Category Archives: Ice Island

Shades of White as the Sun Rises over Nares Strait

After four months of total darkness the sun is back up in Nares Strait. It transforms the polar night into thousand shades of white as mountains, glaciers, and ice take in and throw back the new light. Our satellites receive some of the throw-away light as the landscape reflects it back into space. During the long dark winter months these satellites could only “see” heat, but this will change rapidly as Alert atop of Arctic Canada receives 30 minutes more sun with each passing day.

Surface temperature in degrees centigrade over northern Baffin Bay on March-4, 2013 16:20 UTC from MODIS Terra.

Surface temperature in degrees centigrade over northern Baffin Bay on March-4, 2013 16:20 UTC from MODIS Terra. Warm colors (reds) show thin and/or ice while cold colors (blues) suggest thick ice stuck in place.

A very strong ice arch at the southern entrance to Nares Strait separates thick (and cold) ice to north from thin (and warm) ice to the south. The thick and cold ice is not moving, it is stuck to land, but the ocean under the ice is moving fast from north to south. The ocean currents thus sweep the newly formed thin ice away to the south. This ice arch formed way back in early November just after the sun set for winter over Nares Strait.

Now that the sun is up, we can also “see” more structures in the ice by the amount of light reflected back to space. A very white surface reflects lots while a darker surface reflects less. We are looking at the many shades of white here … even though I color them in reds and blues:

Surface reflectance at 865 nm in northern Baffin Bay on March-4, 2013 16:20 UTC from MODIS Terra.

Surface reflectance at 865 nm in northern Baffin Bay on March-4, 2013 16:20 UTC from MODIS Terra. A true color image (which this is not) would show only white everywhere. Hence I show the very bright white as red and the less bright white as blue. This artificial enhancement makes patterns and structures more visible to the eye.

Zooming into the area where the ice arch separates thick ice to the north that is not moving from thin ice in the south that is swept away by ocean currents, I show this image at the highest possible resolution:

Surface reflectance at 865 nm at the southern entrance to Nares Strait on March-4, 2013. Contours are 200-m bottom depth showing PII2012 grounded at the north-eastern sector of the ice arch.

Surface reflectance at 865 nm at the southern entrance to Nares Strait on March-4, 2013. Contours are 200-m bottom depth showing PII2012 grounded at the north-eastern sector of the ice arch.

Note, however, that the sun is far to south and barely peeking over the horizon. This low sun angle shows up as shadows cast by mountains. And since the sun is still far to the south, the shadows cast are to the north. This “shadow” makes visible the ice island from Petermann Gletscher that anchors this ice arch as it is grounded. I labeled it PII2012 in the picture.

From laser measurements we know that the ice islands stands about 20 meter (or 60 feet) above the rest of the ice field. This height is enough to cast a visible shadow towards the north (slightly darker = less red) as well as a direct reflection off its vertical wall facing south (brighter = more red) towards the sun. At its thickest point, PII2012 is about 200 meters (~600 feet) thick. For this reason, I also show the 200-m bottom contour that moves largely from north to south along both Ellesmere Island, Canada on the left and Greenland on the right.

The sun brings great joy to all, especially those hardy souls who live in the far north. The sun’s rise also shows the delicate interplay of light and shadows that we can use to solve puzzles on how ice, oceans, and glaciers work. At the entrance of Nares Strait the playful delights of the sea ice, ocean currents, and ice islands gives us a large area of thin ice. The thin ice will soon melt and perhaps has already started to set into motion a spring bloom of ocean plants. Ocean critters will feed on these to start another cycle of life. Whales, seals, and polar bears all depend on it for 1000s of years now.

Sketch of the biological pieces that a large area of open water near a fixed ice edge like that of a polynya may support. [From Northern Journal>/a>]

Sketch of the biological pieces that a large area of open water near a fixed ice edge like that of a polynya may support. [From Northern Journal]

Petermann Glacier Ice Islands: Where are they now?

Two large calving events in 2010 and 2012 reduced the floating part of Petermann Gletscher by 44 km (28 miles) in length, 6 Manhattans (380 km^2) in area, and 42 gigatons in mass. But what’s a gigaton? Writing in The Atlantic Magazine, Julio Friedman states that if we put all people living on earth onto a scale, then we will get half a gigaton. So, Petermann’s two ice island weigh more than eighty times as all humanity combined. As a reminder, this is what the break-ups looked like:

Petermann Gletscher in 2003, 2010, and 2012 from MODIS Terra in rotated co-ordinate system with repeat NASA aircraft overflight tracks flown in 2002, 2003, 2007, and 2010. Thick black line across the glacier near y = -20 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008).

