Tag Archives: weather

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 …

Norway, Norwegians, and Normal

The best part of my High School was getting out of it early to ski from Oslo to Trondheim across Norway’s Hardangervidda in 1981 Continue reading

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

Antarctic Plane Crash Kills 3 Canadians

Polar research requires ships, planes, and helicopters to supply bases and move people, instruments, fuel, and food to places where instruments need to placed, recovered, or serviced. While these activities are fairly routine and safe where most of us live, they are neither routine nor safe in extreme cold, extreme winds, or extremely remote places such as Arctic Canada, Greenland, or Antarctica.

I just learnt from an NSF Press Release that a Kenn Borek Twin Otter crashed into Mount Elizabeth in the Queen Alexandra Range of the Transantarctic Mountains at an elevation of about 3,900 m or 11,000 feet less than 2 weeks ago. All three Canadian crew aboard were killed. The plane was in transit from a research station at the South Pole to the Italian station at Terra Nova Bay to support Italian field work.

A memorial ceremony for the aircrew at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station [Photo Credit: Blaise Kuo Tiong, NSF]

A memorial ceremony for the aircrew at NSF’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station [Photo Credit: Blaise Kuo Tiong, NSF]

Here are the words of Dr. Kelly Falkner, Director of NSF’s Polar Division (source):

January 28, 2013
On behalf of the U.S. National Science Foundation and all in the U. S. Antarctic Program, I wish to extend our profound sympathies to the families, friends, and colleagues of the three Kenn Borek Twin Otter crew, whose deaths in Antarctica while en route to support the Italian national Antarctic science program have recently been confirmed.

We have been privileged to experience first-hand their professionalism, skill, and dedication to the arduous task of supporting science in an extremely remote and inhospitable environment. In many ways, their contributions make possible hard won but vital advances in scientific knowledge that serve all of mankind. Although everyone associated with the pursuit of science in Antarctica makes personal sacrifices to do so, very infrequently and sadly, some make the ultimate sacrifice.

While it may come as little consolation at this very sorrowful time, the families, friends, and colleagues of the crew members should know that the thoughts of everyone in the U.S. Antarctic Program were with them through the long ordeal of the past few days and remain so now.

To the families and friends of the crew, I commend your loved ones for their commitment and dedication to their profession and offer our condolences. The sense of loss is keenly felt throughout the U.S. program and no doubt throughout the international Antarctic community.


I am also thinking of Marty Bergmann, a Canadian Polar scientist turned administrator. He perished 2 summers ago in a plane crash outside Resolute, Nunavut in the Canadian High Arctic working his Government Canada job to tirelessly help others in their Arctic research. Unlike the photo below, I remember him with a massive ear-to-ear grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye.

The Royal Canadian Geographic Society will recognize Martin Bergmann, the director of the Polar Continental Shelf Program who died in a plane crash in Resolute last year, by creating a medal for excellence in Arctic leadership, science and exploration. [Credit: CBC News]

Martin Bergmann, Director of the Polar Continental Shelf Program who died in a plane crash in Resolute Aug.-20, 2011. [Credit: CBC News]

Storm Surges, Global Warming, and Delaware Beaches

ADDENDUM (Nov.-7, 2012): Time lapse video from Delaware Sea Grant.

Rising seas and flood waters cause most of the damage during storms such as Sandy did last week. Tides, waves, and storms all contribute. We can debate how global warming impacts any of the above, but the arguments are involved. So lets assume, that neither tides, waves, nor storms are impacted by global warming, but that the globally averaged rise in sea level over the last 50 or 100 years is. This global warming induced sea level rise is about half a foot in 50 years (3 mm/year), but why would we care about global averages, when we live in Delaware? Furthermore, why worry about the whimpy surges we get ever 2-3 weeks. We don’t, we worry most about the most extreme events like Sandy and want to know how often they occur. Below I show a Sandy-like event to occur about once every 10 years. Furthermore, over time Delaware’s most extreme storm surges are rising twice as fast as global averages do. So, how much does the global warming impact our local flooding in Delaware?

Market Street on the beach in Lewes is in one of the lowest lying areas of town and takes its good old-time draining. This photograph looks northeastward toward the beach, just west of the intersection with Massachusetts Avenue. [Credit: Cape Gazette]

More than I initially thought: the largest storm surge that has hit Delaware was the Ash Wednesday storm on March 6, 1962 which added 5.8 feet to the regular tides and waves. I wrote about this yesterday using public NOAA data. This same storm today would add 6.8 feet to the regular tides and waves. For comparison, Sandy’s storm surge added 5.3 feet. So Sandy was a weak storm by comparison. If it had hit in 1962, it would have added only 4.3 feet. The difference of 1 foot in 50 years is due to steadily rising sea levels:

Largest storm surge at Lewes, Delaware each year from 1957 to present. The red line is a linear fit to the data. The slope indicates that the largest storm surge increase by almost 3 inches every 10 years.

On average each year has a larger largest surge than the year before. While this steady increase by 2.8 +/- 1.7 inches each 10 years is statistically significant (95% confidence), picking the extreme each year is perhaps not the best statistic as extremes do not happen often. Please note that a 95% confidence means that there is a 5% chance that the true increase is either smaller than 0.9 inches/decade or larger than 4.5 inches/decade.

What about the mean or average surge each year? From hourly data, I pick the middle surge, that is, half the surges each year are larger and half are smaller:

This increase of 1.4 +/- 0.2 inches per decade (95% confidence) is more in line of the global average. The uncertainty in this trend is smaller than that of the trend for the extreme, because the median sea level varies little from year to year, while the extreme value varies more from year to year. So, from these results we can conclude, that while the mean or median sea level at Lewes increases by perhaps 1.5 inches in 10 years, the extremes increase twice as fast. So, storm surges like Sandy will become more common than they are today mostly because of global warming.

Over the last 50 years we had at least 5 such events in 1962, 1968, 1996, 1998, and 2012. So, on average we have a Sandy-type storm surge greater than 5 feet every 10 years. This contradicts a Wilmington News Journal article today which quotes John Ramsey to describe “… Sandy as a 1-in-200-years storm, unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. That could give coastal communities time enough to deal with the real threats and realities of sea level rise and climate change.” There is no such time, as it is mis-leading to describe Sandy as a 1-in-200-year event when it has happened about every 10 years during the last 55 years. Instead of a 0.5% percent chance of a Sandy-like event to hit Lewes each year, I would raise this chance to be larger than 10%.