Tag Archives: freshwater

Canyon below Ice at Petermann Gletscher

The Grand Canyon of Arizona stands tall in the mind as the Colorado River carved itself into 6000 feet of rock. A similar canyon has been discovered in northern Greenland near Petermann Gletscher. The canyon without a name is buried under 6000 feet of ice, but its size and scale Continue reading

New Ocean Observations in Petermann Fjord

A new ice island separated from Petermann Glacier on July 16, 2012 as reported here first. Less than 4 weeks later, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen reconnoitered the ice island on Aug.-9 when it blocked the northern half of the entrance of the fjord.

Petermann Ice Island 2012 (PII-2012) as seen Aug.-11, 2012 at the entrance of Petermann Fjord. The view is to the north-west. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen.]

I was aboard this ship when Captain Wayne Duffett decide to break into the largely ice-free fjord behind the ice-island after consultations with Ice Services Specialist Erin Clarke. The ice observer had just returned from her second helicopter survey in 2 days with pilot Don Dobbin to assess both ice cover and its time rate of change. From the time the ship entered the fjord behind the ice island, hourly flights to a fixed point at the south-western corner of the ice island ensured that its movement would not cut off the ship’s exit. This approach worked and it gave the science crew of 8 aboard about 18 hours to conduct the very first survey of a previously ice-covered ocean:

Petermann Glacier, Fjord, and Ice Island as seen by MODIS at 865 nm on Aug. 07, 2012 overlaid with survey lines of CCGS Henry Larsen on Aug.-9/10/11, 2012 in red.

We were not funded to do enter the fjord, but our main mission to recover an array of ocean moorings with 3-year long data records covering the 2009-12 period about 100 km to the south in Nares Strait has already been accomplished. So, what does a physical oceanographer do when in uncharted and unknown territory? He drops a number of CTDs, that is, measuring conductivity (C), temperature (T), and depth (D, pressure, really) as the instrument (the CTD) is lowered at a constant rate from the surface to the bottom of the ocean at a number of stations. The results from such work next to the present front of Petermann Glacier was a surprise for which we do not yet have a satisfactory explanation: The waters inside the fjord are much warmer at salinities 32.5-34.25 than they are outside the fjord:

Temperature as a function of salinity from 9 stations across Petermann Fjord next to the current seaward edge of Petermann Glacier on Aug.-10, 2012 in red. For comparison I show in blue a station done outside the fjord on Aug.-9, 2012. Note that temperatures increase with increasing salinity which is expected for waters that are a mixture of cold and fresh polar and saltier and warmer Atlantic waters. Density deviations from 1000 kg/m^3 are shown as solid contours along with the freezing temperature that decreases with increasing salinity.

Another way to show the same data is to actually plot the section, that is, the distribution of temperature and salinity in physical space across the fjord as a function of depth:

Section across the seaward edge Petermann Glacier on Aug.-10, 2012 for salinity (left panel) and temperature (right panel). Symbols indicate station locations from which color contours are drawn. Note that the display is cropped to the top 300 meters while real recordings extend to the bottom which exceeds 1000 meters. The view is eastward towards the glacier with north to the left.

Note the doming salinity contours which to classically trained oceanographers suggest a flow out of the page on the right and into the page on left with maximum at about 90 meter depth relative to no flow at, say, 500 meter depth. Another way to view this distinct property distribution is that the flow above 90 meters is clockwise (outflow on left, inflow on right) relative to the more counter-clockwise flow below this depth. This feature, too, comes as a surprise and requires more thought and analyses to explain.

There is much more work to be done to figure out what all this means. I feel like scratching the surface of a large iceberg half-blind. The data from below 300 meter depth, too, contain clues on how some this glacier interacts with the ocean. As for the purpose of this post, I merely wanted to report that the ice island is presently having a hitting or scratching tiny Hans Island. The latter is unlikely to move, but Petermann’s Ice Island will slow on impact, swivel counter-clockwise, bump into Ellesmere, and pretend nothing has happened on its merry way south. This is the latest image I have:

Petermann Ice Island 2012 on Aug.-22, 2012 as seen by MODIS Terra at 21:45 UTC. The tiny red dot marks Hans Island, the location of a weather station in the Kennedy Channel section of Nares Strait. Petermann Fjord is towards the top right out of view.

ADDENDUM Sept.-1, 2012: PII-2010B had a maximum thickness of at least 144 meters as it passed over a mooring that measures ocean currents from the Doppler shift of acoustic backscatter that is shown here for one of four beams:

Time-depth series of acoustic scatter from a bottom-mounted acoustic Doppler current profiler for 24 hours starting Sept-22, 2010 9:30 UTC. Red colors indicate high backscatter from a “hard” surface like ice. The vertical axis depth in meters above the transducers while the horizontal is ensemble number into the record (0.5 hours between ensembles). The 2010 ice island from Petermann Glacier (PII-2010B) passed over the mooring. When PII-2010B was attached to the glacier it was adjacent to the segment that became PII-2012 this year.