Petermann Gletscher in 2003, 2010, and 2012 from MODIS Terra in rotated co-ordinate system with repeat NASA aircraft overflight tracks flown in 2002, 2003, 2007, and 2010. Thick black line across the glacier near y = -20 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008).

It turns out that the smaller 2012 ice island is just as heavy as the 2010 island, because it is much thicker, about 200 m, 600 feet, or half the height of the Empire State Building in Manhattan. These thick and thin islands have since left Petermann Fjord and Nares Strait for more southern climes. The thinnest piece reached Newfoundland in the summer of 2011 where it melted away. Most of the thicker, larger, and heavier ice islands from Petermann and Ryder Glaciers now litter almost the entire eastern seaboard of Canada as the two largest pieces have split, broken, and splintered into many smaller pieces. Each of these still represents an exceptionally large and dangereous piece of ice that can wipe any offshore oil platform off its foundation. Luc Desjardins of the Canadian Ice Service now tracks more than 40 segments, some still bigger than Manhattan, some as small as a football field. The distribution along the 1500 km (1000 miles) of coast is staggering:

RadarSat imagery of eastern Baffin Island (bottom, right), western Greenland (top, right), and Nares Strait with Petermann Fjord (top, left) with pieces of Petermann and Ryder Ice Islands identified. [Credit: Luc Lesjardins, Canadian Ice Service]

RadarSat imagery of eastern Baffin Island (bottom, right), western Greenland (top, right), and Nares Strait with Petermann Fjord (top, left) with pieces of Petermann and Ryder Ice Islands identified as green dots. [Credit: Luc Lesjardins, Canadian Ice Service]

What stands out is that most pieces are close to the coast of Canada. This is expected, because often the ocean moves in ways to balance pressure gradient and Coriolis forces as we live on an earth that rotates once every day around its axis. This force balance holds both in the ocean and the atmosphere. We are all familiar with winds around a low-pressure system such as Hurricane Sandy where the winds move air counter-clockwise around the eye (the center of low pressure). This eye of low pressure in our ocean story is permanently near the center of Baffin Bay. Ocean currents then move water counter-clockwise around this eye. This results in a flow to the south off Canada and a flow to the north off Greenland. On a smaller scale this balance holds also, such as Delaware Bay or Petermann Fjord, but I will not bore you with the details of graduate level physics of fluids in motions … as important as they may be.

So, almost all the ice islands we see in the above imagery will make their way further south towards the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Some are grounded to the bottom of the shallow coastal ocean and may sit in place for a year, or a month, or until the next high tide will lift the ice off the bottom and move it back into deeper water. Some ice islands will keep moving rapidly, some will further break apart, but none will go away anytime soon. If you want to see some of Petermann’s Ice Islands for yourself, take the ferry from North Sidney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland and Labrador and head for the Great Northern Peninsula. That’s what I hope to do one of the next summers.

ResearchBlogging.org
Johnson, H., Münchow, A., Falkner, K., & Melling, H. (2011). Ocean circulation and properties in Petermann Fjord, Greenland Journal of Geophysical Research, 116 (C1) DOI: 10.1029/2010JC006519

Münchow, A., & Garvine, R. (1993). Dynamical properties of a buoyancy-driven coastal current Journal of Geophysical Research, 98 (C11) DOI: 10.1029/93JC02112

Rignot, E., & Steffen, K. (2008). Channelized bottom melting and stability of floating ice shelves Geophysical Research Letters, 35 (2) DOI: 10.1029/2007GL031765

Shots of Airborne Lasers at Petermann Gletscher, Greenland

If shots of whiskey make you dizzy, shots of laser stun. NASA stunned me this week, when I discovered that they provide millions such shots of Greenland from which to construct detailed images of the landscape. The shots are free, no age-limit. This is better than the usual remote sensing or photography of “just” brightness. The laser gives us height, and not just the perception of it by shadows and fake angles of illumination, but hard and direct measurements of, well, height above sea level. Have a look at several million such shots of Petermann Gletscher taken in 2010 before the glacier broke to Manhattan-sized pieces:

Petermann Glacier surface elevation from laser shots on Mar.-24, 2010 at the site where the Manhattan-sized ice island formed Aug.-6, 2010. The background shows the same scene at the same time at 250-m resolution from MODIS (see below). Colors along the 350-m wide laser track line show height above sea level in meters.

