Category Archives: Oceanography

Waves Across the Pacific

Claudia Schreier is a sophomore at the University of Delaware. She majors in Chemical Engineering with a minor in Marine Sciences. Ms. Schreier’s essay emerged from an assignment in an undergraduate “Introduction to Ocean Science” class taught by Drs. K. Billups and A. Muenchow in the fall of 2020. ~A. Muenchow, Editor

The 1967 documentary “Waves Across the Pacific” highlights some of the first uses of high-tech measuring tools and novel techniques to discover how waves move across the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Walter Munk and his research team studied how wave energy from storms off Antarctica is lost as waves move across the equator towards Alaska. This was the first time that anyone collected and reported data for wave processes on a global scale.

Dr. Munk in 1963 (UC San Diego Library)

The vessel that the team used for this expedition was fascinating; it is called FLIP, and it is a mobile floating instrument platform standing 355 feet tall, providing both the space and stability for the laboratory and its equipment. Waves originating from Antarctica reached New Zealand, and then moved farther in every direction within the Pacific Ocean. Recording stations were located in New Zealand, Samoa, Palmyra (an uninhabited equatorial atoll), Hawaii, and Alaska. In the North Pacific without suitable islands between Hawaii and Alaska, FLIP was used for wave measurements. Dr. Munk’s headquarters and central wave station for the experiment was in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Floating Instrument Platform (Smithsonian Ocean)

Dr. Munk originally hypothesized that most of the wave energy coming from Antarctica would be scattered in the equatorial Trade Wind regions, therefore preventing most Antarctic waves from reaching the North Pacific. However, the data revealed little energy loss as the waves crossed the equator. The team discovered, though, that wave attenuation, or the loss of energy, results from interactions of waves from the same storm near its generation region off Antarctica only. Furthermore, the interactions between such waves weakened as they traveled away from the generation region through wave dispersion. This means that waves of different frequencies can travel at different speeds, therefore sorting them, because long waves move faster than shorter ones. Because of this data and new understanding, Dr. Munk could predict surfing conditions in Hawaii from prior observations off Samoa! The data and methodology from this experiment became the cornerstone of many subsequent studies to predict waves.

Recording stations from the study (Munk 2013)

The documentary film captured not only research methods but also life in the 1960s. I appreciated this look back in time, and it got me thinking about women in ocean sciences. In the film, all of the research scientists were men, and no women participated in the project whatsoever. The scientific community has come a long way since then, with more women participating and leading in both science and technology, as well as leading their fields, than ever before. The film helped me to realize that my interest in science and the opportunities to pursue a career within it has been aided by the efforts of countless women who have come before me.

This documentary also made me hopeful in a curious way that I did not expect from a marine science documentary. Dr. Munk was unsure about many things in this study, including the novel technology, remote measuring locations, and even the validity of the experiment itself. Amassing over 10 million data points, he found both the purpose and the results he was seeking for this research in the face of uncertainty. This documentary gave me a fresh take on ocean sciences, and it does more than just explain the brilliant research done in the 1960s: there are still many things we do not know about the world, but with the spirit and drive of Dr. Munk, there is no limit to what can be discovered.

A link to the film: https://waltermunkfoundation.org/uncategorized/waves-across-the-pacific/

Rotations, Spin, and People

I hate to rotate. It makes me sick. And yet, every day I spin at 800 miles per hour, because living on a spinning earth does this to me. Why does the earth spin at all? [CalTech answer.] Did it always spin the way it does now? [No.] Could it spin in the other direction that would make the sun rise above the horizon in the West rather than the East? [No.] If not, why not? [Not sure yet.] I am pondering these questions as I will teach my first undergraduate class in ten days:

I plan to introduce how oceans and atmospheres circulate to distribute heat, water, and “stuff” like food and plastics across the globe. There is lots of rotation, lots of angular momentum, lots of torque and I am unsure, if a text book and lecture via Zoom will make much sense. So, today I discovered several fun and smart and insightful videos that I may even pose to my students as Homework or Exam questions 😉

The first set of videos I discovered today is Derek Muller’s Veritasium channel on YouTube. He covers a range of physics, math, and even biology topics, but I here focus on his wing nut problem. He entertains by explaining a strange and even bizarre observation made in space some 30 years ago. A Russian engineering astronaut noticed a rotating wing nut change its rotational axis repeatedly. Russia kept the observation top secret for over 10 years for reasons not entirely clear, but here is a modern attempt to explain what happened. It also applies to how tennis rackets rotate:

Now this reminded me of a problem that I encountered during my third year studying physics in Germany. I never solved or understood this so-called spinning-hard-boiled-egg problem that the Physics Girl describes so well. Her real name is Dianne Cowern and I use her videos in my graduate statistics class where her voice and physics shatters wine glasses via resonance. Today I discovered many more of her PBS Digital videos that all are filled with fun, beauty, and smart explanations. She plays with vortices in air and water and in between.

