Tag Archives: oceanography

What’s happened at Petermann Gletscher since the Industrial Revolution 150 years ago?

More than 15 years ago I first set sight on the floating Petermann Gletscher when the United States’ Coast Guard Cutter Healy visited north-west Greenland for the first time on 10th August of 2003. We only had to sail 20 km into the fjord to reach a flat expanse of glacier ice that stuck less than 5 m (15 feet) above the sea. In 2012 and 2015 we had to sail another 20 km, because two large calving events had shortened the glacier farther back than it has since first records were kept in 1876. The terminus was also much higher, almost 25 m (75 feet) above the sea:


Terminus of Petermann Gletscher 5th August 2015 from aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden. View is to the south-east. [Photo Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

I published more detailed results on observed glacier change and estimated melt rates with Drs. Laurie Padman and Helen Fricker in the Journal of Glaciology from which I take these two figures:


Petermann Gletscher’s two large calving events in 2010 and 2012 as seen from MODIS satellite. The glacier is floating on the ocean seaward of the grounding line indicated by the thick black line. Black areas are open ocean water, white is ice. Adapted from Muenchow et al., 2014.


Time series from 1876 to 2014 of the length of Petermann Gletscher as measured from its grounding line at y=0 km. Triangles are observations while lines indicate a steady 1 km per year advance. The insert shows three maps of observed glacier shapes. From Muenchow et al., 2014.

Back in 2003 the glacier advanced about 1 km each year and it does so still. Almost the same, but not exactly, because the removal of 6 “Manhattans” in 2010 and 2012 increased the forward speed some, that is, the glacier now moves faster forward than it did before. Many sensors placed on the glacier measured this speeding, but the glacier also gets thinner as it speeds up. It is stretched thin. I published this back in 2016 together with Drs. Laurie Padman, Keith Nicholls, and my PhD student Peter Washam in Oceanography:


Speed at which Petermann Gletscher moves out into the sea from many different measurements. The glacier moves more slowly over land (negative distances) than it does floating over the ocean (positive distances). Estimates made after 2012 are about 10-20 % higher than RADARSAT estimates before that date. From Muenchow et al., 2016.

With substantial help from the British Antarctic Survey we installed in 2015 a small ocean observing system under the floating glacier. It transmitted data from 800 meters (2400 feet) below the 100 m (300 feet) thick glacier ice via cables connected to a weather station. We sucessfully repaired the station (as well as a Danish weather station nearby) that stopped transmitting data via satellites in 2016. Two journalists of the Washington Post, Chris Mooney and Whitney Shefte joined Keith Nicholls and myself. Their outstanding and accurate reporting of our work includes video and graphics for a wider audience that you can find at this link:

Washington Post Video of 2016 Petermann Gletscher Site Visit

The ocean and glacier data were worked over carefully by Peter Washam who defended his dissertation last month. Dr. Washam moved to Georgia Tech in Atlanta to work with Dr. Britney Schmidt whose interests relate to the ice-covered oceans below some moons of Jupiter. Peter connected ocean temperature and salinity with ice radar and remote sensing data to estimate how much the glacier is melted by the ocean and how the ocean does this. His main result will be published later this year in the Journal of Glaciology [Added July-12, 2019: Published online as Washam et al., 2019 at the Journal of Glaciology.], that is

“… This increase in basal melt rates confirms the direct link between summer atmospheric warming around Greenland and enhanced ocean-forced melting of its remaining ice shelves. We attribute this enhanced melting to increased discharge of subglacial runoff into the ocean at the grounding line, which strengthens under-ice currents and drives a greater ocean heat flux toward the ice base…”

The next large calving will be no surprise: Large fractures cross much of the glacier. They are visible about 10-20 km behind the current terminus and are discussed and closely monitored almost every day at the excellent site of Greenland Enthusiasts from all walks of life who post at


Furthermore, a new sophisticated computer model of Petermann Gletscher reveals that the loss of this large “still attached” ice island is already gone from the glacier in terms of the friction that it provides along the sidewalls. Another way of putting this, all it takes is a little wiggle or bump and the separation will become visible. Dr. Martin Rueckamp just published this study in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

There is much more to be explored with regard to Petermann. Here are some of the readings and writings that I have done with many fellow sailors through uncertain climates:

Johnson, H.L., A. Muenchow, K.K. Falkner, and H. Melling: Ocean circulation and properties in Petermann Fjord, Greenland. Journal of Geophysical Research, 116, doi:10.1029/2010JC006519, 2011. .pdf

Muenchow, A., L. Padman, and H.A. Fricker: Interannual changes of the floating ice shelf of Petermann Gletscher, North Greenland, from 2000 to 2012 Journal of Glaciology, 60, doi:10.3189/2014JoG13J135, 2014. .pdf

