Tag Archives: Newfoundland

The Ice Shelf of Petermann Gletscher and its Ocean Below: Descriptions

“In 1921 owing to starvation I had to go directly from Cape Heiberg-Juergensen to our cache at Cape Agassiz … during this journey the greater part of the glacier was mapped.” –Lauge Koch, 1928

Petermann Fjord connects Petermann Gletscher to Nares Strait which in turn is connected to the Arctic Ocean in north and the Atlantic Ocean in the south (Figure-2). The track of Petermann ice island PII-2010A emphasizes this connection as the 60 meter thick section of the ice island reaches the Labrador Sea in the south within a year after its calving in 2010.


PII-2010 left Petermann Fjord on the 9th of September in 2010 when it broke into segments A and B while pivoting around a real island. It flushed out of Nares Strait 10 days later when an ice-tracking beacon was placed to track the ice island. The ~60 m thick segment PII-2010A moved southward with the Baffin Island Current (Münchow et al., 2015) at an average speed of ~ 0.11 m/s past Davis Strait. Remaining on the continental shelf of the Labrador Sea, it passed Boas’ Cumberland Sound, Labrador, and reached Newfoundland in August 2011 when it melted away in a coastal cove about 3000 km from Petermann Fjord (Figure-2).


Petermann Gletscher drains about 4% of the Greenland ice sheet via a network of channels and streams that extend about 750 km landward from the grounding line (Bamber et al., 2013). The glacier goes afloat at the grounding zone where bedrock, till, and ice meet the ocean waters about 600 meter below sea level (Rignot, 1996).


Figure-3 shows a section of surface elevation from a laser altimeter flown on a repeat path along the glacier in April 2013 and May 2014 as part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge. Assuming hydrostatic balance, we also show basal topography below the sea surface that varies from 200 meters at the terminus to 600 meters at the grounding zone near distance zero (Figure-3). The 2013 profile has been shifted seaward by 1.25 km to match the terminus position. Note the close correspondence of large and small crevasses in 2013 and 2014 near 20, 40, and 45 km from the grounding zone.

The seaward shift of the 2013 relative to the 2014 profile implies a uniform glacier speed of about 1180 meters per year. This value is almost identical to the 1170 meters per year that we measure between 20th August of 2015 and 11th February of 2016 with a single-frequency GPS placed about 13 km seaward of the grounding zone as part of the ocean weather observatory.

We compare 2013/14 and 2015/16 velocity estimates in Figure-3 with those obtained from RadarSat interferometry between 2000 and 2008 (Joughin et al., 2010) of which I here only show three:

Figure-3 shows that glacier speeds before 2010 are stable at about 1050 m/y, but increased by about 11% after the 2010 and 2012 calving events. This increase is similar to the size of seasonal variations of glacier motions. Each summer Petermann Gletscher speeds up, because surface meltwater percolates to the bedrock, increases lubrication, and thus reduces vertical friction (Nick et al., 2012). Figure 3 presents summer velocity estimates for August of 2015 from three dual-frequency GPS. The along-glacier velocity profiles measured by these geodetic sensors in the summer follow the shape of the 2000 to 2008 winter record, however, its speeds are about 10% larger and reach 1250 m/y near the grounding zone (Figure 3).

Uncertainty in velocity of these GPS systems is about 1 m/y which we estimate from two bed rock reference stations 82 km apart. Our ice shelf observations are referenced to one of these two semi-permanent geodetic stations. Its location at Kap Schoubye is shown in Figure-1. Data were processed using the GAMIT/TRACK software distributed by MIT following methodology outlined by King (2004) to archive vertical accuracy of 2-3 centimeters which, we show next, is small relative to tidal displacements that reach 2 meters in the vertical.


Figure-4 shows the entire 13 day long record of vertical glacier displacement from 30 seconds GPS measurements in August of 2015. The observed range of vertical glacier displacements diminishes from almost 2 meters about 26 km seaward of the grounding zone (GZ+26) via 0.6 meters in the grounding zone (GZ-00) to nil 20 km landward of the grounding zone (GZ-20). Anomalies of horizontal displacement are largest at GZ-00 with a range of 0.2 m (not shown) in phase with vertical oscillations (Figure-4).

More specifically, at GZ+26 we find the ice shelf to move up and down almost 2 meters roughly twice each day. This is the dominant semi-diurnal M2 tide which has a period of 12.42 hours. Notice that for each day there is also a diurnal inequality in this oscillation, that is, the two maximal (minimal) elevations oscillate from a higher to a lower High (Low) water. This is the diurnal K1 tide which has a period of 23.93 hours. And finally, all amplitudes appear modulated by some longer period that appears close to the record length of almost two weeks. This is the spring-neap cycle that is caused by a second semi-diurnal S2 tide that has a period of 12.00 hours. A formal harmonic analysis to estimate the amplitude and phases of sinusoidal oscillations at M2, K1, S2 and many more tidal constituents will be published elsewhere for both Petermann Fjord and Nares Strait. Preliminary results (not shown) reveal that the amplitudes and phases of the tidal signals at GZ+26 are identical to those observed off Ellesmere Island at 81.7 N latitude in both the 19th (Greely, 1888) and 21st century.

