Category Archives: Ice Arch

Nares Strait Ice Arches and Petermann Ice Island 2012

Arching barriers of ice locked solidly to land are presently closing off Nares Strait for all ice leaving or entering this ocean passage from the Arctic to the North Atlantic Oceans. Gothic cathedrals have flying buttressing to hold them in place while ice arches have buttressing land that keeps them stable. The sea ice becomes land-fast until these ice arches collapse in June or early July. As the ocean under the ice is still moving, generally from north to south, one often finds very thin ice or even open water to the immediate south of these ice arches. Some of these temperature signals let us “see” large ice structures even in the dark of night which in Nares Strait lasts from early October to late March.

Surface temperature in degrees Celsius for Nares Strait on Nov.-10, 2012 from MODIS Terra. Thick ice is blue (cold) while thin ice is red (warm).

Surface temperature at the northern entrances to Nares Strait with the Arctic Ocean to the north.

Surface temperature at the southern entrance of Nares Strait with the North Atlantic Ocean to the south.

Southern entrance of Nares Strait as seen from RADARSAT showing ice arch formation in more spatial detail than MODIS temperatures do. Note the embedded ice island PII-2012 from Petermann Gletscher at the north-eastern edge of the ice arch. [Credit: Luc Desjardins, Canadian Ice Service]

These ice arches usually form in December or January, but this year they form a little earlier than usual. In some years such as 2006/07 or 2009/10 and 2010/11 they did not form at all and thick multi-year ice left the Arctic via a passage that is now closed. This leaves only Fram Strait to the east of Greenland for such export this year.

It appears that the large ice island that broke free from Petermann Gletscher earlier this year provides some stabilizing support to the southern ice arch as it is anchoring its north-eastern corner where it is possibly grounded. The depth of the ice island PII-2012-A1 is about 180 to 200 meters thick. I derived this estimate from both NASA’s Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) and the University of Kansas’s Radar Depth Sounder both flown concurrently on a DC-8 plane that surveyed Petermann Gletscher on May-7, 2011 with PII-2012-A1 still attached:

Profile of Petermann Glacier from laser (red) and radar (black) measurements on May-07, 2011. The 2012 break-up is indicated by a spike of the red under-ice topography near km-22. Bottom profiles from laser assume hydrostatic balance of floating ice.

The ATM is a scanning laser that measures the distance from the DC-8 to the surface within 0.2 meters (about 6-7 inches). If I know both the true sea level surface (I do, it’s called the geoid) and if the ice is floating undisturbed, then I can convert the surface elevation into a bottom draft. The red curve outlines the “theoretical” bottom of the glacier. This curve is masked by a thicker black curve that is a radar-derived image of the under-side of the glacier. Nothing theoretical about that one. These radar measurements agree closely with the red curves indicating an almost perfectly balanced floating glacier. This “balance” breaks down at two important points: (1) Near -20 km the glacier bottom is shallower than the red draft curve and it is here that the glacier sits on land as it is not floating. (2) Near +22 km we see a large red spike. This is the location of the 2012 break-up.

So, the 2012 ice-island that is anchoring the ice arch in southern Nares Strait is the piece of the glacier to the right of the red spike and with these data I can now conclude that PII-2012 was 11 km long, 15 km wide, and about 200 m deep. This Manhattan-sized ice-cube weights about 30 gigatons (10^12 kg), but “… that doesn’t mean much — who goes to the store and buys a gigaton of carrots? For a sense of perspective, a gigaton is about twice the mass of all people on earth …” [James Fallows writing for The Atlantic]. Hence this little ice-cube weights 50 times as much as do all people living on earth today. Incidentally, it is also the amount of CO2 that all humanity adds each year to the atmosphere. Coincidence.