Petermann Glacier on March 24, 2010 as seen from MODIS satellite at 250-m resolution with two flight tracks along which laser data are collected. The black box shows the site of the figure above. The color figure on the right shows the slope or gradients of the data shown on left. It emphasizes regions where brightness changes fast. Multivariate calculus is useful!

We see two tracks: the one on right (east) has the ice stick more than 20-m above sea level (yellow colors) while about a mile to left (west) the ice’s surface elevation is only 10-m above sea level (light blue). Since the ice is floating and densities of ice and water are known, we can invert this height into an ice thickness. Independent radar measurements from the same track prove that this “hydrostatic” force balance holds, the glacier is indeed floating, so, multiply surface elevation by 10 and you got a good estimate of ice thickness. The dark blue colors of thin ice show meandering rivers and streams, ponds and undulations, as well as a rift or hairline fracture from east to west. This rift is visible both in the right and left track, it is the line along which the glacier will break to form the 2010 ice island. All ice towards the top of this rift has long left the glacier and some of it has hit Newfoundland as seen from the International Space Station by astronaut Ron Garan:

Last remnant of Petermann Ice Island 2010-A as seen from the International Space Station on Aug.-29, 2011 when it was about 3.5 km wide and 3 km long [Photo credit: Ron Garan, NASA]

Both are images of Petermann ice. The photo measures the brightness that hits the lens, but the laser measures both brightness and ice thickness. The laser acts like flash photography: When it is dark, we use a flash to provide the light to make the object “bright.” Now imagine that your camera also measures the time between the flash leaving your camera and brightness from a reflecting object to return it. What you think happens at an instant actually takes time as light travels fast, but not infinitely fast. So you need a very exact clock to measure the distance from your camera to the object. Replace the flash of the camera with a laser, replace the lens of your camera with a light detector and a timer, place the device on a plane, and you got yourself an airborne topographic altimeter. So, what use is there for this besides making pretty and geeky pictures?

The laser documents some of the change in “climate change.” Greenland’s glaciers and ice-sheets are retreating and shrinking. Measuring the surface and bottom of the ice over Greenland with lasers and radars gives ice thickness. The survey lines above were flown in 2002, 2003, 2007, 2010, and 2011. These data are a direct and accurate measure on how much ice is lost or gained at Petermann Gletscher and what is causing it. My bet is on the oceans which in Nares Strait and Petermann Fjord have increased the last 10 years to melt the floating glacier from below.

There is more, but Mia Zapata of the Gits sings hard of “Another Shot of Whiskey.” What a voice …

ResearchBlogging.org

Johnson, H., Münchow, A., Falkner, K., & Melling, H. (2011). Ocean circulation and properties in Petermann Fjord, Greenland Journal of Geophysical Research, 116 (C1) DOI: 10.1029/2010JC006519

Krabill, W., Abdalati, W., Frederick, E., Manizade, S., Martin, C., Sonntag, J., Swift, R., Thomas, R., & Yungel, J. (2002). Aircraft laser altimetry measurement of elevation changes of the greenland ice sheet: technique and accuracy assessment Journal of Geodynamics, 34 (3-4), 357-376 DOI: 10.1016/S0264-3707(02)00040-6

Münchow, A., Falkner, K., Melling, H., Rabe, B., & Johnson, H. (2011). Ocean Warming of Nares Strait Bottom Waters off Northwest Greenland, 2003–2009 Oceanography, 24 (3), 114-123 DOI: 10.5670/oceanog.2011.62

Thomas, R., Frederick, E., Krabill, W., Manizade, S., & Martin, C. (2009). Recent changes on Greenland outlet glaciers Journal of Glaciology, 55 (189), 147-162 DOI: 10.3189/002214309788608958

Petermann and Ryder Glacier Ice Island

Ice island from 2010 and 2012 calvings litter Nares Strait and northern Baffin Island, Canada. All these glacier fragments originate from Petermann and Ryder Gletscher in north-west Greenland. The image below is a composite that Luc Desjardins of the Canadian Ice Service compiled from RadarSat imagery. He painstakingly identified 25 segments in these imagery.