Hourly tidal observations at Discovery Harbor taken for 15 days by Greely in 1881 and Peary in 1909.

Hourly tidal observations at Discovery Harbor taken for 15 days by Greely in 1881 and Peary in 1909.

In summary, both historical and modern observations reveal real change in the extent of the ice shelf that moves at tidal, seasonal, and interannual time scales in response to both local and remote forcing at these times scales. Future studies will more comprehensively quantify both the time rate of change and its forcing via formal time series analyses.

P.S.: This is the second in a series of four essays that I am currently developing into a peer-reviewed submission to the Oceanography Magazine of the Oceanography Society. The work is funded by NASA and NSF with grants to the University of Delaware.


Bamber, J.L., M.J. Siegert, J.A. Griggs, S. J. Marshall, and G. Spada. 2013. Palefluvial mega-canyon beneath the central Greenland ice sheet. Science 341: 997-999.

Greely, A.W. 1888. Report on the Proceedings of the United States Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay, Grinnell Land. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Joughin, I., B.E. Smith, I.M. Howat, T. Scambos, and T. Moon. 2010. Greenland flow variability from ice-sheet wide velocity mapping. Journal of Glaciology 56 (197): 415-430.

King, B. 2004. Rigorous GPS data-processing strategies for glaciological applications. Journal of Glaciology 50 (171): 601–607.

Münchow, A., K.K. Falkner, and H. Melling. 2015. Baffin Island and West Greenland current systems in northern Baffin Bay. Progress in Oceanography 132: 305-317.

Nick, F.M., A. Luckman, A. Vieli, C.J. Van Der Veen, D. Van As, R.S.W. Van De Wal, F. Pattyn, A.L. Hubbard, and D. Floricioiu. 2012. The response of Petermann Glacier, Greenland, to large calving events, and its future stability in the context of atmospheric and oceanic warming. Journal of Glaciology 58 (208): 229-239.

Rignot, E. 1996. Tidal motion, ice velocity and melt rate of Petermann Gletscher, Greenland, measured from radar interferometry. Journal of Glaciology 42 (142): 476-485.

Heartbeat of Ocean and Air of Greenland

While cables are designed at a small company in southern California,while instruments are shipped to friends at the British Antarctic Survey in England, while instrument locations are contemplated by a small group of scientists, technicians, and graduate students, I am also on a journey back in time to check up on the heart beat of the air we breath and the oceans we sail. The Arctic heartbeat to me is the annual change from the total darkness of polar night to total sunlight of polar day. This cycle, this heartbeat takes a year. There is 24 hours of day in summer the same way that there is 24 hours of night now. Let me first show, however, where we are heading before I look at the heartbeat.

I love making maps and this is a rich and pretty one that shows North America from the top where Petermann Fjord and Glacier are (tiny blue box on left map). The colors are water depths and land elevations. The thick dotted red line is where a very large iceberg from Petermann traveled within a year to reach Newfoundland. Teresa, one of the contributors to my crowd-funding project, sailed up there to Newfoundland to see this iceberg. And she made a movie out this voyage. So, what happens up there in northern Greenland only takes a year, maybe two, to reach our more balmy shores. What happens in Greenland does NOT stay in Greenland. Vegas, Nevada this is not.


Now on to the map on the right. This is the tiny blue box made much larger. It looks like a photo, and in a way it is, but a photo taken by a satellite, well, only one “channel” of this specific satellite, the many shades of gray are mine, it is NOT the real color. The glacier is in the bottom right as the white tongue sticking out towards 81 N latitude. Red lines there are water depths of 500 and 1000m. The blue dot in the top-left is where I had to leave an ocean sensor in a shallow bay for 9 years, because we could not get there to retrieve it for 6 years. Lucky for me (well, some smart design helped), the instrument was still there, collecting and recording data that we knew nothing about for 9 long years. It took smart and hardy fishermen from Newfoundland aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen to dangle my sensor out of the icy waters. And here is the heart beat it revealed:


Top graph is ocean temperature, bottom panel is air temperature nearby. And as you go from left to right, we move forward in time starting in 2002 until the end of 2012 when the last ocean measurements were made. The red lines are a linear trend that represents local (as opposed to global) warming. Both go up which means it gets warmer, but careful, the bottom one for air is no different from a straight line with zero slope meaning no warming. It does go up, you say correctly, but if I do formal statistics, this slope is no different from zero just due to chance. The top curve for the ocean, however, is very different. It does not look different, but the same statistics tell me that the warming is NOT due to chance alone. Oh, in case you wondered, the two dashed lines in the top panel are the temperatures at which seawater freezes and forms ice for the salinity range we see and expect at this embayment. As you add salt to water, it freezes at a lower temperature. This is why we put salt on our roads in winter, it makes the water freeze less fast.

