Tag Archives: ocean

Ice Arches and Gothic Cathedrals

Soaring towards heaven awash in light, Gothic Cathedrals awed medieval kings, jesters, and peasants alike. Their upward pointing arches allowed walls of stained windows to filter light into these massive buildings when most dwellings from royal castle to decrepit hut were dark, damp, and filthy. While the power of god was both invoked and abused, it was physics and engineering that allowed these cathedrals to scrape the skies. A delicate balance of forces is of the essence to avoid accelerations and collapse.

Arched windows within an arch inside the Cathedral of Reims, France.

Hence it should not surprise that ice arches buttressed by land show similar elegance and stability, but also dramatic collapse. When these ice arches form and collapse is one factor to determine when the Arctic Ocean will be free of ice in summer.

June-10, 2012 ice arch in Nares Strait between northern Greenland and Canada. The arch has been in place since Dec.-8, 2011.

Nares Strait Jun.-10, 2012 image showing land-fast ice between northern Greenland and Canada as well as the ice arch in the south (bottom left) separating sea ice from open water (North Water).

The Nares Strait ice arch forms between December and April most winters. Unlike the medieval cathedrals it consists of blocks of ice. Once in place, the arch shuts down all ice movement. The ocean water under the ice moves undisturbed southward sweeping newly formed ice away. This creates the North-Water polynya, first reported by William Baffin in his ship logs in 1616. The North Water supports wild life for millenia providing food and trading items for people. Even viking remnants from the time the first Gothic Cathedrals were built in Europe were found here: sections of chain mail, iron point blades, cloth, and boat rivets.

I want the ice arch in Nares Strait to collapse as soon as possible so that a Canadian ice breaker can get us to where we like to recover instruments and data that we deployed in 2009. And while I researched the stability of ice arches and studied Moira Dunbar’s 1969 satellite imagery, I came across a wonderful NOVA broadcast on medieval skyscrapers of glass and stone.” PBS stations will show it on Sept.-9, 2012.

Digging a little deeper, I also found a series of Open University podcasts and videos. My favorite 3-minute segment covers lines of thrust where barely connected irregular blocks of wood form a surprisingly stable yet wobbly arching bridge. If you want to build your own arch, then play interactively for fun with the physics of stone arches.

Since I want to understand and predict when the ice arch of Nares Strait collapses, I must understand how medieval architects and engineers designed their Gothic Cathedrals. I will also need understand why some cathedrals are still standing while others collapsed. My icy building blocks in Nares Strait are not as solid as the stones of Reims Cathedral, but unlike the medieval scientists, today we have computers and mathematics to help … as well as more than 800 more years of experience in science and engineering.

Heat Sensing Eyes “See” Arctic Ice Thickness

The Arctic sea ice is disappearing before our eyes as we extended them into space in the form of satellites. Every summer for the last few years the area covered by ice is shrinking during the summer when 24 hours of sunlight give us plenty of crisp images. But what about winter? What about now? And does a picture from space tell us how thick the ice is?

Nares Strait between northern Greenland and Canada on Aug.-13, 2005 with Petermann and Humboldt Glaciers at top and center right from MODIS imagery using red, blue, and green channels.

It is dark in the winter near the north pole as the sun is below the horizon 24 hours each day, but there are many ways to “see” in the dark as flying bats aptly show. They send out sound that bounce off objects from which bats reconstruct objects around them. We use radar from space to do to the same with radio waves to “see” different types of ice at night from satellites. We can also use tiny amounts of heat stored in water, ice, snow, and land to “see” at night. Someone breathing down your neck at a cold dark corner will make our heart beat faster as we “see” the heat not with our eyes, but with our skin. I digress, as I really want to talk about icy Arctic seas and how we can perhaps “see” how thick it is with our eyes in the sky.

The most accurate and pain-staking way to measure ice thickness is drill holes through it. This is back-breaking, manual labor away from the comforts of a ship or a camp. One person watches with a shot-gun for polar bear searching for food, not our food, we are the food. The scientist who does this sweaty, dangerous work on our Nares Strait expeditions is Dr. Michelle Johnston of Canada’s National Research Council. She is a petite, attractive, and smart woman who is calm, competent, and comfortable when she leads men like her bear-like helper Richard Lanthier into the drilling battles with the ice. She gets dirty, cold, and wet when on her hands and knees setting up, drilling, cutting, measuring:

Dr. Michelle Johnston assembling ice drilling gear in Nares Strait with Greenland on the horizon. The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen in the background with its helicopter hovering.

