Steffen Olsen is a Danish physical oceanographer with a skill to present beauty to an artist like my wife and a scientist like me. Three days ago he posted a photo on Twitter with these words
“Local hunters from Qaanaaq navigating our CTD system in the frozen ice mélange in front of Tracy Galcier 66W 77N to measure the ocean below. Heat loss to melting of glacial ice leaves the ocean at sub-zero temperatures down to 400m @arctic_passion @dmidk @ruth_mottram“
Steffen’s photo shows his study area, research platform, and mode of transportation. There is a glacier in the background between the rocks on the left (north) and unseen mountains to the right (south). Equally unseen is the ocean under all this crushed and broken and piled up sea ice covered by fresh snow. We see tracks of people walking to the vantage point from where the photo is taken. The dogs rest on a small patch of level sea ice perhaps 3-5 feet (1 to 1.5 meters) thick.
There are boxes on the sled that contain gear to drill through the sea ice and then to send a probe down towards the ocean bottom to measure ocean temperature, saltiness, and oxygen during its decent. I did similar work with a snowmobile in 2017 based at Thule Air Base for 6 weeks. Steffen and I work together on such data. He collected these every year since 2011 both adjacent to Tracy Gletscher and along most of the ~120 km long and ~1000 meter deep fjord. I am grateful to Steffen to share this photo: It helps me to focus on my passions rather than my outrage at soldiers and leaders of the Russian Federation in their war to destroy Ukraine and its people building a free, vibrant, and democratic country for themselves. There is more, but I stop here now.
Let me start with a map of where in Greenland the photo was taken and where Steffen collected his data each since 2011. The red star in the insert top-right shows the location of the map between Canada and Greenland. I color ocean bottom depths in blue shades and land heights in green, yellow, and brown shades. The glacier in Steffen’s photo is at the north-eastern end of Inglefield Fjord where I placed the label Tracy. The label Qaanaaq shows where about 650 Inughuit live along the coast near the center of the fjord. It probaby took the dogs about 2-3 days to travel with their cargo from Qaanaaq to Tracy Gletscher. Red dots are stations served by a Danish Navy ship in the summer of 2015, but I here only talk about the blue dots.
The blue dots are stations where Steffen and his companions drilled through the sea ice in 2018. Note that some of those ocean stations appear on land. This cannot be, but the glacier has retreated between the time the topographic data was collected and 2018 when Steffen collected the ocean data. Three LandSat satellite images below show how the glacier changed from 1973 to July and August of 2021. Icebergs are visible, too. A citizen scientist with the handle “Espen” at the Arctic Sea Ice Forum extracted these satellite photos from public U.S. databases. He is part of an online international community of Greenland and sea ice enthusiasts who posts at this forum for over a decade making daily discovers. These are people with regular jobs that in their spare time post satellite imagery and open data they found which they share openly often with insightful interpretations. It is citizen science at its very best. I go there often to read, ask, and learn. I even met a prominent member once for lunch when visiting Copenhagen on my way to Greenland. He gifted me LandSat imagery of my favorite glaciers printed on cloth that I framed for its scientific and artistic beauty. Thank you, Espen 😉
Gallery: Space photography (LandSat) of glaciers terminating from the Greenland ice sheet in Inglefield Fjord in 1973 (right), July 2021 (center), and August 2021 showing the retreat of Tracy but not Heilprin Gletscher. [Credit: Espen Olsen at Arctic Sea Ice Forum.]
So how does the ocean below all this ice next to a glacier look? Well, lets look at a set of station from Qaanaaq to Tracy Gletscher that shows how temperature, salinity, and oxygen of the water changes both with depth and along the fjord. We always find very cold, somewhat fresher, and highly oxygenated water near the ocean surface about 40 m (near glacier) to 100 m (near Qaanaaq) below the sea ice and warmer, saltier, and less oxygenated water below with a temperature maximum of 1 degree Celsius near 300 m depth. It is this warm water that melts the adjacent glacier. As Dr. Olsen says “… Heat loss to melting of glacial ice leaves the ocean at sub-zero temperatures …” In other words, the deeper waters 1. enter the fjord at temperatures above zero degrees Centigrade, 2. reach the glacier, 3. cool down as they melt the glacier, and 4. leave the fjord at temperatures below zero degrees Centigrade. This is why the two stations near the glacier show slightly fresher and cooler waters between 300 and 500 m depth. This water contains the glacial melt. The section represents the 10 year average from 2011 through 2020.
Earlier this year I tried to visit Copenhagen to finish this work that places this emerging story into both a historical and spatial context, but Covid restrictions derailed this and other plans. Nevertheless, have excellent data from 1928 when this fjord was first surveyed by Danish oceanographers. At that time the waters had dramatically different temperatures (much colder) and salinities (a little fresher) both inside the fjord and in Baffin Bay adjacent to it. The changes are probably related to a much changed sea ice cover and perhaps ocean circulation that relates how the winds impact the ocean with and without sea ice. For the 1979 to present satellite record, we can quantify how much sea ice covers both the fjord and adjacent ocean. I made the graph below last week from 14073 almost daily satellite images whose data the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center distributes freely. I show annual averages for each of the 42 years that these SSM/I satellites have been measuring sea areal coverage from space.
Before the year 2000 the sea ice cover fluctuated between 26,000 and 39,000 km2 and if one for how these changes are trending between 1979 and 2002, one finds a slight increase in the blue line, however, this increase is not significantly different from zero at a high 95% level of confidence. For the second period after 2002, the ice covered area fluctuates much less, from about 22,000 to 28,000 km2 and the trend line in blue now indicates decreasing sea ice cover. As before, however, this blue trend line is no different from zero at the same high level of confidence. We also notice that there is a red trend line that I derive from using all 42 years of data. This line is very different and statistically significant, but it does not quiet do justice to the almost step-like change that appears to happen around 2000 through 2005. What happened then? I do not know, yet, but this is the fun of doing science: There is always more to discover. The sea ice cover in northern Greenland does not always follow a straight line. This is not different from our climate or life. Expect the unexpected, adjust, and keep moving. Or in Dr. Olsen’s words:
“… you have a number of years where conditions don’t follow the more linear track of (predicted) scenarios,” explained Dr. Olsen. “A warming tendency can be reversed for some years, for example.” [From https://phys.org, Oct.-13, 2021]