Tag Archives: weather

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.

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]