stream with 3 branches connecting it to the ocean. [From Mauri Pelto's blog]

Speed of Greenland’s ice sheet movements. NE indicates the fast moving (red) North-East Greenland Ice Stream with 3 branches connecting it to the ocean. [From Mauri Pelto's blog]

The most southern is Storstrommen Glacier, a tidewater glacier with an almost vertical glacial front attached to the bedrock. The next one up north is Zachariae Glacier which lost its extensive ice-shelf during the last 3 years in a dramatic collapse reported on Mari Pelto’s blog. Presumably, there is little floating ice-shelf left that is attached to the lacier. And only 30 km to the north, we have 79N Glacier whose real name is the Danish Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden. It rivals Petermann Gletscher in ice discharge, areal coverage, thickness, and more with one exception: Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden’s ice-shelf appears remarkabe stable, nobody knows why exactly, but it may provide clues on how Greenland’s ice sheet interacts with and responds to forcing by the oceans. I show a recent Landsat image taken from Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice Forum; the floating glacier is on the left (east) of the image with a set of 5-7 out-cropping islands towards the right (west) providing some pinning support for the ~30 km wide front of the glacier:

Landsat image of Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden on Mar.-22, 2014.

Landsat image of Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden on Mar.-22, 2014.

Our 2014 study area is actually to the east, just outside the frame of the above image. The reason is lack of ship time, as this year’s deployment is just a small pilot study to better prepare and understand a larger German-led experiment that will take place both on the glacier and its adjacent ocean and land in 2016 and, I hope, beyond. Furthermore, we are scheduled to be there in June, a tad early for all the sea ice to clear out of the area (79N Glacier MODIS summer imagery) which also explains my intense interest in how the ice develops. And a first fairly clear MODIS image came about yesterday morning:

Ice-covered coastal waters off northeast Greenland April 14, 2014. Red contour indicates 100-m water depth. The "horseshoe" shaped red island is Belgica Bank with Norske Oer Trough to its south-west.

Ice-covered coastal waters off northeast Greenland April 14, 2014. Red contour indicates 100-m water depth. The “horseshoe-shaped red island is Belgica Bank with Norske Oer Trough to its south-west.

Belgica Bank is about as big as the Georges Bank in the Gulf of Maine. In past decades rafted multi-year ice and tabular icebergs often grounded over shallow Belgica Bank and thus provided an anchor to maintain stability for a year-round land-fast ice cover called the Norske Oer Ice Barrier. This year-round land-fast ice area, however, disintegrated in 2003 and has become an intermittent and not a regular feature for unknown reasons.

Before I can get onto the German icebreaker in Spitsbergen, my 3500 kg of equipment had to be repaired, rebuilt, re-powered, and shipped from British Columbia to Germany via rail, ocean freighter, and truck. It all arrived in 86 pieces only last friday, two weeks behind schedule, because of ice and confused shipping schedules in the Canadian Gulf of St. Lawrence. Lots of great people in Canada, the USA, and Germany made it happen. Wish us luck for the next step in this exciting scientific exploration to reveal one of many of Greenland’s glacier and ocean mysteries.

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

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

Fram Strait Ice, Oil, and Glaciers

Tomorrow I fly to Germany to prepare for an ocean experiment in the shallow waters off northern Greenland. Together with oceanographers from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Germany, I hope to deploy 5 ocean current measuring devices on the bottom of the ocean for 2-3 years in Norske Oer Trough to the west of Belgica Bank inside the little black box to measure the ocean heat moving deep below the surface towards 79N Glacier, one of the last remaining glaciers of Greenland with an attached ice shelf floating atop the ocean:

Map of North Greenland with shallow (red/yellow) and deep (blue) oceans. Future study area are black boxes on the continental shelf of north-east Greenland.

Map of North Greenland with shallow (red/yellow) and deep (blue) oceans. Future study area are black boxes on the continental shelf of north-east Greenland. Small box is the area shown via MODIS imagery below.

Anotated MODIS images of 79N Glacier and Zachariae Icestream in September 2009 (left) and 2013 (right). Thick red line is 100-m depth with icebergs grounded on Belgica Bank often supporting extensive land-fast ice such as in 2009 but not 2013.

Anotated MODIS images of 79N Glacier and Zachariae Icestream in September 2009 (left) and 2013 (right). Thick red line is 100-m depth, thin red lines 200 and 300-m depth. Icebergs often ground on Belgica Bank (<100- deep) supporting extensive land-fast ice such as in 2009 but not 2013.

To do this, I need about 7000 pounds of equipment to get from western Canada to northern Greenland. All this stuff sits in the Port of Montreal (Canada) waiting for the freighter “Montreal Express” to ship it all to Hamburg and Bremerhaven to be loaded onto the R/V Polarstern, AWI’s research icebreaker. All ships are tracked via https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ in real time and, I just checked, she just left Hamburg for Montreal this morning.

The Arctic research community is tiny and I try my darnest to share data, news, and developments without breaking confidences. A good friend and colleague of mine, Prof. Preben Gudmandsen, lives and works in Denmark. He is as excited as am I about all things related to Greenland which includes the upcoming experiment(s) in Fram Strait. By training Preben is an electrical engineer and helped developed some of the first radars with which to probe Greenland’s ice-sheet. We visit and e-mail each other as often as our professional and private lives allow, but he just sent me these images of western Fram Strait off Greenland:

And on related matters, I discovered earlier this week that Norway’s StatOil has a license to explore this very shelf area for oil and gas exploration as explained in this official StatOil press release that also includes this map

Norway's StatOil lease area on the continental shelf off north-east Greenland from their Dec.-20, 2013 press release.

Norways StatOil lease area on the continental shelf off north-east Greenland just to the south-east of Belgica Bank, taken from their Dec.-20, 2013 press release.

I also learnt that they sponsored mooring deployments in 2012/13 and 2013/14 with the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. A 5-minute video of the cruise is posted at

There is much more to explore and think about here, but this will have to await a future blog when my mind is less cluttered by ship and travel schedules, paper and proposal writing, data and computer chasing, or just keeping a crazy life of working across 9 time zones together. Scientific life is good and fun, but exhausting and nerve-wrecking at times.

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

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