Petermann Gletscher and Greenland Climate Change

Multi-media story of two old-style scientists on a Greenland data rescue mission. Keith (Nicholls) and I were joined by Chris Mooney and Whitney Shefte of the Washington Post who just posted

Testifying before the US Congress back in 2010, I refused to endorse the view that a first large calving at Petermann Gletscher in North Greenland was caused by global warming. Additional events and analyses of new data and old data, however, convinced me that climate change forces Petermann Gletscher into a new and unknown state.

Polar Bears and Guns and Politics

Polar bears are endangered and need protection. They hunt and eat meat to survive. Seals are such meat as are scientists walking and working on the sea ice. I am planing an experiment in polar bear habitat. Do I need a gun to protect myself and my students working with me? About 10 people told me “YES” last week, all with experience working in polar bear habitat. Who am I to say no? Encounters between bears and people happen, but only rarely. None of the 10 people advising me to carry a shotgun or rifle ever discharged their weapon or had a bear encounter.

Polar bear as seen in Kennedy Channel on Aug.-12, 2012. [Photo Credit: Kirk McNeil, Labrador from aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

Polar bear as seen in Kennedy Channel on Aug.-12, 2012. [Photo Credit: Kirk McNeil, Labrador from aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

In 3 month’s time I hope to do ~20 day trips from Thule Air Base near Pituffik, Greenland to explore the oceanography and acoustics of the local fjord covered by sea ice. The US National Science Foundation supports this work, maintains a dormitory where we sleep, and provides us with two snowmobiles. We will use these motorcycles on skies to reach science stations on the ice covering Wolstenholme Fjord. We will drill 10” holes through 3-5 feet of sea ice, set-up an electric winch connected to a small generator, and probe the ocean’s temperature, salinity, bottom depth, and ice thickness to prepare for a quiet acoustic communication system to move data under water from the outer fjord to the pier at Thule and the internet.

Thule-NSF2017

Leading this science effort, I will have to estimate and manage potential risks which include encounters with polar bears. I will have to decide how much money to allocate to each risk that then may not be available for other activities such as to support students, buy better sensors, or return in the summer. The first and almost always best response is to hire a local hunter who knows the area along with its bears, ice, and weather. There are about 600 people living in Qaanaaq about 100 miles to the north. Most of them are children and grand-children who were forcibly removed from Pituffik in 1952 when more than 13,000 Americans built a large air field during the height of the Cold War. The local llanguage spoken in remote Qaanaaq is the Inuktitut dialect of north-west Greenland, the first foreign language learnt in school is Danish, and English is not widely spoken, however, Qaanaaq has two non-Inuit villagers who originate from Denmark and Japan.

Relations between Qaanaaq and Thule Air Base are complex and sensitive with regard to politics and finances. One of many perspective is that of Kim Petersen who writes in Dissident Voice about “The Struggle against Colonialism and Imperialism in Kalaallit Nunaat.” Kalaallit Nunaat refers to Greenland in the local language. While the forced removal of native populations from Pituffik to Qaanaaq in 1952 and the crash of a nuclear armed B-52 bomber into Wolstenholme Fjord in 1968 are not in dispute, the political arguments presented seem to me rather narrow, one-dimensional, and rooted in a tired ideological Left-Wing mode of conspiracy-thinking. Does this perspective represent the community of Qaanaaq? Perhaps I need to ask someone who may know:

Working on the sea ice off northern Greenland [Photo credit, Steffen Olsen]

Working on the sea ice off northern Greenland [Photo credit, Steffen Olsen]

It is not straight-forward to bring a gun to Greenland as it requires a large amount of paper work. Another layer of regulations relates to bringing a gun to an US military installation. Shooting a polar bear is a burocratic and political nightmare, because strict quotas exist for the “taking” of polar bears. International complications include Canada, because the quotas are assigned to Canadian and Greenlandic hunters from the same bear population. It is a sensitive topic in many dimensions, a riddle for which I have no solution.

How much time do I spent to prepare for an unlikely event such as a fatal polar bear encounter? Could I not argue with ethics that were instilled into me when hiking in the back-country of Denali National Park (no guns there). Park rangers then told me that I enter bear habitat and should do so respectfully with minimal impact. They gave me useful pointers on how to lower contact and I saw no bears hiking for 4 days alone without a gun, but grizzlies eat berries while polar bears do not.

So, should I carry a gun, if I am not ready to kill a bear while working in bear country? I can accept the consequences of injury and death for myself, however, I cannot do so for those who are with me. Perhaps this then is a path to a solution: Discuss this with all who will be with me on the ice.

Why am I a ‘data’ guy?

A journalist asked me an unexpected question today:

It seems like you go out on a lot of ships to remote places. Why is that the kind of science that appealed to you?