Now how does this relate to oceanography and meteorology? Well, we all live somewhere on the spinning top or egg or peanut that we call earth. Gravity keeps us grounded, but rotating objects can do strange things as the above two videos show. And when rotation becomes important we are not just dealing with linear momentum, but also angular momentum. When rotation becomes important, we must consider torques that generate angular momentum in ways similar to how forces generate linear momentum.

Rotation adds a strong and often counter-intuitive element because unlike a force that accelerates a car in the same direction that the force is applied, a force applied to a rotating system generates a torque perpendicular to both the force and the direction to the rotational axis. This can be confusing and one has to either watch the movies or go through advanced vector calculus. Furthermore, a rotating sphere acts differently than a rotating spheroid which acts differently from a rotating triaxial spheriod. Our peanut earth is the latter and thus has at least three axes of orientation (a and b and c) that all have different kinetic energy and angular momentum states. This makes for wobbly rotations which are sensitive to changes in both force balances and the distribution of masses like ice and water that can move to different locations at different times and stay there for a while.

For a perfect sphere three perpendicular lines from the center to the surface all have the same distance a (top) while for a spheriod only two of the three perpendicular lines have the same distance from the center (bottom right). If all three perpendiculars are different then we have something called a triaxial spheroid [Adapted from WikiPedia].

And how does this relate to climate science and my beloved glaciers in Greenland? Well, there is the “global wobbling” that caused ice ages and warm periods as the earth’s principal axis or rotation changes or wobbles. The “global wobble” was discussed in hilarious way a few years ago by the United States House of Representative’s “Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.” Closing this essay, I let Jon Steward of the Comedy Channel speak and hope you find his commentary and live experiment as funny as I do:

Scoresby Sund – Greenland’s Longest Fjord

Fog, fog, and more fog is all we saw as we approached Scoresby Sund aboard the German research ship Maria S. Merian from Denmark Strait to the south-east. The fog lifted as soon as we passed Kap Brewster and began work on ocean currents and waters at the entrance of this massive fjord system. My artist friend and wife Dragonfly Leathrum posted a wonderful travel essay with many photos that did not include these:

We were here to explore how the coastal ocean off Greenland may relate to Daugaard-Jensen Gletscher at the head of the fjord some 360 km away (195 nautical miles or about a day of constant steaming at 8 knots). This tidewater glacier discharges as much icy mass out to sea as does Petermann Gletscher or 79N Glacier to the north or half as much as Helheim, Kangerdlugssuaq, and Jacobshavn Glaciers to the south. Unlike all those other glaciers, Daugaard-Jensen and its fjord are still largely unexplored.

Location Map of Scoresby Sund. Kap Brewster is at bottom right while Daugaard-Jensen Gletscher 360 km away is near the top left.

Location Map of Scoresby Sund. Kap Brewster is at bottom right while Daugaard-Jensen Gletscher 360 km away is near the top left.

Part of the chart of the East Greenland coast drawn up by William Scoresby Jr. in 1822, showing the numerous features that he names in Liverpool land (Liverpool Coast) and adjacent areas. From: Scoresby (1823)

Part of the chart of the East Greenland coast drawn up by William Scoresby Jr. in 1822, showing the numerous features that he names in Liverpool land (Liverpool Coast) and adjacent areas. From: Scoresby (1823)

While the entrance between Kap Tobin and Kap Brewster was known to whalers in the early 19th century, it was William Scoresby Sr. after whom the fjord is named. His scientist son William Scoresby Jr. mapped coastal Greenland between 69.5 and 71.5 North latitude during his last voyage in 1822. Nobody entered the fjord until 1891 when Lt. Carl Ryder of the Danish Navy sailed deep into the fjord to explore the area for a year with 10 companions. They built a hut next to a natural port that they named Hekla Harbor. Amazingly, they also measured ocean temperature profiles almost every month from the surface to 400 m depth. I found these data at the National Ocean Data Center of the United States Government.

Ocean temperature (left panel) and salinity (right panel) as it varies with depth in different years. Blue represents measurements from 1891/92, red from 1990, and black from 2018.