Front of Petermann Glacier Aug.-11, 2012. View is from a small side-glacier towards the south-east across Petermann Fjord with Petermann Gletscher to the left (east). [Photo Credit: Erin Clark, Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

Ice Thickness in Nares Strait 2008 and 2009

[Editor’s Note: Undergraduate Julie Jones of the University of Delaware summarizes her work that was supervised by Helga Huntley as part of an NSF-funded summer internship.]

Three years ago in 2009 Andreas Muenchow left from Delaware for Greenland with students Pat Ryan and Berit Rabe to recover instruments that recorded salinity, temperature, current velocities, and ice thickness in Nares Strait since 2007.  This summer, I used those observations to estimate ice thickness for April through June in 2008 and compare them to estimates for the same spring period in 2009.  An ice bridge had formed in 2008 but not in 2009.  Working as a group, we wanted to investigate the effect of ice arches on the ice thickness.  Allison Einolf, another summer intern who focused on ocean currents during the same time periods and Andreas produced these maps that introduce the study area, spatial ice cover, and mean ocean currents:


Nares Strait MODIS satellite imagery of the study area and ice arch April 21, 2008. Red dots are instrument locations. Arrows show current velocities.


Nares Strait MODIS satellite imagery of the study area and ice arch April 22, 2009. Red dots are instrument locations. Arrows show current velocities. Note the lack of the southern ice arch, but the presence of one north of the study area.

I used Matlab for most of the data processing, more specifically the Ice Profiling Sonar (IPS) Processing Toolbox for Matlab provided by the manufacturer of the instrument that collected the data: ASL Environmental Sciences, Inc. First I transformed the data from the IPS instrument into a range time series.  I then manually “despiked” the data, taking out any data points that were likely due to bubbles or fish within the acoustic path from the sensor system to the ice above and back.  In a second step I wrote a function using sound speed data from Andreas, atmospheric pressure from Dr. Samelson at Oregon State University, and pressure (depth) data from the IPS instrument to get a time series of the thickness of the ice.  In a third step I applied a Lanczos raised cosine filter that was taught as part of a 2012 Summer Intern Page Workshop. Hence I finally had some nicely filtered data for the periods of the April-June of 2008 and 2009.

Now the results:  Just as we expected, there was much thicker ice in the 2008 spring with a southern ice arch present than there was in the spring of 2009 when no such ice arch was present:

Histogram for April – June 2008 ice. There is a peak at 3 meters, with almost 25% of the ice that thick.

Histogram for April – June 2009 ice. The ice does not get thicker then 2 meters with most of the ice thinner than one meter.

The histograms show thicker ice in 2008, about 2-6 meters on average and with some ice even reaching 10 meters.  In 2009, the ice doesn’t get thicker than 2 meters with most of the ice being thinner than 1 meter.  More specifically, the mean ice thickness for April – June 2008 (2009) is 3.8 (0.58) meters with a standard deviation of 1.8 (0.29) meters.  This further shows that there was thicker ice in 2008 than there was in 2009.  I attributed the cause for the thin 2009 ice to ice flowing freely through Nares Strait all winter and spring as no ice arch in the south blocked such flow.  The ice, thus, did not spend enough time in the high Arctic to thicken.

I noticed something else in my histograms when the 2008 ice bridge collapsed.

April 2008 ice thickness

May 2008 ice thickness

June 2008 Ice Thickness

The monthly histograms show that the ice in April and May is thicker than the ice in June.  We know that the 2008 ice bridge collapsed near June 6th, so it is interesting and it makes a lot of sense that the ice in June would be thinner than the ice two months earlier.

The mean ice thickness for April 2008 was 4.6 meters with a standard deviation of 2.40 meters.  In May 2008 the mean ice thickness was 3.5 meters with a standard deviation of 1.40 meters.  Lastly, in June the mean ice thickness was 3.5 meters with a standard deviation of 1.30 meters.  The ice thickness decreased after April and the variability decreases in June, which helps detect the bridge collapse in the data.

Lastly here are the filtered time series of April – June of 2008 and 2009.

