Ice Island Flotilla From Petermann Glacier Continue Southward Flow

More icebergs and ice island from Greenland are heading south along northern North-America this year. Petermann Glacier’s first piece arrived last year off Newfoundland causing a local tourist sensation for a stunning display of ice along its shores. There are many more pieces from Petermann to come for a few more years.

Track of Petermann Ice Island from Aug.-2010 through Aug.-2011 traveling in shallow water from northern Greenland along Baffin Island and Labrador to Newfoundland.

April 29/30, 2012 locations of Petermann Ice Island 2010 on their way south along northern North America. [Credit: Luc Desjardins, Canadian Ice Service]

Yet, how come that these arrivals are both so predictable in their pattern, but are almost impossible to pin down for an exact location and time? The answer involves mystical and fake forces, stunningly beautiful experiments, elegant mathematical equations, and, most important of all: spin.

The earth spins rapidly around its axis and neither ocean nor glaciers leave the planet for outer space. The obvious answer that gravity holds all the pieces in place is neither the correct nor the full answer. A subtle balance of several other forces makes Planet Earth the perfect place to keep us supplied with water to drink and air to breath. Additional forces besides gravity relate to the difference in pressure between the top and the bottom of the ocean as well as the rotational force that forces our car off the road if we speed too fast around a curve. The net effect of these is that earth fatter at the equator than at the North Pole. There appears to be more of gravity pulling us in at the North Pole than there is at the equator. Put another way, a scale measuring our own weight dips almost a pound more in Arctic Greenland than it does in the tropical forests of Borneo even if we do it naked in both places. Lose a pound of your weight instantly, travel to the far north. (GRACE)

This makes no sense intuitively, but common sense and intuition help little when it comes to how the ocean’s water and the atmosphere’s air move on a rotating planet. For example, we all know intuitively that a down-pour of rain flows down a slope into the ditch. It requires work to bring water up to the top of a hill or into the water towers to make sure that water flows when we open the faucet. Not true for the ocean at scales that relate to climate, weather, and changes of both. Here all water flows along, not down the hill. Better yet, it requires no work at all to keep it moving that way for all times. This is why Greenland’s ice keeps coming our way as soon as pieces break off. The earth’s spin makes it go around the hill, to speak loosely of pressure differences. Winds and friction have little effect. The ocean’s natural and usually stable state is in geostrophic balance. Geostrophy is a fancy word for saying that the ocean’s water flows along, not down a hill, because it is balanced by a fake and mystical Coriolis force that I will not explain. I teach a graduate class on Geophysical Fluid Dynamics for that.

In technical language, most of the oceans tend to flow along not down a pressure gradient. A kettle of boiling water discharges water from high pressure inside the kettle to the lower pressure in the kitchen. Yet the steam dissolved in the atmosphere moves around high or low-pressure systems. That’s how we read weather maps: Clockwise winds around high-pressure over Europe, North-America, and Asia to the north of the equator, counter-clockwise winds around low-pressure systems. If I apply this spin-law to Baffin Bay containing all the icebergs and ice islands, the spin rule states that these large and deep pieces flow along lines where the earth’s local rate of rotation, lets call it planetary spin f, divided by the local water depth, lets call it H, is a constant. So, to a first approximation, the icebergs and ice islands flow along a path where f/H is constant. If the planetary spin is constant, then the ice island follow lines of constant water depth H. There is more to the story, much more, such as the effects of waters of different densities residing next to each other, but I better continue this later, as I got a dinner date with a sweetheart and “Thermal Wind” can wait 😉

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