Muenchow, A., L. Padman, P. Washam, and K.W. Nicholls, 2016: The ice shelf of Petermann Gletscher, North Greenland and its connection to the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, Oceanography, 29, 84-95, 2016. .pdf

Rueckamp, M, N. Neckel, S. Berger, A. Humbert, and V. Helm: Calving induced speed-up of Petermann Glacier, Journal of Geophysical Research, 124, 216-228, 2019. .pdf

Shroyer, E., L. Padman, R. Samelson, A. Muenchow, and L. Stearns: Seasonal control of Petermann Gletscher ice-shelf melt by the ocean’s response to sea-ice cover in Nares Strait, Journal of Glaciology, 63, doi:10.1017/jog.2016.140, 2017. .pdf

Washam, P., A. Muenchow, and K.W. Nicholls: A decade of ocean changes impacting the ice shelf of Petermann Gletscher, Greenland, Journal of Physical Oceanography, 48, 2477-2493, 2018. source

Washam, P., K.W. Nicholls, A. Muenchow, and L. Padman: Summer surface melt thins Petermann Gletscher ice shelf by enhancing channelized basal melt, Journal of Glaciology, 65, doi:10.1017/jog.2019.43, 2019. .pdf

Germany 1985 to 2018

I left my native Germany in 1985 to study oceanography in North Wales. I returned in 2018 as an American Professor of polar oceanography.  

  Much has changed in 33 years. For one, the divided country that I left is no more. The largely peaceful unification of Germany and Europe removed barbed wires, concrete walls, and shoot-to-kill orders along a violent border. The Cold War was over, I saw the scenes of joy on TV in a bar in Newark, Delaware more than 4100 miles (5600 km) away:


I experienced the “new” Germany for the first time when sailing aboard Germany’s icebreaker R/V Polarstern in 2014 to deploy ocean moorings. At the time I counted four distinct German cultures.  

  Today is a national holiday that celebrates the “Tag der Deutschen Einheit” or “Day of German Unity.” It is very much work in progress as Germany is becoming more diverse with its over 10 Million people born in countries other than Germany. Turkey (1.5 Mil), Poland (0.9 Mil), and Syria (0.7 Mil) field the most foreign-born people as of 2017. From my American perspective Germany has become a more normal country with its recent politics, troubles, inconveniences, and strengths that these diverse backgrounds entail.

Dragonfly and I arrived in Bremerhaven three months ago to live and work here for at least a year. It took us two days to get bicycles and another two days to find a well-furnished apartment. My parents visited the second weekend and we became Bremerhaven tourists for two days. We purchased the required catastrophic health insurance from a credible company for about €550/year each, but after 3 months we are still waiting for the installation of an internet connection at our home, but we are hopeful that this may change soon.

Author aboard German research vessel F/S Maria S. Merian in port of Longyearbyen, Svalbard in the fall of 2018. [Photo by Dragonfly Leathrum.]

Author aboard German research vessel F/S Maria S. Merian in port of Longyearbyen, Svalbard in the fall of 2018. [Photo by Dragonfly Leathrum.]


Northern Winds and Currents off North-East Greenland

I spent 6 weeks aboard the German research icebreaker R/V Polarstern last year leaving Tromso in Norway in early September and returned to Bremerhaven, Germany in October. We successfully recovered ocean sensors that we had deployed more than 3 years before. It felt good to see old friends, mates, and sensors back on the wooden deck. Many stories, some mysterious, some sad, some funny and happy could be told, but today I am working on some of the data as I reminisce.

The location is North-East Greenland where Fram Strait connects the Arctic Ocean to the north with the Atlantic Ocean in the south. We worked mostly on the shallow continental shelf areas where water depths vary between 50 and 500 meters. The map shows these areas in light bluish tones where the line shows the 100 and 300 meter water depth. Fram Strait is much deeper, more than 2000 meters in places. I am interested how the warm Atlantic water from Fram Strait moves towards the cold glaciers that dot the coastline of Greenland in the west.

Map of study area with 2014-16 mooring array in box near 78 N across Belgica Trough. Red triangles place weather data from Station Nord (81.2 N), Henrik Kr\o yer Holme (80.5 N), and Danmarkhaven (76.9 N). Black box indicates area of mooring locations.

There is also ice, lots of sea icebergs, and ice islands that we had to navigate. None of it did any harm to our gear that we moored for 1-3 years on the ocean floor that can and often is scoured by 100 to 400 meter thick ice from glaciers, however, 2-3 meter thick sea ice prevented us to reach three mooring locations this year and our sensors are still, we hope, on the ocean floor collecting data.

