Category Archives: Polarstern

Northern Winds and Currents off North-East Greenland

I spent 6 weeks aboard the German research icebreaker R/V Polarstern last year leaving Tromso in Norway in early September and returned to Bremerhaven, Germany in October. We successfully recovered ocean sensors that we had deployed more than 3 years before. It felt good to see old friends, mates, and sensors back on the wooden deck. Many stories, some mysterious, some sad, some funny and happy could be told, but today I am working on some of the data as I reminisce.

The location is North-East Greenland where Fram Strait connects the Arctic Ocean to the north with the Atlantic Ocean in the south. We worked mostly on the shallow continental shelf areas where water depths vary between 50 and 500 meters. The map shows these areas in light bluish tones where the line shows the 100 and 300 meter water depth. Fram Strait is much deeper, more than 2000 meters in places. I am interested how the warm Atlantic water from Fram Strait moves towards the cold glaciers that dot the coastline of Greenland in the west.

Map of study area with 2014-16 mooring array in box near 78 N across Belgica Trough. Red triangles place weather data from Station Nord (81.2 N), Henrik Kr\o yer Holme (80.5 N), and Danmarkhaven (76.9 N). Black box indicates area of mooring locations.

There is also ice, lots of sea icebergs, and ice islands that we had to navigate. None of it did any harm to our gear that we moored for 1-3 years on the ocean floor that can and often is scoured by 100 to 400 meter thick ice from glaciers, however, 2-3 meter thick sea ice prevented us to reach three mooring locations this year and our sensors are still, we hope, on the ocean floor collecting data.

Ahhh, data, here we come. Lets start with the weather at this very lonely place called Henrik Krøyer Holme. The Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) maintains an automated weather station that, it seems, Dr. Ruth Mottram visited and blogged about in 2014 just before we deployed our moorings from Polarstern back in 2014:

Weather station on Henrik Kroeyer Holme [Credit: Dr. Ruth Mottram, DMI]

It was a little tricky to find the hourly data and it took me more than a day to process and graph it to suit my own purposes, but here it is

Winds (A) and air temperature (B) from an automated weather station at Henrik Kroeyer Holme from 1 June, 2014 through 31 August, 2016. Missing values are indicated as red symbols in (A).

The air temperatures on this island are much warmer than on land to the west, but it still drops to -30 C during a long winter, but the end of July it reaches +5 C. The winds in summer (JJA for June, July, and August) are weak and variable, but they are often ferociously strong in winter (DJF for December, January, February) when they reach almost 30 meters per second (60 knots). The strong winter winds are always from the north moving cold Arctic air to the south. The length of each stick along the time line relates the strength of the winds, that is, long stick indicates much wind. The orientation of each stick indicates the direction that the wind blows, that is, a stick vertical down is a wind from north to south. I use the same type of stick plot for ocean currents. How do these look for the same period?

Ocean current vectors at four selected depths near the eastern wall of Belgica Trough. Note the bottom-intensified flow from south to north. A Lanczos low-pass filter removes variability at time scales smaller than 5 days to emphasize mean and low-frequency variability.

Ocean currents and winds have nothing in common. While the winds are from north to south, the ocean currents are usually in the opposite direction. This becomes particular clear as we compare surface currents at 39 meters below the sea surface with bottom currents 175 or even 255 meters below the surface. They are much stronger and steadier at depth than at the surface. How can this be?

Image of study area on 15 June 2014 with locations (blue symbols) where we deployed moorings a few days before this satellite image was taken by MODIS Terra. The 100-m isobath is shown in red.

Well, recall that there is ice and for much of the year this sea ice is not moving, but is stuck to land and islands. This immobile winter ice protects the ocean below from a direct influence of the local winds. Yet, what is driving such strong flows under the ice? We need to know, because it is these strong currents at 200 to 300 meter depth that move the heat of warm and salty Atlantic waters towards coastal glaciers where they add to the melting of Greenland. This is what I am thinking about now as I am trying to write-up for my German friends and colleagues what we did together the last 3 years.

Oh yes, and we did reach the massive terminus of 79 North Glacier (Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden) that features the largest remaining floating ice shelf in Greenland:

We recovered ocean moorings from this location also, but this is yet another story that is probably best told by scientists at the Alfred-Wegener-Institute who spent much time and treasures to put ship, people, and science on one ship. I am grateful for their support and companionship at sea and hopefully all of next year in Bremerhaven, Germany.

Coastal Oceanography off North-East Greenland

Greenland is melting, but it is not entire clear why. Yes, air temperatures continue to increase, but what does it matter, if those temperatures are below freezing most of the time. What if the ocean does most of the melting a few 100 m below the surface rather than the air above? It means that gut feeling and everyday experience can be poor guides for science, it means that there is more than meets the eye, and it means that some of Greenland’s melting happens out of sight without the dramatic imagery of a rapidly disintegrating glacier that sends icebergs out to sea.