As a physical oceanographer I indeed spend a lot of time away from home, about 18 months total the last 20 years or so, but here is how I answered the question quickly without too much reflections:


I always collected my own data starting in 1985 as a German undergraduate in Bangor North Wales. I did code a numerical model on tidal wave breaking for my MS thesis, but it was motivated by the very data I collected while camping next to a small tidal river (and pub) for 4 weeks in Wales.

Study location of the Conway Estuary in North Wales from Muenchow and Garvine (1991).

Study location of the Conway Estuary in North Wales from Muenchow and Garvine (1991).

The why never occurred to me, but I was always following opportunities small and large that got me onto a ship both small and large. Perhaps it is the type of people and their many different backgrounds that I felt close to or whose company was just fun. I could never relate to the more cut and dry personalities that one finds in the academic bubbles of academia.

There is also a thrill of probing the ocean in ways or places that nobody has done before which perhaps explains the remote places. Most people consider this hard-ship to be away from friends, family, and the comforts of home. They go once or twice and then stop early in their careers or as students. To me this hardship is pleasure as it always shatters earlier expectations. The only constant, it feels, is change and new insights, this drives me, perhaps I am addicted to it, perhaps I also push and change myself and the field work gives me this chance or opportunity to “reset” and take a new look at what I thought I knew or I knew I did not understand. Again, this is pleasure and the harder it is, the more pleasure I expect.

This is all the time I have now, short version: It is fun to be in the field and work with great people whose greatness – as with the data – will often become clear only later. I know and embrace this.

Sea Ice, Oceanography, and Nature’s Way to Paint

I am going to sea next week boarding the R/V Sikuliaq in Nome, Alaska to sail for 3 days north into the Arctic Ocean. When we arrive in our study area after all this traveling, then we have perhaps 18 days to deploy 20 ocean moorings. I worry that storms and ice will make our lives at sea miserable. So what does a good data scientist do to prepare him or herself? S/he dives into data:

Map northern Chukchi Sea with mooring locations (red and blue symbols), contours of bottom topography, and radar backscatter from space.

Map northern Chukchi Sea with mooring locations (red and blue symbols), contours of bottom topography, and radar backscatter from space. Slightly darker shades especially in the bottom segment are interpreted as sea ice. The offset in grey scale between top and bottom is caused by me using different numbers for two different data segments to bring the data into a range that varies between 0 and 1.

The image above is my first attempt to determine, if our planned mooring deployment locations are free of sea ice or not. The darker tones of gray are sea ice with the white spots probably thicker or piled-up ridges of rougher sea ice. The speckled gray surface to the north is probably caused by surface waves and other “noise” that are pretty random. There is a data point ever 40 meters in this image. It also helps to compare these very high-resolution ice data with products that the US National Ice Center (NIC) and the National Weather Service provide:

Ice Chart of the Alaska office of the National Weather Service (link)

Ice Chart of the Alaska office of the National Weather Service

The above is a wonderful map for general orientation, but it is not good or detailed enough to navigate a ship through the ice. The two maps agree, however, my patch of ice to the south of the moorings are represented as the orange/green patch on the top right (north-east). The orange means that 70-80% of the area is covered by ice and this ice is thicker than 1.2 meters and thus too thick for our ship to break through, but there are always pathways through ice and those can be found with the 40-m resolution maps.

In summary, on Sept.-29, 2016 all our moorings are in open water, but this can change, if the wind moves this math northward. So we are also watching the winds and here I like the analyses of Government Canada

Surface weather analysis from Government Canada for Oct.-2, 2016.

Surface weather analysis from Government Canada for Oct.-2, 2016. The map of surface pressure is centered on the north pole with Alaska at the bottom, Europe on the top, Greenland on the right, and Siberia on the left.

It shows a very low pressure center over Siberia to the south-west and a high pressure center over Arctic Canada to our north-east. This implies a strong wind to the north in our study area. So the ice edge will move north into our study area. If the High moves westward, we would be golden, but the general circulation at these latitudes are from west to east, that is, the Low over Siberia will win and move eastward strengthening the northward flow. That’s the bad news for us, but we still have almost 2 weeks before we should be in the area to start placing our fancy ocean moorings carefully into the water below the ice.

While this “operational” stuff motivated me to dive into the satellite radar data that can “see” through clouds and fog, I am most excited about the discovery that the radar data from the European Space Agency are easy to use with a little clever ingenuity and a powerful laptop (2.5 MHz Mac PowerBook). For example, this hidden gems appeared in the Chukchi Sea a few days earlier:

Close-up of the ice edge in the northern Chukchi Sea on Sept.-23, 2016. The mushroom cloud traced by sea ice and associated eddies are about 10-20 km across.

Close-up of the ice edge in the northern Chukchi Sea on Sept.-23, 2016. The mushroom cloud traced by sea ice and associated eddies are about 10-20 km across.

