Tag Archives: ocean

Travels to Greenland in Winter

Waking up after 5 hours on a plane from Baltimore, Maryland to Thule, Greenland large white Pitugfik Gletscher distinguishes itself from the white sea ice by its ragged snout as the plane approaches my new home for the next 6 weeks. I am traveling with 9 midshipmen of the US Naval Academy of which two are women, their 4 professors, and bear guard from Alaska. We will be working and living together for the next 7 days.

Pitugfik Glacier during the early morning hours of Mar.-9, 2017.

A little further along the coast we enter Wolstenholme Fjord where from the plane wide cracks of open water stand out as black against the bluish white horizon. This will be the outer margin of where I plan to work the ice and ocean underneath the next 6 weeks. We need to stay on the shore side of this transition of land-fast to mobile sea ice. I have watched this boundary for the last 4 months with satellite imagery, but seeing with my own eyes is an entire different and humbling experience.

Sea ice near Kap Atholl with heads of open water that separate land-fast ice that does not move from mobile ice.

We land safely at the airport, get our passport stamped by Danish officials, pick up our luggage, and are received by wonderful people working for both NASA and the National Science Foundation. After a hearty lunch of dark rye bread and my beloved pickled herrings christmas arrives in the form of many carefully wrapped packages: I try to find my Arctic clothing that I shipped months before. It is much-needed as the -33 C take your breadth away. I also find the 2,500 lbs of science gear, some of which had arrived directly from Canada after it was ordered Dec.-10, 2016: Without this $22,000 electrical winch, I would be hard pressed to send sensors to the bottom of the ocean and back. Everything appears to be in place and fine, but some acoustic gear is still missing as its large lithium batteries need diplomatic clearances which takes a little longer. Perhaps they will be on the plane that is about to land. There is only 1 flight per week that connects Thule to the US. Hence advance planing is needed and those lithium batteries are not needed until April 6 when Lee and Taylor arrive from Massachusetts.

Where in this pile are my snow boots? Palletized gear on arrival in Thule Greenland.

The next day we put some of our gear out to measure how thick the sea ice is near the coast. While drilling a hole requires power tools, the ice is actually cut by a razor-sharp drill bit that is sensitive to damage when it refuses to cut the ice and no amount of force available can force it through the 3-4 feet of ice we find. We all learn the hard way when we accidentally drill into the frozen sea bed without finding any water. One drill bit down, we only got 2 more and are much, much more careful with it. The remaining drill bits have to last for the next 6 weeks … actually, they do not, because I can change the blades should one bit become dull. [I did not tell this the Naval Academy guys who were doing much of this drilling to support NASA’s Operation IceBridge.]

And on this note, I am heading out to sea at 7:59 am to drill one more hole to prepare for a first mooring deployment. A wooden stick without sensors attached will simulate a mooring that I want to recover after it is frozen in. More later …

P.S.: More photos and stories on this week’s adventures can be found at


Boarding an Ice Breaker by Bicycle and Immigration

I walked from the train station in Bremerhaven-Lehe to the FS Polarstern at the Kaiserdock almost 2 miles due west. This research icebreaker is still repaired in dry dock and we see her Continue reading

Greenland’s Warming, Melting, and Sliding to Sea

Greenland is warming, Greenland’s warming is melting its ice, and Greenland melting ice is raising global sea level. All true, but it all has happened before during the last 100 years or so. Our technology to extract small signals buried deep in noise from both our backyard and remote Greenland is unprecedented. This skill should not fool us, that the large changes that we see in Greenland and elsewhere have not happened before. They have, but memory is a fickle thing, as “new” is exciting, while “old” is often forgotten and considered unimportant. Those who live in the past are doomed to miss the present, those who ignore the past, are doomed to repeat it. We need to learn from the past, live in the present, and prepare for the future.

Preparing for an expedition to Nares Strait between northern Greenland and Canada in about 5 weeks, I am exploring temperature data from land, satellites, and ocean sensors to get a feel for what has changed. I started with data from weather stations such as the U.S. Air Force Base Thule , Canada’s former spy station Alert, and Denmark’s Station Nord about 700-1000 miles from the North Pole. So, it is cold up there:

Annual cycle of air temperature (bottom panel) from south to north at Thule (red), Grise Fjord (green), Alert (blue), and Cap Morris Jesup. Data years (top panel) for each year day are degrees of freedom. For each place two temperature curves indicate upper and lower limits of the climatological mean temperature for that day at 95\% confidence.