She measures temperatures within the ice and tries to crush it to find out how strong it is. All of this information guides ship operators on what dangers they face operating in icy seas. Drilling over 250 such holes across a small floe on the other (eastern) side of Greenland, Dr. Hajo Eicken showed how one large ice floe changes from less 1 meter to more than 5 meters in thickness. He also discovered that the percentage of thick and thin ice of his single 1 mile wide ice chunk is similar to the percentages measured by a submarine along a track longer than 1000 miles.

This was a surprising result in 1989 and we use it to estimate ice thickness more leisurely sipping coffee in our office. From the same satellite that gives us crisp true color images in summer as shown above, we get false color images of temperature as shown below.

Map of Nares Strait, north-west Greenland on March-25, 2009 showing heat emitted during the polar night from the ocean through the ice, and sensed by MODIS satellite.

A graduate student of mine, Claire Macdonald, is trying to convert these temperature readings into ice thickness for Nares Strait. She showed me the first promising results today. The plot below shows the distribution of “thermal” ice thickness for a small square in Nares Strait Dec.-1, 2008 through Mar.-1, 2009 when no clouds were in the area. Note the two distinct and separate clusters with thicknesses below 1 meter and above 2 meters. They represent thin ice formed in 2009 after an upstream ice arch blocked all flow of thicker ice from the Arctic Ocean to Nares Strait. The thicker ice passed the study area at times when the thick, hard multi-year Arctic ice entered Nares Strait freely from the Arctic Ocean.

Distribution of "thermal" ice thickness from satellite for Nares Strait Dec.-1, 2008 through Mar.-1, 2009. (Credit: Claire Macdonald, Jan.-26, 2012)

Much work remains to be done: Claire is comparing the “thermal” ice thickness with “acoustic” ice thickness measured by sonars moored in the water below the ice. It then will be exciting to explore “thermal” thicknesses for all of Nares Strait. Winds and ocean currents will pile ice up in some areas making it thicker while they spread ice out making it thinner. Claire and I have worked with such wind and ocean data. Science is never finished as each question answered raises a host of new ones.

Swirling Ice in Coastal Waters off Eastern Greenland

Nature provides us with art that is always changing in time and space. Delicate swirls and vortices give a rare glimpse of how the ocean’s surface looked today off eastern Greenland. The data originate from the MODIS/Terra satellite which from 440 miles above the earth captures light that is reflected from anything below. Here it shows the ice-free ocean (bottom right) and Greenland’s ice-free Scoresby Sound (bottom left) in very dark blues, lightly vegetated lands (left) in light blue, and a highly organized pattern of sea ice (top right) in white. The resolution of this image of light just beyond the visible, just beyond the red is about 300 yards and the swirls and elongated filaments are about 3-5 miles. To me, they vividly show the ocean’s surface circulation.

Swirling surface motion on the continental shelf off eastern Greenland Sept.-12, 2011 as indicated by sea ice. Black lines show contours of bottom depth from 300 to 1200 meters in 300 meter increments.

The physics of these motions are similar to those I was reading into another beautiful work of art to the north of Norway. The postulated physics involve the earth’s rotation as well as differences in density. The density of the ocean relates to its temperature a little and to its salinity a lot. Near the coast and at the surface, ocean waters are much fresher and thus lighter than they are offshore and at depth, because Greenland’s melting glaciers and sea ice are fresher than the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The thin black lines show bottom depths to distinguish the deep Atlantic Ocean to the right in the image from the shallow continental shelf off eastern Greenland to the left in the image. Note that all the swirls, eddies, and filaments are within 30 kilometers (20 miles) off the coast in water less than 300-m deep. The same physics apply to the algal blooms off Norway which is the reason that the swirls and eddies are of similar size here and there as well.

Incidentally, the same physics also apply the discharges from rivers and estuaries such as the Delaware or Cheasapeake Bay. There, the pattern are not quiet as visible to the naked (satellite) eye as off Norway or Greenland, but if one takes measurements of the ocean, similar patterns of ocean salinity and velocity as, I speculate, they do here for the ice (Greenland) and algae blooms (Norway). While my academic journey of fresh water discharges started with the discharge of the Delaware River into the Atlantic almost 25 years ago, I am still fascinated by the many ways these patterns always come back to me. Physics and oceanography are beautiful in both their many natural manifestations and its unique balance of forces. There is so much more in how the oceans interact with the ice and glaciers off Greenland and elsewhere. To be continued …

Uncertainty in the Physics and Philosophy of Climate Change

I wrote this post last year for the National Journal, but it also relates to the way I think about Petermann Glacier’s ice islands. There are now at least 4 larger ice islands that formed from last year’s single calving: one is the tourist attraction off Labrador and Newfoundland, a second has left Petermann Fjord last week, a third was grounded off Ellesmere Island for much of the year and is now where #1 was Nov.-2010, while the fourth … I do not know. Last I heart, it was grounded off central Baffin Island. With this much variation of where pieces of the ice island went, how can we possibly claim any skill in predicting anything?