Filtered time series for April – June 2008

Filtered time Series for April – June 2009 with the same scale as 2008 (above figure)

Filtered time series for April – June 2009 with a different scale to see the variability over time more clearly.

Hopefully we can see more interesting and exciting results from the instruments that the Nares Strait team picked up this summer even though they were hit hard by the 2010 Petermann Ice Island!

Two Ice Profiling Sonars (IPS) aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen in Aug.-2012. The protective stainless steel frame was bent by the 2010 ice island that hit both instruments in Sept.-2010. [Photo Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

The currents and winds of Nares Strait

[Editor’s Note: Undergraduate Allison Einolf of Macalester College in Minnesota summarizes her work at the University of Delaware that was supervised by Andreas Muenchow as part of an NSF-funded summer internship.]

I’m about to fly to Thule, Greenland for a research expedition into the Nares Strait. We had planed to survey Petermann Fjord, but our proposed cruise track is facing an obstacle twice the size of Manhattan.

We’re heading up north to pick up instruments that have recorded current velocities, salinity, temperature, and ice thickness in Nares Strait since 2009. I’ve been working all summer on data retrieved on a similar cruise three years ago, focusing on what effects the ice arches have on currents north of the ice arches.

Nares Strait MODIS satellite imagery of the study area and ice arch April 21, 2008. Red dots are instrument locations. Arrows show current velocities.

Nares Strait MODIS satellite imagery of the study area and ice arch April 22, 2009. Red dots are instrument locations. Arrows show current velocities. Note the lack of the southern ice arch, but the presence of one north of the study area.

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Nares Strait 2012 Ice Arch Collapsing (Updated 6/30)

UPDATE-2 6/30:

June-30, 2012 MODIS-Terra view of the collapsing Nares Strait ice arch. The separation occured at the location where the hairline fracture developed 3 days ago. The collapse is propagating upstream to the north as the buttressing support on the western anchor point near Bache Peninsula and Pim Island was removed.

UPDATE-1 6/29:

June-29, 2012 MODIS-Terra view of the collapsing Nares Strait ice arch. The separation occured at the location where the hairline fracture developed 2 days ago.

The most relevant weather information is from Hans Island near 81 N latitude.

ORIGINAL Post (6/28/2012):
The collapse of the ice-arch in southern Nares Strait began June-27, 2012 with development of a small hairline fracture along the western side of the strait off Ellesmere Island, Canada. The fracture connects an isolated area of open water off Bache Peninsula, Canada at 79 N latitude. The front between land-fast ice in the north and the open water in the south has moved slightly southward. It has also lost a visible larger piece of ice that before anchored the bridge at its western connection to land. This motion will open the hairline fracture more, accelerating the collapse of the ice-arch. The missing support of the ice-arch on its western side will collapse the entire ice-arch and the previously land-fast ice of Nares Strait will stream rapidly to the south, I predict, before this weekend.

Updates (including an animation) will be posted daily at

Ice-bridge at southern Nares Strait June-26, 2012 23:30 UTC from MODIS-Terra. There are no hairline fractures yet along the Ellesmere Island side near 79 N latitude. Greenland is on the right (east), Canada on left (west).

Ice-Bridge at southern Nares Strait on June-27, 2012 17:40 UTC from MODIS-Terra. Notice the crack and hairline fractures in the ice along the Ellesmere Island coast near 79 N latitude and 75 W longitude.

This collapse happens each year in the summer, though the timing varies from April for weak and July for strong arches. The arch in 2012 lasted longer than the one in 2011. No or only weak ice-arches formed at this site in 2007, 2008, and 2009, e.g.,

EDIT-1: Same imagery, same gridding, but more focus and detail

MODIS-Terra June-26, 2012 prior to collapse.

MODIS-Terra June-27, 2012 at the onset of collapse. Note the change near the Canada at 79 N latitude where open waters meets the sea ice.