Well, we knew that, but the real question is: Has anything changed? Has Global Warming reached Greenland? The plot above does not tell, but this one does:

Annual averages and trends of air temperature anomalies for the 1987-2010 period for (top to bottom) Station Nord (Greenland), Alert (Canada), Grise Fjord (Canada), and Thule (Greenland). Scales are identical. The trends are fitted to daily, not annual data. The annual averages are shown for display purposes only.

To some it screams: “Warming, melting, Greenland is surging to sea.” [It is, but it did so before.]

There is lots of fancy signal processing that goes into this (see Tamino or a class I teach) to make a firm statement:

The air around northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island has warmed by about 0.11 +/- 0.025 degrees Celsius per year since 1987. North-west Greenland and north-east Canada are warming more than five times faster than the rest of the world.

This must be huge (yes, it is), it must have an effect on the Greenland ice sheet (yes, it does), and this must raise sea level (yes, perhaps 10 cm or 3 inches in 100 years, Moon et al., 2012).

Now where is the catch?

The catch is that my records all start in 1987, because that is the period for which I have actual measurements from all those stations. My satellite record is even shorter: it starts in 2000, but with lots of work can be extended back to 1978. And my ocean record is shorter yet: it starts in 2003. There just are no other hard data available from north-west Greenland.

So, does this mean we are stuck with the gloom and doom of a short record?

No, but we have to leave the comforts of hard, modern data with which to do solid science. People have to stick out their necks a little by making larger scale interferences. Based on the 1987-2010 results shown above, I can now say that trends and year-to-year variations are all similar in Alert, Thule, Kap Morris Jesup, etc., etc., so I will use the 60 year Thule record to make statements that somewhat represent all of Nares Strait. I could also start looking for softer and older data. With soft data I mean sketchy ship logs kept by whalers, tense expedition reports of starving explorers (Lauge Koch, Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen), and imperial expeditions (George Nares, Adolphus Greely).

Further south there are a few ports where government or trading authorities started records early. The current capital of Greenland, Nuuk (formerly Godthab) is such a place. The Nuuk record starts 1881. And what I find is that the current warming in Greenland has happened just as dramatic as it does now in the 1920ies and 1930ies [well, except for the 2010 spike, but that story is still ongoing]:

Data from Nuuk, southern Greenland, where the temperature record goes back to 1881 (monthly data from NASA/GISS). The dashed line indicates 1987.

The trend is statistically significant, about 0.008 +/- 0.03 degrees centigrade per year or about 10 times smaller than what it is for northern Greenland starting in 1987. So the devil of Greenland warming, melting, and sliding to sea is in the details or records that are too short. The Global Warming signal is in there, but how much, we do not know and perhaps cannot know. Furthermore, most of the globe of “Global Warming” is covered by water and the ocean warming we know little about. Recall, my ocean record off northern Greenland only starts in 2003 and ends in 2009 or 2012, if we recover computers, sensors, and data from the bottom of Nares Strait this summer.

Greenland’s data and physics of ice, ocean, and air are exciting and all show dramatic change. To me, this is a big and fun puzzle, but one has to be careful and humble to avoid making silly statements for political purposes that are not supported by data. Do I think Global Warming is happening? Absolutely, yes. Do I think it is man-made? Probably. What do I do about it? I ride my bicycle to and from work every day. And that’s what I do next … bicycle home.

Book Review: We, the Drowned

An epic journey often ends at home. Odysseus was sailing home towards his wife and family, Jason and the Argonauts return home to Thessaly with the Golden Fleece, King Arthur’s Knights return to Camelot after they fail or succeed at their Grail Quest, and, in more modern literature, Frodo returns to the Shire. The hero of an epic fights to preserve his home, and is drawn back there after many adventures. Similarly, sailors paint their bodies with reminders of home: names of loved ones, swallows who travel far but always return to the nest, and navigational stars pointing them home.

Appropriately, Carsten Jensen’s novel We, the Drowned centers its epic tales of traveling the seven seas on the place all of the characters at one point call home: the port town of Marstal, Denmark. Spinning tales of adventure spanning more than a century, Jensen draws from the rich history of Marstal, where he grew up, as well as generations of nautical literature.

Told in a series of shorter stories, reading We, the Drowned is more like listening to the bedtime stories of childhood and the legends you hear around the campfire than reading a 700-page tome. The story loosely follows three generations of Marstallers as they are drawn to the magic and adventure of the sea, living their lives at the beck and call of King Neptune.