Ocean temperature (left panel) and salinity (right panel) as it varies with depth in different years. Blue represents measurements from 1891/92, red from 1990, and black from 2018.

Searching for data from Scoresby Sund, I found 17 profiles of water temperature with data from at least 10 depths. Funny that 12 of these profiles were collected in 1891 and 1892 while the other 5 profile contain salinity measurements made in 1933, 1984, 1985, 1988, and 2002. The 1988 cast was taken by an Icelandic vessel and also contained continous data from a modern electronic sensor rather than waters collected by bottles. I “found” another 4 modern sensor profiles collected in 1990 at the Alfred-Wegener Institute in Germany.

That’s pretty much “it” … until we entered the fjord in 2018 when we collected another 27 casts thus more than doubling the ocean profiles. More exciting, though, is the very large shift in ocean temperatures from 1990 to 2018. The 1990 temperatures are very similar to the 1891/92 temperatures, but all old temperatures (also from 1933 and 1985, not shown) are all about 1 degree Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than those we measured in 2018. Why is this so? Does such warming originate from outside the fjord? If so, how does the warmer Atlantic water at depth in deep water crosses the 80 km wide shallow continental shelf to enter Scoresby Sund? Are any of these ideas supported by actual data? What data are there?

Ocean data location off eastern Greenland collected from 1890 to 2010 that reside in NODC archives. Red are water bottle data while yellow are modern electronic sensor measurements. The white box bottom left is the entrance to Scoresby Sund. Light blue areas are water less than 500 m deep while dark blue shades are deeper than 1000 m.

Ocean data location off eastern Greenland collected from 1890 to 2010 that reside in NODC archives. Red are water bottle data while yellow are modern electronic sensor measurements. The white box bottom left is the entrance to Scoresby Sund. Light blue areas are water less than 500 m deep while dark blue shades are deeper than 1000 m.

Discoveries in science can be pretty basic, if one is at the right location at the right time with the right idea. Also, there is more data to the south that I did not yet look at to investigate the question of what causes the warming of bottom waters in Scoresby Sund.

EDIT Dec.-31, 2019: Replace “warmer” with “cooler” when comparing 1891 and 1990 (cooler) to 2018 (warmer) water temperatures.

Petermann Glacier & Videos & Science

I just re-discovered four stunning science videos from the last expedition to reach Petermann Gletscher in Greenland. Each video is 3-6 minutes long and was made professionally by Saskia Madlener of 77th Parallel Productions with partial support from the US National Science Foundation. They were first posted at

https://petermannsglacialhistory.wordpress.com/videos/

and relate to a joint 2015 US-Swedish Expedition. The project involved diverse groups of geological, physical, biological, and chemical scientists from Sweden, England, Scotland, Denmark, Germany, Canada, and the USA who all worked together aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden for 6 weeks. [For full resolution HD video click on the Vimeo icon in the video.]

Petermann Glacier 2015 – Overview from 77th Parallel on Vimeo.

Petermann Glacier 2015 – Ocean & Ice from 77th Parallel on Vimeo.

Petermann Glacier 2015 – Rocks & Shells from 77th Parallel on Vimeo.

Petermann Glacier 2015 – Expedition from 77th Parallel on Vimeo.

How to whisper under sea ice: Wireless Acoustic Sensor Network Design

I want to build a cell phone system under water. I want it to send me a text messages every 30 minutes from 200 feet below the ocean that is covered by sea ice next to a glacier in northern Greenland where polar bears roam to catch seals for food at -40 Fahrenheit. Why would I want to do this and is this is even possible?

The author measuring sea ice thickness in Wolstenholme Fjord, Greenland April-17, 2017.

The author measuring sea ice thickness in Wolstenholme Fjord, Greenland April-17, 2017.

Our project successfully showed that it is possible to move data as text messages from a computer in the ocean to another and on to another and then via a cable to a weather station and then on to a satellite and then on to my laptop at home somewhere, anywhere, really [Intellectual Merit]. The ocean data that we moved by whispering from modem to modem (my acoustic cell phone towers) under water can be anything that any scientist may want to study. It could, for example, detect pollutants in the water that seep out of the sediment like gas or oil or radioactive materials burried accidentally [Broader Impacts] such as a nuclear-tipped B-52 bomber that crashed into Wolstenholme Fjord on January-21, 1968 at the height of the Cold War. The propagation of sound under ice also has military applications, because our communication network operates in both ways, that is, if I can receive a text message, I can also send one [Broader Impacts].

