Tag Archives: Nares Strait

Formation of Nares Strait Ice Bridges in 2014

Darkness and cold covers North Greenland, Ellesmere Island as well as Nares Strait, the waterway that connects these two inhospitable places. And despite the darkness of the polar night, I can see that three beautiful arches made of ice connect Greenland to Canada. It is possible to walk across water, if the water is frozen. Stuck to land, ice arches or ice bridges shut down ice motion while the ocean under the ice keeps moving. Lets have a peek at how this looked from space yesterday:

Ice arches of Nares Strait on January 26, 2014 from MODIS thermal imagery.

Ice arches of Nares Strait on January 26, 2014 from MODIS thermal imagery. Surface temperatures in degrees Celsius are all below zero despite the missing “-” sign stripped by Adobe Illustrator.

The colors above show the temperature that satellite sensors “see” at the surface of the ice. Red is warm, blue is cold, and grey is land, but “warm” here is still below the freezing point of sea water near -2 degrees Celsius, so even the red or “hot” spots are covered by ice. The 300 deep ocean in Nares Strait generally flows from north to south without trouble under the ice, but just behind the fixed arching ice bridges, it sweeps the newly formed thin ice away to the south. The “warm” spots that form to the south of each ice arches have their own stories:

Farthest to the north a massive ice arch spans almost 200 km (150 miles) across. It faces the open Arctic Ocean to the north and it formed a few days before Christmas 4-5 weeks ago. It was still shedding large ice floes from its edge as it tried, and finally succeeded, I think, to find a stable location. Nevertheless, one of its larger pieces of ice moved into Nares Strait on January-3, 2014 where it became stuck on both Greenland and Ellesmere Islands:

The large floe from the edge of the first ice arch becames firmly lodged on both sides of the 30-km wide entrance to Nares Strait on January-4 (not shown), perhaps aided by strong winds from the north with wind speeds exceeding 40 knots (20 m/s). This second northern arch then aided the formation of the third ice arch in the south. All three arches became first visible on January-8:

Jan.-8, 2014

Jan.-8, 2014

A subsequent lull and short reversal of the winds brought warm southern air masses into Nares Strait while water and drainage pipes froze at my home in Delaware:

Weather record from Hans Island at the center of Nares Strait for January 2014. [Data from Scottish Marine Institute in Oban, Scotland.

Weather record from Hans Island at the center of Nares Strait for January 2014. [Data from Scottish Marine Institute in Oban, Scotland.

“Warm” here refers to -10 degrees Centigrade (+14 Fahrenheit). Air temperatures in Nares Strait today are -21 degrees Celsius (-5 Fahrenheit) while ocean temperatures under sea ice are near -1.8 degrees Celsius (+29 Fahrenheit). It is these “hot” waters that “shine” through the thinner ice as the satellite senses the amount of heat that the ice surface radiates into space. More details on this one finds elsewhere.

I enjoy these elegantly arching ice bridges across Nares Strait, because they challenge me each year anew to question how sea ice, oceans, air, and land all interact to produce them. Nobody really knows. It is a hard problem to model mathematically and many graduate theses will be written on the subject. A student in our own program, Sigourney Stelma, just presented first results and movies of computer simulations of ice bridges forming. Perhaps I can convince her to post some of them on these pages?

Kozo, T.L. (1991). The hybrid polynya at the northern end of Nares Strait Geophys. Res. Let., 18 (11), 2059-2062 DOI: 10.1029/91GL02574

Kwok, R., Pedersen, L.T., Gudmandsen, P. and Peng, S.S. (2010). Large sea ice outflow into the Nares Strait in 2007 Geophys. Res. Let., 37 (L03502) DOI: 10.1029/2009GL041872

Muenchow, A. and H. Melling. (2008). Ocean current observations from Nares Strait to the west of Greenland: Interannual to tidal variability and forcing J. Mar. Res., 66 (6), 801-833 DOI: 10.1357/002224008788064612

Ruins of Fort Conger in the High Arctic

Retreating from Fort Conger, the U.S. Army lost 68% of its men to death by starvation and drowning. They were delivered to the northern shores of Ellesmere Island within sight of northern Greenland by the SS Proteus on August 12, 1881 and were left with ample food and fuel to survive and explore comfortably for a years or so. 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

Land-Fast Ice Cover off North Greenland: Will NASA bite?

