Category Archives: Oceanography

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.

Petermann Gletscher Ocean Station Revisited

Standing on floating Petermann Gletscher last sunday, I called my PhD student Peter Washam out of bed at 5 am via our emergency Iridium phone to check the machine that Keith Nicholls and I had just repaired. We had prepared for this 4 months and quickly established that a computer in Delaware could “talk” to a computer in Greenland to receive data from the ocean 800 m below my feet on a slippery glacier. For comparison the Empire State Building is 480 m high. The closest bar was 5 hours away by helicopter at Thule Air Force Base from where Keith and I had come.

Cabled ocean observatory linked to a University of Delaware weather station on Petermann Gletscher, Greenland on 28 August 2016. View is to the north.

Refurbished ocean observatory linked via cables to a University of Delaware weather station on Petermann Gletscher, Greenland on 28 August 2016. View is to the north.

Remote Petermann Gletscher can be reached by helicopter only of one prepares at least two refueling stations along the way. Anticipating a potential future need, we had placed 1300 and 1600 liters of A1 jet fuel at two points from aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden in 2015. The fuel was given to Greenland Air with an informal agreement that we could use the fuel for a 2016 or 2017 helicopter charter. Our first pit stop looked like this on the southern shores of Kane Basin

Refueling stop on north-eastern Inglefield Land on 27 August 2016. Air Greenland Bell-212 helicopter in the background, view is to the north.

Refueling stop on southern Washington Land on 27 August 2016. Air Greenland Bell-212 helicopter in the background, view is to the south towards Kane Basin.

Helicopter flight path on 27/28 August 2016 to reach Petermann Gletscher (PG) via southern (Fuel-S) and northern (Fuel-N) fuel stops in northern Inglefield and southern Washington Land, respectively. Background color is ocean bottom depth in meters.

Helicopter flight path on 27/28 August 2016 to reach Petermann Gletscher (PG) via southern (Fuel-S) and northern (Fuel-N) fuel stops in northern Inglefield and southern Washington Land, respectively. Background color is ocean bottom depth in meters.

Upon arrival at the first (northern-most) Peterman Gletscher (PG) station we quickly confirmed our earlier suspicion that vertical motion within the 100 m thick glacier ice had ruptured the cables connecting two ocean sensors below the ice to data loggers above. We quickly disassembled the station and moved on to our central station that failed to communicate with us since 11 February 2016. Keith predicted that here, too, internal glacier motions would have stretched the cables inside the ice to their breaking point, however, this was not to be the case.

My first impression of this station was one of driftwood strewn on the beach of an ocean of ice:

Looks can be deceiving, however, and we found no damage to any electrical components from the yellow-painted wooden battery box housing two 12 Volt fancy “car batteries” at the bottom to the wind sensor on the top. Backed-up data on a memory card from one of two data loggers (stripped down computers that control power distribution and data collections) indicated that everything was working. The ocean recording from more than 800 meters below our feet was taken only a few minutes prior. In disbelief Keith and I were looking over a full year-long record of ocean temperature, salinity, and pressure as well as glacier motions from a GPS. This made our choices on what to do next very simple: Repair the straggly looking ocean-glacier-weather station, support it with a metal pole drilled 3.5 m into the glacier ice, and refurbish the adjacent radar station. We went to work for a long day and longer night without sleep.

Selfie on Petermann Gletscher on sunday 28 August 2016 after 33 hours without sleep. Weather station and northern wall of Petermann in the clouds. It was raining, too.

Selfie on Petermann Gletscher on sunday 28 August 2016 after 33 hours without sleep. Weather station and northern wall of Petermann in the clouds. It was raining, too.

When all was done, University of Delaware graduate student Peter Washam did the last check at 5:30 am sunday morning. Since then our Greenland station accepts Iridium phone calls every three hours, sends its data home where I post it daily at

http://ows.udel.edu

The data from this station will become the center piece of Peter’s dissertation on glacier-ocean interactions. Peter was part of the British hot water drilling team who camped on the ice in 2015 for 3 weeks while I was on I/B Oden responsible for the work on the physical oceanography of the fjord and adjacent Nares Strait. Alan Mix of Oregon State University prepared and led the 2015 expedition giving us ship and helicopter time generously to support our work on the ice shelf of Petermann. Saskia Madlener documented the scope of the 2015 work in a wonderful set of three videos

Ocean & Ice – https://vimeo.com/178289799
Rocks & Shells – https://vimeo.com/178379027
Seafloor & Sediment – https://vimeo.com/169110567

A first peer-reviewed publication on this station and its data until 11 February 2016 will appear in the December 2016 issue of the open-access journal Oceanography with the title The Ice Shelf of Petermann Gletscher, North Greenland and its Connection to the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.