Installation of Automated Weather Station on Mar.-23, 2017 near Thule, Greenland via snowmobile. The station includes a satellite connection to the internet and a cable to the ocean.

Installation of Automated Weather Station on Mar.-23, 2017 near Thule, Greenland via snowmobile. The station includes a satellite connection to the internet and a cable to the ocean.

While the problem sounds simple enough, it is hard, real hard, because it requires many different people with very different skill sets. Our project included mechanical, electrical, and computer engineers but also scientists who know about acoustics, oceanography, and sea ice, as well as technicians with common sense and practical abilities to keep machines and people moving and running safely. This includes guns that we had to carry while working on the sea ice via snowmobile to protect from polar bears and medically trained personnel who could spot frostbites before they bite. All of this has to come together in just the right way and right time. Good and successful science is more than just engineering and machines, there is a strong human element in all polar field work such as ours. 

A local volunteer is designing, building, and rigging the Research Sled R/S Peter Freuchen for profiling the ocean below the sea ice in March 2017 on Thule Air Base.

A local volunteer is designing, building, and rigging the Research Sled R/S Peter Freuchen for profiling the ocean below the sea ice in March 2017 on Thule Air Base.

The first step in our project involved the design of the acoustic modems that Lee Freitag of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution did many years back. It took us about 2 years to select this design that Lee then modified for this application in 2014-15). The second step involved the selection of a study site where our small group of 6 people could work and experiment and learn by some trial and error without incurring extra-ordinary costs (2015-16). It helped that I was in and out of Thule Air Base on unrelated projects in 2015 and 2016 when we settled for the final experiment to take place in March and April of 2017. Satellite remote sensing tools where then developed to quantify sea ice conditions for safe operation and navigation traveling on the  ice. We uncovered a barely visible area of thin ice to the south of Manson Island that recurs at the same location every year. We stayed clear of this area.

Thule2017_CTD

Satellite image of ice-covered Wolstenholme Fjord, Greenland with water column profiling station (green dots) and acoustic modems (red dots). Blue lines are water depths in meters. Labels G1, G2, and G3 indicate three tide-water glaciers while Thule refers to Thule Air Base. Saunders Island is near the center left while the weather station is the red dot halfway between Saunders and Manson Islands.

Field work started with a survey of sea ice thickness on Mar. 18/19, 2017 by drilling 2” holes through the sea ice that varied in measured thickness from 0.12 m (4 inches) near Manson Island to 1.25 m (4 feet) near Thule Air Base. On Mar.-23, 2017 we deployed the weather station along with a tent and survival gear at the center of our study area. An ocean temperature mooring was deployed to complement in time a spatial survey of ocean sound speed profiles estimated from conductivity, temperature, depth (CTD) measurements. We drilled 10” holes through the sea ice for our profiling CTD operated via an electrical winch. Our CTD survey spanned the entire fjord from three tidewater glaciers in the east to the edge of the sea ice in the west. Concurrently ocean testing of acoustic communication between modems commenced Apr.-8, 2017 and the final array was deployed Apr.-14/15 to be fully operational Apr.-16/18. All gear was recovered and stored at Thule Air Base Apr.-18/19, 2017 before our departure Apr.-20, 2017.

Research Sled

Research Sled “Peter Freuchen” with wooden CTD storage box, electrical winch, tripod, and electrical motor during deployment on Apr.-7, 2017. View is to the west with Cape Atholl on the left and Wolstenholme Island on the right background. University of Delaware technician operates the winch via joy stick while a student monitors the instrument’s descent through water column visually at the 10” hole and acoustically via a commercial Fish-Finding sonar.

Subsequent analysis in 2017/18 revealed a successful experiment as data from ocean sensors traveled along multiple paths to the weather station and on to the internet. All data were submitted to the NSF Arctic Data Center where after review they will become public at

https://arcticdata.io/catalog/view/urn:uuid:d2775281-3231-47d0-ab79-b2e506ea8d04

This graph is just one of many in desperate need of a proper peer-reviewed publication. There is always more work to do …

Time series of ocean temperature at the weather station from 10-m (top) to 100-m (bottom below the sea ice. The red line gives the -1.7 Celsius for reference. The temperature field dominates the speed of sound field. Note the presence and absence of tidal oscillations.

Time series of ocean temperature at the weather station from 10-m (top) to 100-m (bottom below the sea ice. The red line gives the -1.7 Celsius for reference. The temperature field dominates the speed of sound field. Note the presence and absence of tidal oscillations.