It is a piece of art, nature’s way to paint the surface of the earth only to destroy this painting the next minute or hour or day to make it all anew. It reminds me of the sand-paintings of some Native American tribes in the South-West of the USA that are washed away the moment they are finished. Here the art is in the painting, just as the pudding is in the eating, and the science is the thinking.

Oceanography below Petermann Gletscher for 400 Days

Ocean data from 810 meters below sea level under one of Greenland’s last remaining ice shelves arrives every 3 hours at my laptop via a 3-conductor copper cable that passes through 100 meter thick ice to connect to a weather station that via a satellite phone system connects to the rest of the world. This Ocean-Weather station on the floating section of Petermann Gletscher has reported for 400 days today. I am still amazed, stunned, and in awe that this works.

The station started 20th August of 2015 as a small part of a larger joint US-Swedish expedition to North Greenland after friends at the British Antarctic Survey drilled holes through the Empire-State-Building thick ice shelf. It is powered by two 12 Volt car batteries that are recharged by two solar panels. When the sun is down, the car batteries run the station as in winter when temperatures reached -46 C. When the sun is up, the solar cells run the station and top off the batteries. The voltage during the last 400 days shows the “health” of the station:

Battery voltage at the Petermann Ocean-Weather Station from Aug.-20, 2015 through  Sept.-23, 2016. The polar night is indicated by slowly declining voltage near 12 V while during the polar day voltage is near 14 V with oscillations in spring and fall during the transition from 24 hours of darkness to 24 hours of sun light.

Battery voltage at the Petermann Ocean-Weather Station from Aug.-20, 2015 through Sept.-23, 2016. The polar night is indicated by slowly declining voltage near 12 V while during the polar day voltage is near 14 V with oscillations in spring and fall during the transition from 24 hours of darkness to 24 hours of sun light.

There is an unexplained outage without data from February 12-25 (Day 175-189) which happened a day after the first data logger shut down completely without ever recovering. Our station has 2 data loggers: A primary unit controls 2 ocean sensors, atmospheric sensors, and the Iridium satellite communication. The secondary unit controls 3 ocean sensors and the GPS that records the moving glacier. Remote access to the secondary logger is via the primary, however, each logger has its own processors, computer code, and back-up memory card.

Inside of University of Delaware command and control of five ocean sensors and surface weather station. Two data loggers are stacked above each other on the left.

Inside of University of Delaware command and control of five ocean sensors and surface weather station. Two data loggers are stacked above each other on the left.

The primary logger failed 11th February 2016 when we received our last data via Iridium satellites until Keith Nicholls and I visited the station 27th and 28th August 2016 via helicopter from Thule, Greenland. Since I could not figure out what went wrong sitting on the ice with the helicopter waiting, I spent a long night without sleep to swap the data logger with a new and tested unit. I rewired sensors to new data logger, switched the Iridium modem, transceiver, and antenna, changed the two car batteries, and now both data loggers with all five ocean sensors have since reported faithfully every 3 hours as scheduled as seen at

http://ows.udel.edu

Lets hope that the station will keep going like as it does now.

The major discovery we made with the ocean data are large and pronounced pulses of fresher and colder melt waters that swosh past our sensors about 5 and 25 meters under the glacier ice. These pulses arrive about every 14 days and this time period provides a clue on what may cause them – tides. A first descriptive report will appear in December in the peer-reviewed journal Oceanography. Our deeper sensors also record increasingly warmer waters, that is, we now see warm (and salty) waters under the glacier that in 2015 we saw more than 100 km to the west in Nares Strait. This suggests that the ocean under the glacier is strongly coupled to the ambient ocean outside the fjord and vice versa. More on this in a separate future posting.

Time series of salinity (top) and potential temperature (bottom) from four ocean sensors deployed under the ice shelf of Petermann Gletscher from 20th of August 2015 through 11th of February 2016. Temperature and salinity scales are inverted to emphasize the vertical arrangements of sensors deployed at 95m (black), 115 (red), 300 m, and 450 m (blue) below sea level. Note the large fortnightly oscillations under the ice shelf at 95 and 115 m depth in the first half of the record. [From Muenchow et al., 2016]

Time series of salinity (top) and potential temperature (bottom) from four ocean sensors deployed under the ice shelf of Petermann Gletscher from 20th of August 2015 through 11th of February 2016. Temperature and salinity scales are inverted in order to emphasize the vertical arrangements of sensors deployed at 95m (black), 115 (red), 300 m, and 450 m (blue) below sea level. Note the large fortnightly oscillations under the ice shelf at 95 and 115 m depth in the first half of the record. [From Muenchow et al., 2016]

P.S.: The installation and year-1 analyses were supported by a grants from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, respectively, while the current work is supported by NSF for the next 3 years. Views and opinions are mine and do not reflect those of the funding agencies.