When a large outlet glacier of North Greenland (Petermann Gletscher) discharged an ice island four times the size of Manhattan in August of 2010, the United States’ Congress held formal inquiries on its cause within days of the event. Congressmen, scientists, and the global media speculated that this event and concurrent severe droughts in Russia and floods in Asia were tied to record-breaking air temperatures and global warming. Reviewing available data, Johnson et al. (2011) cautioned that most melting of floating ice shelves such as Petermann Gletscher is dominated by physical ocean processes below, not above the ice (Reeh, 2001, Rignot and Steffen, 2008). The National Journal asked me to write an essay to answer the question: “Is Climate Change Causing Wild Weather?” which I answered with a nerdy No, but …. Motivated by questions asked during the congressional hearing, I showed that waters in Petermann Fjord (a) originate from the Arctic Ocean to the north, (b) contain heat of Atlantic origin, and (c) have warmed significantly since 2003 (Muenchow et al., 2011).

Petermann Gletscher from MODIS Terra. Repeat NASA along-glacier flight tracks are shown in the left and middle panels. White line across the glacier are ICESat tracks. Thick black line across the glacier near y = 0 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008). Dark areas within 2 km off the western wall are mountain shadows.

Petermann Gletscher from MODIS Terra. Repeat NASA along-glacier flight tracks are shown in the left and middle panels. White line across the glacier are ICESat tracks. Thick black line across the glacier near y = 0 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008). Dark areas within 2 km off the western wall are mountain shadows.

When I reported here that the same glacier discharged yet another ice island in July 2012, this one “only” twice the size of Manhattan, I was not so sure anymore, that this was merely another extreme event caused by natural processes. Continue reading

Petermann Photos, Places, and People

Petermann Gletscher sent off Manhattan-sized islands of ice in 2010 and 2012 that now litter the eastern seaboard of Canada from its farthest northern Ellesmere Island to its farthest eastern Newfoundland. The ice is streaming south along thousands of miles within icy Arctic waters. Petermann Gletscher itself is flat, hard to grasp by the naked eye, its endless expanse of white vanishes into the horizon when we look towards the Greenland Ice Sheet ALONG the glacier:

North-eastern section of Petermann Glacier on Aug.-11, 2012, the meandering river is the centerline, view is almost due east. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen.]

North-eastern portion of Petermann Glacier on Aug.-11, 2012, the meandering river is the centerline, view is almost due east with Kap Fulford and Kap Agnes on the left center and Daugaard Jensen Land in the background on the right. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen.]

Next, lets look ACROSS Petermann from roughly the same latitude. This perspective is more dramatic as vertical cliffs give shape, cliffs are cut by smaller side-glaciers. More specifically, we see the CCGS Henry Larsen helicopter flying down Belgrave Glacier as we look across Petermann which flows from the Greenland Ice Sheet on the left out to sea on the right. On the other (south-western) side we see Faith Glacier in the background about 10 miles away.

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 (Belgrave Gl.) towards a similar glacier (Faith Gl.) across Petermann Fjord with Petermann Gletscher flowing from the left out to sea on the right. [Photo Credit: Erin Clarke, Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

Contrasting large Petermann Gletscher, the many smaller glaciers on both its sides evoke drama as ice plunges down from 3000 feet above in a rage of forms, colors, and shapes. These side glaciers have their own side glaciers that sometimes rival the Alpine glaciers in Europe, Asia, and the Americas that most of us are more familiar with.