Sea ice and 2016 Arctic field work

The sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is quickly disappearing from coastal areas as we are entering the summer melt season. This year I follow this seasonal event with nervous anticipation, because in October and November we will be out at sea working north of northern Alaska. We plan to deploy a large number of ocean sensors to investigate how sound propagates from the deep Arctic Ocean on to the shallow Chukchi Sea. This figure shows our study area with the ice cover as it was reported yesterday from space:

Ice concentration for June 14, 2016 from SSM/I imagery. Insert show study area to the north of Alaska and planned mooring locations (red box).

Ice concentration for June 14, 2016 from SSM/I imagery. Insert show study area to the north of Alaska and planned mooring locations (red box).

Zooming in a little further, I show the coast of Alaska along with 100 and 1000 meter contour of bottom depth over a color map of ice concentrations:

Ice concentrations from SSM/I to the north of norther Alaska with planned mooring locations across the sloping bottom. The 100 and 1000 meter contours are shown in gray with blue and red symbols representing locations of ocean and acoustic sensors, respectively.

Ice concentrations from SSM/I to the north of norther Alaska with planned mooring locations across the sloping bottom. The 100 and 1000 meter contours are shown in gray with blue and red symbols representing locations of ocean and acoustic sensors, respectively.

My responsibilities in this US Navy-funded project are the seven densely packed blue triangles. They indicate locations where I hope to measure continuously for a year ocean temperature, salinity, and pressure from which to construct sections of speed of sound and how it varies in time and space. I will also measure ice draft as well ice and ocean currents from which to estimate the roughness of the sea ice over time. Sea ice and ocean properties both impact sound propagation from deep to shallow water and vice versa.

A first question: What will the ice be like when we get there? This is the question that has the 40 or so people all working on this project anxiously preparing for the worst, but how can we expect what challenges are to come our way?

Doing my homework, I downloaded from the National Snow and Ice Data Center all gridded maps of ice concentrations that microwave satellites measured almost daily since 1978. Then I crunch the numbers on my laptop with a set of kitchen-sink Unix tools and code snippets such as

set ftp = 'ftp://sidads.colorado.edu'
set dir = 'pub/DATASETS/nsidc0081_nrt_nasateam_seaice/north'
...
wget -r -nd -l1 --no-check-certificate $ftp/$dir/$year/$file

along with fancy and free Fortran and General Mapping Tools to make the maps shown above. With these tools and data I can then calculate how much sea ice covers any area at any time. The result for custom-made mooring area at almost daily resolution gives a quick visual that I use to prepare for our fall 2016 expedition. The dotted lines in the top panel indicate the dates we are in the area.

Time series of daily ice concentration in the study area for different decades from January-1 through Dec.-31 for each year from 1980 through 2015. Panels are sorted by decade. The red curve is for 2015 and is shown for comparison in all panels.

Time series of daily ice concentration in the study area for different decades from January-1 through Dec.-31 for each year from 1980 through 2015. Panels are sorted by decade. The red curve is for 2015 and is shown for comparison in all panels.

The story here is well-known to anyone interested in Arctic sea ice and climate change, but here it applies to a tiny spec of ocean between the 100 and 1000 meter isobath where we plan to deployed ocean sensors for a year in the fall of 2016. For the two decades of the last century, the ice cover looks like a crap shoot with 80% ice cover possible any month of the year and ice-free conditions unlikely but possible here or there for a week or two at most. The situation changed dramatically since about 2000. During the last six years our study area has always been free of ice from late August to early October, however, our 2016 expedition is during the transition from ice-free October to generally ice-covered early November, but, I feel, our saving grace is that the sea ice will be thin and mobile. I thus feel that we probably can work comfortable on account of ice for the entire period, but the winds and waves will blow us away …

Weather will be most uncomfortable, because fall is the Pacific storm season. And with little or only thin ice, there will be lots and lots of waves with the ship pitching and rolling and seeking shelter that will challenge us from getting all the work done even with 7 days for bad weather built into our schedule.

I worked in this area on larger ships in 1993, 2003, and in 2004. Here is a photo that Chris Linder of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution took during a massive storm in the general vicinity in October of 2004. The storm halted all outside work on the 420 feet long USCGC Healy heading into the waves for 42 long and miserable hours:

Icebreaker taking on waves on the stern during a fall storm in the Beaufort Sea in October 2004. [Photo Credit: Chris Linder, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution]

Icebreaker taking on waves on the bow during a fall storm in the Beaufort Sea in October 2004. [Photo Credit: Chris Linder, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution]

Oh, I now also recall that during this four-week expedition we never saw land or the sun. It was always a drizzly gray ocean on a gray horizon. The Arctic Ocean in the fall is an often cruel and inhospitable place with driving freezing rain and fog.