Oceanography of Petermann Fjord and Glacier Melting

Trudy Wohlleben just send a group of scientists in Denmark, England, Canada, and the US the latest RADARSAT image of the ice island that formed in Petermann Glacier earlier this week.

RadarSat Image of Petermann Ice Island (PII-2012) and Glacier kindly provided by Trudy Wohlleben, Canadian Ice Service. The location of the hinge line is approximate only.

The current position of the remaining ice shelf of Petermann Glacier is the farthest landward since recorded observations. Dr. Croppinger was the first to provide a map of the glacier Continue reading

Physics and Engineering of Breaking Dams, Glaciers, and Tides

The title “Bombing Hitler’s Dams” fascinated me when I saw it featured on my TiVo last night. The story told was that of a group led by a smart, creative, and somewhat crazy Cambridge University engineer Dr. Hugh Hunt trying to recreate all the engineering elements needed to blow up a dam with a bomb that skips along the surface of the water the same way that a flat stone skips over a calm pond. While we all know intuitively how to throw a flat stone at the right speed at the correct angle, imagine to do it from an aircraft dropping a bomb to skip a few hundred yards over the surface of a reservoir, kiss the dam, sink, then blow it up via a depth charge. After many elaborate tests starting with 3 foot baby’s pool 5 inches deep, the show concluded with the real blowing up of real dam in northern Canada by a much enlarged group of engineers, construction workers, students, pilots, contractors, etc.

Photograph of the breached Möhne Dam taken by Flying Officer Jerry Fray of No. 542 Squadron from his Spitfire PR IX, six Barrage balloons are above the dam

If you think this is hard to do, it is. On May 16/17, 1943 a British bombing raid called “Operation Chastise” deployed cylindrical drums filled with explosives like skipping stones to hop over torpedo nets meant to protect the dams from subsurface mines. Two of three targeted dams were blown up, 53 airmen perished, German heavy industry in the Rhine-Ruhr valley was disrupted for 4 months, and over 1500 civilians drowned in the flood wave created by the breaking dams:

The story reminds my of my adviser, Dr. Richard Garvine (an aeronautical engineer by training) whom I met in 1986 while a physics student from Germany studying physical oceanography for a year in Bangor, Wales. Rather than returning to Germany, I went to the United States for graduate school where I met my sweetheart. One of my first graduate assignment was to study the “breaking dam” problem (Stoker, 1948: “The Formation of Breakers and Bores”, Communications of Pure and Applied Mathematics, 1, 1-87). The “breaking dam” problem is now a classical problem in fluid dynamics that relates to breaking waves, tsunamis, tides, as well as the discharge of fresh water from cooling plants, estuaries, and glaciers. I applied it to tides in the Conway Estuary in North-Wales for my MS thesis that the Swedish Royal Society saw fit to publish as my first contribution to science.

Conwy Estuary at its mouth near high tide.

I stole the above photo of the Conway Estuary, North Wales from a set of beautiful travelogues of an area where I camped for 6 weeks to guard instruments that measured currents along the 50 km tidal reach of this beautiful estuary. The tides rush in like the waves of a breaking dam, yet, they do not break (no bore forms, why?). To model the physics, I needed to study the work done by American, British, and French engineers who labored hard to defeat Nazi Germany by blowing up actual dams developing new and applying old ideas in physics and engineering along the way. Studying their work, I got my answer, too.

Addendum: A review of the aftermath and devastation of the 1943 flood wave from a German perspective is posted here with original photos from both British and German sources.

Melting Greenland’s Icebergs and Ice Islands by the Ocean

The BBC keeps asking good and penetrating questions about the fate of Greenland’s many icebergs in general and Petermann Glacier’s Ice Island in particular. A poor telephone connection across the Atlantic this morning prevented an interview, but made me answer a number of questions in writing. When answering these questions, I was thinking of those icebergs and ice islands one finds in abundance in the frigid waters of Baffin Bay, the Labrador Sea, and next to Greenland. I am not talking about what happens once icebergs enter the subtropical Atlantic Ocean and meet the Gulf Stream to the south of the Grand Banks, that is a different story.

USCG Healy besides massive iceberg in northern Baffin Bay, July 2003

1. What can icebergs tell us about oceans?

Icebergs are particles that track averaged ocean currents over the top 200-m or so. These currents are often refered to as “geostrophic” currents which is really a different word for an ocean force balance between pressure gradients (estimated from measurements of temperature and salinity changes with depth at many locations) and the Coriolis force due to the earth’s rotation. This is why RADM Edward H. “Iceberg” Smith of the US Coast Guard spent so much time sailing and taking measurements off northern Canada in the 1920ies and 1930ies as part of the International Ice Patrol. His outstanding publications 80 years old are a first example on how to apply theory (the Scandinavian or Bergen School of the 1920ies regarding dynamical physical oceanography) to a very specific application.