Some side glaciers have names, but they are rarely seen on maps and charts. The side glaciers are mapped, but photos are hard to find. Flying over them last year, I was utterly lost. Reviewing photos now, I remember people, smells, computer troubles, and exciting ocean discoveries. Nevertheless, I am hard pressed to place the places we saw on a map or name them. Distances are deceiving, the air is clean and 50-80 miles of visibility are common. A moment later, I cannot see the other side of the ship as we are suddenly in clouds and fog. Everything is always in motion, the ice, the water, the ship, the clouds, all of this without strong reference points like the exit or distance signs on a Turnpike, Interstate, or Autobahn.

Northern Kennedy Channel near the entrance to Petermann Fjord with Kap Morton in cloud banks. [Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

Northern Kennedy Channel near the entrance to Petermann Fjord with Kap Morton in cloud banks. [Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

And along comes Espen Olsen, a frequent contributor to Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice blog and forums, and discovers a plethora of names that I can check, google, and use to remember expeditions to Petermann over the last 10 years with many good friends. So with his help and that of other explorers like Lauge Koch, Tony Higgins, and the collected wisdom of the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency, I labeled some prominent glaciers and capes on an Aug,-21, 2012 MODIS-Terra image that I constructed from data that NASA provide to anyone free of charge. I chose this image and time, because the 2012 ice island is already in Nares Strait and thus out of sight:

Names of glaciers, capes, islands in Petermann Region over MODIS of Aug.-21, 2012.

Names of glaciers, capes, islands in Petermann Region over MODIS of Aug.-21, 2012.

Espen tells me that his Danish sources are protected by copyright (I still like to cite them), but the aviation maps of the U.S. military are in the public domain and can be downloaded from the University of Texas in Austin Library, e.g.,

Petermann Gletscher and surroundings extracted from U.S. Defense Mapping Agency Chart ONC A5 (January 1991).

Petermann Gletscher and suroundings extracted from U.S. Defense Mapping Agency Chart ONC A5 (January 1991).

while the modified version of Figure-2 from Dr. Tony Higgins 1990 publication is available at the Alfred Wegener Institute. Nevertheless, it should only be used for non-profit educational purposes or as a reference:

Petermann Gletscher extend and topography from 1953 through 1978 (from Higgins, 1990) with 2012 terminus position drawn in by hand.

Petermann Gletscher extend and topography from 1953 through 1978 (from Higgins, 1990) with 2012 terminus position drawn in by hand.

With all these details out-of-the-way, we can now start placing photos into places and add names to them. Perhaps others like Espen Olsen can write or edit Wiki entries or correct the false latitude and longitudes that populate the many databases that provide such information on the web. Over the next weeks and months I will try to post as many photos of Petermann’s natural beauty along with an evolving MODIS map that names and shows places. Here are just a few teasers without further comment except what’s in the captions.

The merging of Sigurd Berg and Hubert Glaciers which discharge into Petermann Gletscher on its eastern wall. The view is landward towards the north-east as the helicopter flies in from Petermann. [Credit: Barbara O'Connell, Canadian Coast Guard]

The merging of Hubert (left) and Sigurd Berg (right) Glaciers which discharge into Petermann Gletscher on its eastern wall. The view is landward towards the north-east as the helicopter flies in from Petermann. [Credit: Barbara O'Connell, Canadian Coast Guard]

Petermann Gletscher and Fjord in Aug.-2012. View is to the north-west with Faith Glacier (top left) and Kap Lucie Marie (top right) showing the western wall of Petermann. [Photo Credit: CCGS Henry Larsen]

Petermann Gletscher and Fjord in Aug.-2012. View is to the north-west with Faith Glacier (top left) and Kap Lucie Marie (top right) showing the western wall of Petermann. [Photo Credit: CCGS Henry Larsen]

Looking down Belgrave Glacier discharging into Petermann Gletscher at its terminus in Aug. 2012 [Credit: CCGS Henry Larsen]

Looking down Belgrave Glacier discharging into Petermann Gletscher at its terminus in Aug. 2012 [Credit: CCGS Henry Larsen]

Higgins, A.K. (1990). Northern Greenland glacier velocities and calf ice production Polarforschung, 60, 1-23 Other: 0032-2490