Ice Islands and fragments from Petermann and Ryder glacier 2010 and 2012 calvings. [Credit: Luc Desjardings, Canadian Ice Service]

The largest piece is PII-2012-A1 and it covers an area a little less than 2 Manhattans (100 km^2). We see it in Kane Basin for several weeks now as it pivots back and forth with the tides around the point where it is stuck to the bottom of the ocean. The second largest piece is RII-2012 roughly half the size of Manhattan (33 km^2) and it originates from Ryder Gletscher which is to the north by north-east of Petermann Gletscher. Trudy Wohleben identified this piece when it was entered Nares Strait from the north about 4 weeks ago and together we traced it back to Ryder Gletscher where it had lingered for several years. RII-2012 is now moving rapidly south and is about exit Nares Strait to enter Baffin Bay:

Two of these ice island send their position several time each day with the data made available at for PII-2010-B-a (9 km^2) and for PII-2012-A2 (13 km^2). The last piece broke off from Petermann on July 16, 2012 and it entered Nares Strait in August when we passed it during our explorations of Petermann Fjord on Aug. 10/11, 2012 aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen:

Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen at the entrance to Petermann Fjord on Aug.-10, 2012. The ice island PII-2012 is in the background with puddles on sea ice in the foreground. Polaris Bay, Greenland is in the far back. [Photo Credit: CCGS Henry Larsen and Jo Poole.]

CCGS Henry Larsen: People, Places, Services

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen sailed this summer on a challenging science mission to Nares Strait, Petermann Glacier, and beyond. It reached its farthest North ever at 82 degrees and 15 minutes North latitude. This week I like to focus on the 39 people who make this ship what it really is: a complex community with all the functionality of a city. Captain Wayne Duffett is in overall command. His job will overwhelm lesser minds as he has to manage an airport, a fire department, a power plant, a sanitation department, a hospital, a restaurant, a hotel, a supermarket, a weather station, a port facility, a civil administration, etc., etc. Oh yeah, The CCGS Henry Larsen is also a ship that he moves through ice in uncharted waters to support 8 scientists from 3 countries. All of this is done with only 22 crew and 17 officers who work around the clock on a variety of schedules.

CCGS Henry Larsen next to the Petermann Ice Island PII-2012 on Aug.-10, 2012. The south-western tip of PII-2012 at the bottom right of the image was used by Captain Wayne Duffett as a reference point for the motion of PII-2012. The exact place of this point was monitored at hourly intervals via helicopter while the ship was operating inside the fjord landward of the ice island. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen/Jo Poole]


Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen at the entrance to Petermann Fjord on Aug.-10, 2012. The ice island PII-2012 is in the background with puddles on sea ice in the foreground. Polaris Bay, Greenland is in the far back. [Photo Credit: CCGS Henry Larsen and Jo Poole.]

The ship may occupy an area of only 2,000 m^2 (100 meters long and 20 meters wide), but it functions as a self-contained universe at sea. Perhaps the most important and largest department with 13 people is the power plant that produces energy to move the ship and to provide electricity and heat to make all other departments’ work possible. The 13 members are quiet and thoughtful men often working in the background in cramped, hot, and dirty spaces below decks. It is very hard to get good pictures of them, but here are two, one of Chief Engineer William Derraugh and Second Electrical Officer Anatoly Eltsov:

Chief Engineer William Derraugh on the bridge of the CCGS Henry Larsen in Aug.-2012 with Senior Scientist Dr. Humfrey Melling. [Photo Credit: Barb O’Connell, Canadian Coast Guard.]


Electrical Officer Anatoly Eltsov during a thoughtful moment on the bridge of the Canadian Coast Ship Henry Larsen in Nares Strait. [Photo Credit: Kirk McNeil, Canadian Coast Guard]

The second-largest department is the fire department that also run the port facilities, the fishing fleet, and provide general support on deck, on the bridge, on the water, and on land to a range of activities. There are nine men in this department that are led by the boatswain or bosun Don Barnable with Chief Officer Brian Legge in command. The men of this department are perhaps the most vocal and visible on the ship as they work so many jobs wearing many hats, uniforms, and arms. I can and will fill entire picture galleries of their work, here are just three images that barely serve as teasers, perhaps:

Boatswain Don Barnable and Seaman Derick Stone working at the airport aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen as traffic control and fire fighter, respectively. [Photo Credit: Jo Poole, British Columbia]


Zodiac of the CCGS Henry Larsen recovering a mooring in Kennedy Channel on Aug.-6 with Chief Officer Brian Legge at the helm. Ellesmere Island, Canada is in the background. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]


Deck crew of CCGS Henry Larsen led by boatswain Don Barnable (white helmet) recovering a mooring over the side where the zodiac delivered it to the crane. Two scientists in the background waiting for the deck to be secure. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

I will have to stop here for now, and will report tomorrow and thursday about the logistics, communication, aviation, hospital, and civil administration departments. There is just too much going on aboard a ship that acts like a complex, advanced, and very mobile city. And with mobile I do not just mean a structure of steel, but a structure made of sailors, navigators, scientists, and engineers.