Neither climate nor weather is linear, but this neither makes them unpredictable nor chaotic. The simple harmonic pendulum is the essence of a linear system with clear cause and effect relations. Oscillations are predictable as long as the initial forcing is small. Furthermore, a linear trend will show the pendulum to slow down due to friction. Corrections are straightforward.

Unfortunately, climate is not a simple, harmonic, or linear system. While this does not make it unpredictable or chaotic, it means that our “common sense” and loose talk of “totality of events” can easily fool us. We know that CO2 emissions for the last 150 years changed global temperatures. We also know that our current climate system has been very stable over the last 10,000 years. What we do not yet know is how small or how large a perturbations the last 150 years have been. If the pendulum is forced too much, if the spring is stretched too far, the system will find another stable state by breaking. Climate dynamics can find an adjustment less tuned to the areas where people presently live. This is what “tipping points” are about. Only numerical experimentation with the best physics and models will suggest how close to a different stable climate state we are. The IPCC process is one way to do so.

Ice cores from Greenland contain air bubbles 100,000 years old, which clearly demonstrate that our present climate state is the “anomaly of quiet” in terms of temperature fluctuations. The absence of large fluctuations for about 10,000 years made agriculture and advanced civilizations possible. The ice cores show that abrupt climate change has happened and may happen again, not this election cycle, but it is one possibility perhaps as likely as the possibility that climate change is mundane, linear, and follows trends that we can easily correct or mitigate later. Both are excellent hypotheses.

For scientists, these are exciting times as we conduct a massive, global experiment to see how much CO2 we can add to the atmosphere to perhaps find a different climate state. Dr. Terry Joyce, Senior Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution once said: “I’m in the dark as to how close to an edge or transition to a new ocean and climate regime we might be. But I know which way we are walking. We are walking toward the cliff.” I agree with this sentiment, but add that we do not know if this cliff is a 1000 feet fall or a 2 feet step. Can we affort to wait until we know for sure? As a scientist I do not care. As a citizen, however, I think the time to act responsibly is now.

Ice Islands, Oil Fields, and Sea Level

A piece of ice, the size of four Manhattans, is heading our way. It broke free from northern Greenland last summer and has become home to seals and sea life off Labrador and Newfoundland, Canada. Ocean currents continue to propel it towards Hibernia oil fields and the rich fishery grounds of the Grand Banks. It is a tourist attraction as well.

Ice Island off Labrador 20 km from the coast in water 100-200 m deep (from Terra/MODIS).

This largest break-up from Greenland for at least 80-years has raised fears, that a warming climate will raise global sea level. While melting all of Greenland’s ice sheet would increase sea level in Delaware and Bangladesh by over 20 feet, this is unlikely to happen for the next 500 years. But how much does Greenland melt now? How much will our local sea level change the next few years as a result? Will it be inches or feet by the end of this century?

In order to answer these questions, we need to understand how the melting of Greenland’s ice works, if it melts all the time, if it melts everywhere, and if its melting is accelerating. We all know that glaciers grow when snow accumulates atop and shrink when icebergs break off. As big as the ice island from Petermann was, it contributes only a seventh to Petermann’s normal overall loss. Ocean warming and circulation cause most of the rest. During both the cold darkness of winter and bright coolness of summer, the ocean melts the most ice below the surface where it is thickest.

Furthermore, this melting can accelerate ice streams discharging ice hundreds of miles inland when thrown off-balance. Presently, these ice streams are held in place by a delicate balance of forces at the point where ocean, glacier, and the bottom meet. If this triple intersection of water, ice, and rock retreats into an existing landward cavity, then ocean water will rush in, enhance ice-ocean contact, increase the rate of melting, collapse the ice shelf, and thus raise global sea level. That’s bad for Delaware and Bangladesh, because it increases coastal erosion, flooding, and loss of wetlands that are nurseries for fish, crab, and shrimp.

Ice islands breaking off Greenland are visible and dramatic, but the cost of them breaking oil rigs off Newfoundland are small compared with the costs of rising sea level due to accelerating ice streams and disintegrating ice shelves. These sucker punches will be costly for us in Delaware and Bangladesh. An ice island or two … pocket change.