I am a doctor, so here is my conclusion: Ocean heart beat is a little irregular and the trend is not good news for the ice. Air heart beat looks normal, the trends may need watching, but I am not too worried about that just yet. Watch the oceans … that’s where the heat and the action is these days.

Fish, Fashion, and Climate: Simple Thoughts on Complex Systems

I love pickled herring, but the fashion of eating this delicacy varies with changing cultures and climates. In northern Europe it used to be a standard fare, perhaps still is, but in my native coastal North-Germany it was poor man’s food Continue reading

The Turbulence of Van Gogh and the Labrador Shelf Current

Vincent Van Gogh painted his most turbulent images when insane. The Labrador Current resembles Van Gogh’s paintings when it becomes unstable. There is no reason that mental and geophysical instability relate to each other. And yet they do. Russian physicist Andrey Kolmogorov developed theories of turbulence 70 years ago that Mexican physicist applied to some of Van Gogh’s paintings such as “Starry Sky:”

Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Sky" painted in June 1889.

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Sky” painted in June 1889.

The whirls and curls evoke motion. The colors vibrate and oscillate like waves that come and go. There are rounded curves and borders in the tiny trees, the big mountains, and the blinking stars. Oceanographers call these rounded curves eddies when they close on themselves much as is done by a smooth wave that is breaking when it hits the beach in violent turmoil.

Waves come in many sizes at many periods. The wave on the beach has a period of 5 seconds maybe and measures 50 meters from crest to crest. Tides are waves, too, but their period is half a day with a distance of more than 1000 km from crest to crest. These are scales of time and space. There exist powerful mathematical statements to tell us that we can describe all motions as the sum of many waves at different scales. Our cell phone and computer communications depend on it, as do whales, dolphins, and submarines navigating under water, but I digress.

The Labrador Shelf Current off Canada moves ice, icebergs, and ice islands from the Arctic down the coast into the Atlantic Ocean. To the naked eye the ice is white while the ocean is blue. Our eyes in the sky on NASA satellites sense the amount of light and color that ice and ocean when hit by sun or moon light reflects back to space. An image from last friday gives a sense of the violence and motion when this icy south-eastward flowing current off Labrador is opposed by a short wind-burst in the opposite direction:

Ice in the Labrador Current as seen by MODIS-Terra on May 3, 2013.

Ice in the Labrador Current as seen by MODIS-Terra on May 3, 2013. Blue colors represent open water while white and yellow colors represent ice of varying concentrations.

Flying from London to Chicago on April 6, 2008, Daniel Schwen photographed the icy surface of the Labrador Current a little farther south:

Ice fields seen in Labrador Current April 6, 2008 from a plane. [Photo Credit: Daniel Schwen]

Ice fields seen in Labrador Current April 6, 2008 from a plane. [Photo Credit: Daniel Schwen]

Ice in the Labrador Current as seen by MODIS-Terra on April 6, 2008. Blue colors represent open water while white and yellow colors represent ice of varying concentrations.

Ice in the Labrador Current as seen by MODIS-Terra on April 6, 2008. Blue colors represent open water while white and yellow colors represent ice of varying concentrations.

The swirls and eddies trap small pieces of ice and arrange them into wavy bands, filaments, and trap them. The ice visualizes turbulent motions at the ocean surface. Also notice the wide range in scales as some circular vortices are quiet small and some rather large. If the fluid is turbulent in the mathematical sense, then the color contrast or the intensity of the colors and their change in space varies according to an equation valid for almost all motions at almost all scales. It is this scaling law of turbulent motions that three Mexican physicists tested with regard to Van Gogh’s paintings. They “pretended” that the painting represents the image of a flow that follows the physics of turbulent motions. And their work finds that Van Gogh indeed painted intuitively in ways that mimics nature’s turbulent motions when the physical laws were not yet known.

There are two take-home messages for me: First, fine art and physics often converge in unexpected ways. Second, I now want to know, if nature’s painting of the Labrador Shelf Current follows the same rules. There is a crucial wrinkle in motions impacted by the earth rotations: While the turbulence of Van Gogh or Kolmogorov cascades energy from large to smaller scales, that is, the larger eddies break up into several smaller eddies, for planetary-scale motions influenced by the Coriolis force due to earth’s rotation, the energy moves in the opposite direction, that is, the large eddies get larger as the feed on the smaller eddies. There is always more to discover, alas, but that’s the fun of physics, art, and oceanography.

Aragón, J., Naumis, G., Bai, M., Torres, M., & Maini, P. (2008). Turbulent Luminance in Impassioned van Gogh Paintings Journal of Mathematical Imaging and Vision, 30 (3), 275-283 DOI: 10.1007/s10851-007-0055-0

Ball, P. (2006). Van Gogh painted perfect turbulence news@nature DOI: 10.1038/news060703-17

Wu, Y., Tang, C., & Hannah, C. (2012). The circulation of eastern Canadian seas Progress in Oceanography, 106, 28-48 DOI: 10.1016/j.pocean.2012.06.005

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.

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