Floating section of 79N Glacier in north-east Greenland as seen from LandSat in march 2014.

Floating section of 79N Glacier in north-east Greenland as seen from LandSat in march 2014.

In order to “see” where changes may happen out of sight American tax payers supported me via the National Science Foundation (NSF) to use available University of Delaware ocean sensors from an available German ship to investigate the ocean near two large glaciers off north-east Greenland. The sensors are in the water for over a year now and will stay there for another to collect data every half hour. The data are stored on computers inside the sensors and it is a marvel of smart engineering that we can measure water temperature, salinity, and velocity at the bottom of an ice-covered ocean. Now what would I do with such data?

Two ocean sensor packages ready for deployment near Isle de France, Greenland 10 June 2014.

Two ocean sensor packages ready for deployment near Isle de France, Greenland 10 June 2014.

First, one needs to know that in the Arctic Ocean temperature increases as one moves a thermometer from the surface towards the bottom for the first 900 feet or 300 meters. This only make sense, if the warm water is heavier than the cold water above. This is the case in the Arctic, because the warm water at depth is also very salty. The cold waters above contain less salt and that’s why they float. The warmest waters originate from the Atlantic Ocean to the south-east of Iceland. Lets call it Atlantic Water for this reason. The surface waters contain sea ice and its fresh melt water and thus are always close to the freezing point, so lets call them Polar Waters.

Vertical profiles of temperature and salinity across Norske Ore Trough, Greenland. The insert shows station locations for profiles (small symbols) and moorings (large circles). The red dot marks the location of the red profile.

Vertical profiles of temperature and salinity across Norske Ore Trough, Greenland. The insert shows station locations for profiles (small symbols) and moorings (large circles). The red dot marks the location of the red profile.

All along the East Coast of Greenland, we find a strong southward flow of ice and Polar Water called the East Greenland Current. On a rare clear day one can “see” this flow as a beautifully structured undulating band separating the deep Greenland Sea from the shallow and broad continental shelves. Now recall that the warmest waters are in the Atlantic layer way down and somewhat offshore. How do these waters cross the East Greenland current and the very wide continental shelf to reach the glaciers along the coast? It is this question my project tries to answer with lots of help from NSF and German friends.

Satellite image ocean current instabilities on Aug.-19, 2014 as traced by ice along the the shelf break, red lines show 500, 750, and 1000 meter water depth. Small blue triangles top left are ocean moorings.

Satellite image ocean current instabilities on Aug.-19, 2014 as traced by ice along the the shelf break, red lines show 500, 750, and 1000 meter water depth. Small blue triangles top left are ocean moorings.

We think that the warm and salty waters flow near the bottom below the East Greenland Current at deep bottom depressions such as canyons. Testing this idea, we placed our sensors in a line across the canyon with a small ice-capped island called the Isle of France on one side and Belgica Bank on the other. We deployed seven instrument as an array across the canyon to measure the speed and direction of the flow as well as its temperatures and salinities. Our canyon connects the deep Greenland Sea 150 miles to the east with two glaciers another 100 miles to the north-west. We all anxiously hope that no iceberg wiped out bottom moorings and that they all record data faithfully until the summer of 2016 when we plan to recover instruments and data.

Section of temperature across Norske Ore Trough with Isle de France, Greenland on the left and Belgica Bank towards Fram Strait on the right. The view is towards 79N Glacier.

Section of temperature across Norske Ore Trough with Isle de France, Greenland on the left and Belgica Bank towards Fram Strait on the right. The view is towards 79N Glacier.

Before and after the placement of our moored instruments, however, we did survey the section from the ship and I show the temperature and salinity across our canyon. We now see that the water below 200 m depth are indeed very warm and salty as expected, but there is a detail that I cannot yet explain: notice the slight upward sloping contours of salinity near km-80 at the rim of the canyon and the downward sloping contours on the other side near km-10. Such sloping contours represent a flow out of the page at km-80 and into the page at km-10 which is exactly the opposite of what I expected. All I can say at the moment is that this snapshot does not resolve motions caused by the tides, the winds, and the seasonal cycles properly, but our moorings do. So, there are still mysteries to be solved by the data sitting on the bottom of the ocean guarded by towering spectacles of ice.

Tabular iceberg and sea ice cover near Isle de France 10 June 2014

Tabular iceberg and sea ice cover near Isle de France 10 June 2014

[This entry will be submitted to NSF as a Final Outcome Report for award 1362109 “Shelf-Basin Exchange near 79N Glacier and Zachariae Isstrom, North-East Greenland.” The work would not have been possible without the generous support of NSF as well as the German Government as represented by the Alfred Wegener Institute who sponsored the expedition to North-East Greenland in 2014. Torsten Kanzow, Benjamin Rabe, and Ursula Schauer of AWI all deserve as much and even more credit for this work than do I.]