2. How does the trajectory of the ice-islands/ and other icebergs show information about the ocean currents?

Ice islands and icebergs are thick (50-200 m) and mostly submerged below the surface. Hence they are largely moved by the ocean currents about 30-200 m below the surface. I think of them as ocean drifters with a very large and deep drogue element that changes with time as the iceberg melts or tips over. This is different from sea ice that may reach only 5-m into the water column and thus only “sees” the very surface layer of the ocean that is largely influenced by winds. This is not entirely true for icebergs, because they are driven by ocean currents below the thin (10-20 m) ocean “mixed layer” that sea ice is embedded in.

3. What are the current unknowns or poorly understood parameters with regards to iceberg science and iceberg interactions with oceans in the High Arctic?

I think the problem with any prediction scheme of individual particles is that the ocean always has a strong turbulent and unpredictable part to it. This problem is fundamentally no different from trying to predict where oil from a spill will come ashore. We can do it “on average” rather well, but we are very poor trying to do in one specific case for a specific iceberg (or spill). Oh, this certainly also applies to climate predictions, easy to do “on average,” very hard to do in a specific case for a specific time and place that may be affected.

4. What sort of temperatures would the water be?

Meltwater plumes at zero salinity with pieces of ice floating in it have a temperature of 0 C, meltwater plumes with pieces of ice in it at ocean salinities have temperatures of about -1.8C, depending on the amount of sunlight and how much mixing takes place, these fresh and very thin surface layers (1-10 meters) can heat up substantially fast, and cool just as fast. In June/July you have 24 hours of sunlight, so temperatures of 4-10 C are not out of the ordinary, but these waters will do very little melting, because most of the mass is well below a 10 m depth of such fresh surface plumes.

Temperature (left) and salinity (right) distribution off Labrador in the summer of 2009 with depth and distance from the coast (from Colbourne et al., 2010). Note the very cold waters near the freezing point (blue and purple) on the continental shelf below 50-m depth.

5. How would changes in ocean stratification and temperature alter the melting of icebergs?

First, ocean temperature (or heat) and stratification are two very different things. In the Arctic almost all stratification is done by salinity, temperature is a tracer that has very little effect on density stratification. This is also the reason, that most of the ocean’s heat in the Arctic is at depths 200-400 m below the surface. This warm water does NOT rise towards the surface, because it is also salty water, it is often refered to the Atlantic Layer. This deep reservoir of heat is what many oceanographers (myself included) have in mind when they talk about the melting of Greenland’s glaciers by the ocean from below.

Petermann Glacier, for example, has a grounding line at 600-m below the surface. This grounding line is in contact with the heat from the Atlantic Layer that is melting it, but the melted water is fresh and cold, immediately stratifying the water column under the ice, so a source of energy is needed also to move or mix this cold fresh melt water away. An inclined slope may do so, tides may do so, internal waves traveling and breaking on the interface between cold-fresh and warm-salty waters may do so. At Petermann Glacier this Atlantic layer does not reach most of the floating element of this glacier, because it is only 100-200 m thick and thus does not extend into the heat of the Atlantic Layer. So, vertical stratification and location of heat are two different things.

Breaking waves on an interface due to a shear instability, i.e., flow in the (fresh and cold) upper layer is less than the flow in the denser (warm and salty) lower layer.

Second, think of ocean stratification as a blanket that insulates one region from the other. Removing the blanket requires kinetic energy (something or someone has to do the work, doing work requires energy). As you melt freshwater ice via conduction of heat to the ice, the melt has zero salinity and a temperature at the freezing point. This zero salinity water acts as the insolation blanket that reduces the heat reaching the ice. So, again, you need (a) a source of kinetic energy to do work to break down the stratification (of salinity) to (b) enable the transfer of heat from the ocean to the ice.

6. Can you recommend any key journal papers you think we should read?

The classical paper on this subject is [Gade, H.G., 1979: Melting of ice in sea water: A primitive model with application to the Antarctic Ice Shelf and Icebergs. J. Phys. Oceanogr., 9, 189-198], but this paper is a thorough theoretical development. I have professors of glaciology asking me what it means, so the material is not easy to penetrate. In a 2011 publication on the oceanography of Petermann Fjord impacting this Glacier, we made extensive use of the arguments and concepts presented in Gade (1979). That publication is more readable and accessible.

Its first author is Dr. Helen Johnson at Oxford University with whom I have collaborated since 2003 aboard US and Canadian icebreakers. She also published an illustrated diary of our 2007 expedition to Nares Strait.

ADDED Jan-12: My mind yesterday was unclear on the in situ temperature at which glacier ice of zero salinity is melting in seawater such as found on the Labrador shelf. The comment below points this out concisely, while this link to TheNakedScientist perhaps provides the longer and more visual explanation. Another fun explanation of the melting and freezing of ice in a salt solution relates to the making of ice cream. A subsurface temperature at -1.5 C at a salinity of 33.5 psu such as found on the Labrador shelf does melt the zero salinity ice of the iceberg somewhat. A boundary layer consisting of fresh meltwater will lower the salinity adjacent to the iceberg which will increase the freezing point which will reduce the melting until a new stable equilibria is reached.