EDIT-2: The moorings we try to recover this summer are to the north of Kane Basin and to the south where Petermann Fjord enters Nares Strait. This map shows it (also notice how badly the coastline of Greenland is surveyed):

June-10, 2012 MODIS-Terra image showing location of moored array that was deployed in Aug. 2009 to be recovered in Aug. 2012.

Nares Strait Ice Bridge and Arctic Ice Thickness Change

The ice of the Arctic Ocean is rapidly disappearing. This happens every summer, but for the last 30 years there is a little less ice left at the end of each summer than there was the year before. The areas covered by ice are not only shrinking, the ice is also getting thinner, or so many do believe.

To check out such claims, we placed sound systems on the ocean floor of Nares Strait from which to find out how much the thickness of the ice above has changed. We started this in 2003, were told to stop it in 2009, but privately parked our instruments where they would collect data. We must get to check our sound systems and retrieve the private recordings, because otherwise Poseidon will claim our possessions for parking violations. The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen, we hope, will help us to negotiate water and ice to get us deep into Nares Strait as she and her crew did so well in 2006, 2007, and last in 2009.

CCGS Henry Larsen in thick and multi-year ice of Nares Strait in August 2009. View is to the south with Greenland in the background. [Photo Credit: Dr. Helen Johnson]

The ice profiling sonar sounds system before its first deployment in Nares Strait in August 2003 from aboard the USCGC Healy. It measure ice thickness many times each seconds for up to 3 years. View is to the north-west with Ellesmere Island, Canada in the background. Listening in are Jay Simpkins (left), Helen Johnson, and Peter Gamble.

Nares Strait to the west of northern Greenland is one of two major gates for the thickest, the hardest, and the oldest ice to leave the Arctic for the Atlantic Ocean [Fram Strait to the east of Greenland is the other.] This gate is closed at the moment by an arching ice bridge that locks all ice in place. No ice can leave the Arctic via Nares Strait as long as these arches hold. The ice arch acts as a dam that holds back the flood of ice that will come streaming south hard once the dam breaks. And break it will, usually between the end of June and July.

Ice arch in southern Nares Strait as seen by MODIS Terra on June-18, 2012. Greenland is on the right, Canada on the left. The dark blue colors in the bottom-left are open water, yellow are the ice caps of Greenland and Ellesmere Island and lighter shades of blue are warm ice or land. Humboldt Glacier is the on the right-center where Nares Strait is at its widest with Kane Basin at about 80 N latitude.

Nares Strait Jun.-10, 2012 image showing land-fast ice between northern Greenland and Canada as well as the ice arch in the south (bottom left) separating sea ice from open water (North Water). The coastline is indicated as the black line.

The sooner it breaks, the more old ice the Arctic will lose and the better it is for us to get an icebreaker to where must be to recover our instruments and data. The data will tell us if the ice has changed the last 9 years.

I processed and archived maps of Nares Strait satellite images to guide 2003-2012 analyses of how air, water, and ice change from day to day. Ice arches formed as expected during the 2003/04, 2004/05, and 2005/06 winters lasting for about 180-230 days each year. In 2006/07 no ice arch formed, ice streamed freely southward all year, and this certainly contributed to the 2007 record low ice cover. In 2007/08 the arch was in place for only 65 days. In 2009/10, 2010/11, and now 2011/12 ice cover appear normal as the arches formed in December and lasted until July.

We live in exciting times of dramatic change, some to the better and some to the worse. Some of the change is caused by global warming while most is probably not. We do not know for sure, but most of the evidence points towards us people as a major driver of the change we observe in the Arctic and elsewhere. Nevertheless, climate and its change is one grand puzzle that no single scientist, no single discipline, no single country, and no single continent can solve. There are many pieces that all contribute to how and why the Arctic ice changes the way it does. And this includes the ice arches of Nares Strait. There are many mysteries and unresolved physics in what makes these ice arches tick and what makes them blow to bits, but blow they will … watch it, it’s fun, and perfectly natural.

EDIT: This movie shows just how stable the ice arch is at the moment.