The tale begins with Laurids Madsen, the sailor who “went up to Heaven and came down again, thanks to his boots,” and who eventually disappears into an Australian port. The story of his son and their generation growing up is fraught with the misery of a sadistic teacher and lost fathers, but Albert, Laurids son, becomes determined to find him. Albert becomes a central focus of the book, representing Marstal’s past, present and future.

The stories range from shrunken heads and selfish traders to brutal wars and sweet romances. These adventures occur wherever the winds blow the sailors of Marstal, including the coasts of Pacific Islands, the Americas, the depths of Africa, and the frigid waters of the Arctic.

We, the Drowned is a fascinating nautical epic, exploring all of the fantastic, wonderful, terrible and awesome faces of the ocean and the people who travel King Neptune’s realm.

Petermann Ice Islands Stuck in Ice

Several pieces of the Manhattan-sized ice island that broke off Petermann Glacier, Greenland in 2010 arrived, dispersed, and melted off Newfoundland last summer. They provided stunning displays visible to the naked eye from the coast. The Canadian Ice Service just distributed this set of radar images showing 4 pieces that are all grounded and/or stuck in ice. None are moving.

Overview of fragments of Ice Islands that broke off Petermann Glacier, Greenland in 2010 as of June-11, 2012 from RadarSat composites. [Credit: Luc Desjardins, Canadian Ice Service]

In the open ocean ice is moved by winds stressing the ice from above and by ocean currents stressing the ice from below. Typical sea ice varies in thickness from 1-5 meters (3-15 feet) which is much less than the 30-130 meters (90-400 feet) thick ice islands. Winds thus push thick ice islands much less than they do push the thinner sea ice. Thick ice islands are moved by ocean currents, not winds.

This is why oceanographers like myself love these bits of ice islands to bits: they tell us about the ocean below the surface that satellites do not see, but, sadly, all fragments are stuck either to the seafloor in shallow coastal waters or are cemented in place by immobile sea ice that is “land-fast:” Think of it as ice that is glued to land and to each other. This sheet of glued-together ice extends some distance offshore. The distance can be a few yards during a cold winter night in Maine or 100s of miles off Siberia. Offshore islands, rocky outcroppings, or grounded ice islands all anchor land-fast ice by adding local support and thus strength and stability to the immobile land-fast ice.

Too much talk, lets explain this with an image of the largest ice islands, called PII-B1. It is about 4 km wide and 9 km long. I dropped a black dot in its center as it is hard to see where to look in this image. I also show land in grey, open water in blue, and ice in shades of white and yellow:

Land-fast and mobile sea ice off Baffin Island with Petermann Ice Island PII-B1 grounded near the 150 meter isobath (black dot). Thick lines are 100, 200, and 300-m bottom depths. MODIS Terra data at 250-m resolution from June-6, 2012, 15:05 UTC.

There is clearly a 30-km wide band of ice attached to the land with a line of blue water separating it from ice that is mobile and has different signatures. A blue band of ocean has emerged, I speculate, as the result of winds from the south that moved the mobile ice to the north-east (to the right in the image). Neither the land-fast nor the grounded ice island PII-B1 embedded in it moved, so open water appears where there was mobile ice before. This is called a shore lead and I bet there are plenty of seals and whales feasting there now. Note also the arched entrance to Home Bay (bottom left) where loose ice is scattered towards the headland of Henry Kater Peninsula.

As summer is arriving fast in the Arctic, the land-fast ice will disappear, breaking up as the sun and air above and the ocean below weakens the ice by melting. This will expose the thicker ice islands and icebergs to wind-forced storms and waves more violently than it does now. And even those ice island grounded to the bottom of the ocean in shallow water will become free during a time of higher than normal sea level, perhaps during a spring tide, perhaps during strong winds from the north. Then these currently stuck-in-the-ice ice islands will continue their journey south towards Newfoundland and the Atlantic Ocean that they began in 2010 when they were born in northern Greenland.

EDIT: For context I append an earlier RadarSat image from October-18, 2010 when all segments were much closer in space.

Petermann Ice Islands in northern Baffin Bay of Coburg Island, Canada at 76 N latitude on Oct.-18, 2010, about 2 month after they separated from Petermann Glacier, Greenland at 81N latitude. [Credit: Luc Desjardins, Canadian Ice Service]