Budéus, G., & Schneider, W. (1995). On the hydrography of the Northeast Water Polynya Journal of Geophysical Research, 100 (C3) DOI: 10.1029/94JC02024

Hughes, N., Wilkinson, J., & Wadhams, P. (2011). Multi-satellite sensor analysis of fast-ice development in the Norske Øer Ice Barrier, northeast Greenland Annals of Glaciology, 52 (57), 151-160 DOI: 10.3189/172756411795931633

Reeh, N., Thomsen, H., Higgins, A., & Weidick, A. (2001). Sea ice and the stability of north and northeast Greenland floating glaciers Annals of Glaciology, 33 (1), 474-480 DOI: 10.3189/172756401781818554

Wadhams, P., Wilkinson, J., & McPhail, S. (2006). A new view of the underside of Arctic sea ice Geophysical Research Letters, 33 (4) DOI: 10.1029/2005GL025131

American Adventures Abroad: The Four Germanies

I am American and damn proud of it. I was born in Germany, left almost 30 years ago, and, like a plant from another ecosystem, I am exposed to the new Germany for the first time. I know the difficult histories of both West and East Germany that since 1989 are one united country. The 100 people aboard the research icebreaker R/V Polarstern perhaps represent this new country well. Most crew and scientists were born and raised in either East or West Germany, extinct countries which each had a range of characters to form a distinct and diverse German fabric:

The first person I met when boarding the ship in dry dock was X. After introducing myself as an American scientist to sail the FS Polarstern in stilted if decent German, he revealed to me that he volunteered in the NVA, the soviet-style Nationale Volks-Armee for more than 10 years. Like many low-level Nazis a generation or two before him, he argues that not all was bad in the regime that he served. While this may be true, it strikes me odd, that this is the first things one reveals of oneself and a regime that created walls and killing zones to prevent its own citizens from leaving. Suspecting an uneasy history of guilt, I did not argue despite strong feelings to present different perspectives. Hence his next move is to state that American activities in Europe, Asia, South-America, Middle East, and Africa are the root source of all the problems in these regions. Again, not taking the bait, I listen, ask gentle probing questions to expose more detail, however, not much follows after the first rant that, perhaps, reflects a general feeling more than fact. I heart variations of this theme often in Germany both at sea and on land.

Our nurse and stewardess Kerstin also hails from the former East-Germany where she grew up the same time that I did in West-Germany, but unlike X., she embraces life as it presents itself without resentment, regret, or judgment. She signed on for a year working aboard Polarstern for a sense of adventure and to see the world in a different way. She is naturally curious on all things that relate to people, science, and life. She has little interest in politics, ideologies, and theories on how the world works, but she uses her own mind, experiences, and stories to make everyone around her laugh often. People like her should run the world.

The second Mate, Felix, was in charge when I boarded the ship. He is probably in his early 30ies and gave me the first tour of the ship in dry dock, a task that revealed a deep pride in the ship, its capabilities, and all it represents in a forward-looking modern Germany. He has clearly sailed to many ports and dealt successfully with people of different countries, cultures, and educations. Despite cursing and cussing of an ol’ salt, he is a hard-working, no-nonsense guy who gets things done efficiently. He also smokes like a chimney and likes to drive the ship while breaking sea ice. He did this often and smartly throughout the expedition.

A wonderful surprise to me aboard this ship is the large number of foreigners. There are three Danes aboard one of whom hails from New Zealand; two Canadians, two Belgians, and two Englishmen are aboard; while Brazil, China, Netherlands, Poland and the USA are each represented by one scientist. The two Canadians may as well come from two different countries, as one hails from English-speaking British Columbia and the other from French-speaking Montreal. Catherine’s Quebecoise language and perspectives are the most beautiful of all on this diverse ship. I could listen to her for hours …

Then there is a fourth group aboard who are perhaps the largest: They are the very young Germans who were born after the collapse of the communist empires in the East and they will become the new Germany. It is a foreign country to me, one I like from the distance, and it is a very young country with much potential to make a positive impact in the world.

Science party aboard R/V Polarstern after 4 weeks at sea in July 2014.

Science party aboard R/V Polarstern after 4 weeks at sea in July 2014.

Arctic Oceanographers Ashore In Tromso

Oceanographers are a bit crazy. This is especially true after sailing and working 4 weeks aboard a ship in the ice and fog and snow and drizzle that characterize summer in Fram Strait between northern Greenland and Spitsbergen. The one color one does NOT see is green, there just is none. So, when we got off FS Polarstern last thursday, what did we do? Continue reading

Of Moorings, Elephants, Norwegians, and Codswallop

The oceans are cruel, unforgiving, and destructive. Microbes, algae, plankton, fish, and whales all evolved slowly to make the seas their home. We men and women of science and technology race to catch-up Continue reading