Tag Archives: Greenland

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.

Sun Set in Nares Strait, Greenland

The sun bathed the southern reaches of Nares Strait in light again after four months of total darkness of the polar night. It is still cold, about -30 degrees centigrade, but the long shadows cast by mountains, hills, and even icebergs from Humbold Glacier are a feast for my eyes:

Kane Basin with Humbold Glacier, Greenland in the east, Ellesmere Island, Canada in the west as well as Smith Sound in the south, and Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait in the north. The visible image was taken Mar.-2, 2015 at 17:30 UTC by MODIS Terra.

Kane Basin with Humbold Glacier, Greenland in the east, Ellesmere Island, Canada in the west as well as Smith Sound in the south, and Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait in the north. The visible image was taken Mar.-2, 2015 at 17:30 UTC by MODIS Terra.

The sun dipped above the southern horizon just for a few hours. The light reflected by the ice and snow of North Greenland was captured by a satellite overhead. From these data I constructed the above image with the axes in km. The frame is big enough to fit both Denmark and Massachusetts into it. The image shows the southern entrance to Nares Strait with its prominent ice arch and the “North Water” polynya in the south. You can “see” individual ice floes in this image as well as rows of sea smoke over the thin ice of the polynya that are all resolved at the 250-m pixel size. Petermann is still dark and not shown, but give it a week, and we’ll get sun there also.

I will be watching this ice arch closely, because together with a group of 50 international scientists I am scheduled to sail these icy waters aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden this summer for a multitude of experiments to take place in Petermann Fjord with data sampling of adjacent ice, ocean, and land. As a group we will try to reconstruct climate and its physical processes that impact change from tidal to glacial cycles.

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.


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:


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:


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:


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


First sensors for future Petermann Gletscher Observatory, Greenland

Two ocean sensors arrived from Germany where I used them last in an experiment off the coast of Greenland last year. I bought them in 2002 and they have been in Arctic waters most of the time where they measure ocean temperature and conductivity very accurately a few times every second. Conductivity of seawater is what oceanographers measure when they want to talk about salinity and Arctic oceanographers must know salinity if they want to talk about ocean density. Water from cold melting ice and glaciers is less dense (because it is fresh) than the warm and salty water from the Atlantic Ocean that does the melting. You need heat to melt ice, but the heat that melts Greenland from below by the ocean comes from the Atlantic. The heat is at depth 200-400 meters deep, because of salt in the water that makes it dense and sink.

Oceanography and physics are fun, but here are the photos of what I work with over the weekend at home … maybe in my garden, too, to practice for the Arctic deployment, you may even watch me do it on the web-cam in my garden pointing towards the heated bird-bath. Geeks at play, science is fun:

Two SBE37sm with one set of 12 lithium batteries.

Two SBE37sm with one set of 12 lithium batteries.

The housing of these two instruments are rated for 7,000-m depth, I will have to install the lithium batteries ($4.80 for a single AA battery); each instrument needs 12 of those. Since 2003 we deployed a number of these in the Arctic where they collected data for over 3 years every 15 minutes. One of my students, Berit Rabe now works in Scotland and her dissertation and peer-reviewed publication was based on data from a single 2003-06 deployment of about 20 such instruments.

SBE37sm connect via RS-232 cable to the serial port of an old Dell computer.

SBE37sm connect via RS-232 cable to the serial port of an old Dell computer.

The instruments connect via a serial cable to the computers. In the past I had problems with instruments bought 12 years ago, because computers develop faster than oceanographic instrumentation. So, new is not always better, so I bought an old Dell Windows XP machine on e-Bay for $200 (actually I bought 2) to make sure that my sensors match software, CPU, and operating systems of the time that the instruments were bought. In order to “talk” to the sensors, I will need to put the lithium batteries into them. I am very much looking forward to do this over the weekend.

To be continued …

Note: This is a lab-note from my crowd-funding experiment at https://experiment.com/projects/ocean-warming-under-a-greenland-glacier.