Ahhh, data, here we come. Lets start with the weather at this very lonely place called Henrik Krøyer Holme. The Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) maintains an automated weather station that, it seems, Dr. Ruth Mottram visited and blogged about in 2014 just before we deployed our moorings from Polarstern back in 2014:

Weather station on Henrik Kroeyer Holme [Credit: Dr. Ruth Mottram, DMI]

It was a little tricky to find the hourly data and it took me more than a day to process and graph it to suit my own purposes, but here it is

Winds (A) and air temperature (B) from an automated weather station at Henrik Kroeyer Holme from 1 June, 2014 through 31 August, 2016. Missing values are indicated as red symbols in (A).

The air temperatures on this island are much warmer than on land to the west, but it still drops to -30 C during a long winter, but the end of July it reaches +5 C. The winds in summer (JJA for June, July, and August) are weak and variable, but they are often ferociously strong in winter (DJF for December, January, February) when they reach almost 30 meters per second (60 knots). The strong winter winds are always from the north moving cold Arctic air to the south. The length of each stick along the time line relates the strength of the winds, that is, long stick indicates much wind. The orientation of each stick indicates the direction that the wind blows, that is, a stick vertical down is a wind from north to south. I use the same type of stick plot for ocean currents. How do these look for the same period?

Ocean current vectors at four selected depths near the eastern wall of Belgica Trough. Note the bottom-intensified flow from south to north. A Lanczos low-pass filter removes variability at time scales smaller than 5 days to emphasize mean and low-frequency variability.

Ocean currents and winds have nothing in common. While the winds are from north to south, the ocean currents are usually in the opposite direction. This becomes particular clear as we compare surface currents at 39 meters below the sea surface with bottom currents 175 or even 255 meters below the surface. They are much stronger and steadier at depth than at the surface. How can this be?

Image of study area on 15 June 2014 with locations (blue symbols) where we deployed moorings a few days before this satellite image was taken by MODIS Terra. The 100-m isobath is shown in red.

Well, recall that there is ice and for much of the year this sea ice is not moving, but is stuck to land and islands. This immobile winter ice protects the ocean below from a direct influence of the local winds. Yet, what is driving such strong flows under the ice? We need to know, because it is these strong currents at 200 to 300 meter depth that move the heat of warm and salty Atlantic waters towards coastal glaciers where they add to the melting of Greenland. This is what I am thinking about now as I am trying to write-up for my German friends and colleagues what we did together the last 3 years.

Oh yes, and we did reach the massive terminus of 79 North Glacier (Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden) that features the largest remaining floating ice shelf in Greenland:

We recovered ocean moorings from this location also, but this is yet another story that is probably best told by scientists at the Alfred-Wegener-Institute who spent much time and treasures to put ship, people, and science on one ship. I am grateful for their support and companionship at sea and hopefully all of next year in Bremerhaven, Germany.

Is Petermann Gletscher Breaking Apart this Summer?

I am disturbed by new ocean data from Greenland every morning before breakfast these days. In 2015 we built a station that probes the ocean below Petermann Gletscher every hour. Data travels from the deep ocean via copper cables to the glacier surface, passes through a weather station, jumps the first satellite overhead, hops from satellite to satellite, falls back to earth hitting an antenna in my garden, and fills an old computer.

A 7-minute Washington Post video describes a helicopter repair mission of the Petermann data machine. The Post also reported first result that deep ocean waters under the glacier are heating up.

Sketch of Petermann Gletscher’s ice shelf with ocean sensor stations. The central station supports five cabled sensors that are reporting hourly ocean temperatures once every day. Graphics made by Dani Johnson and Laris Karklis for the Washington Post.

After two years I am stunned that the fancy technology still works, but the new data I received the last 3 weeks does worry me. The graph below compares ocean temperatures from May-24 through June-16 in 2017 (red) and 2016 (black). Ignore the salinity measurements in the top panel, they just tell me that the sensors are working extremely well:

Ocean temperature (bottom) and salinity (top) at 450-m depth below Petermann Gletscher from May-25 through June-16 2017 (red) and 2016 (black). Notice the much larger day-to-day temperature ups and downs in 2017 as compared to 2016. This “change of character” worries me more than anything else at Petermann right now.

The red temperature line in the bottom panel is always above the black line. The 2017 temperatures indicate waters that are warmer in 2017 than in 2016. We observed such warming for the last 15 years, but the year to year warming now exceeds the year to year warming that we observed 10 years ago. This worries me, but three features suggest a new ice island to form soon:

First, a new crack in the ice shelf developed near the center of the glacier the last 12 months. Dr. Stef Lhermitte of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands discovered the new crack two months ago. The new rupture is small, but unusual for its location. Again, the Washington Post reported the new discovery:

New 2016/17 crack near the center of Petermann Gletscher’s ice shelf as reported by Washington Post on Apr.-14, 2017.

Second, most Petermann cracks develop from the sides at regular spaced intervals and emanate from a shear zone at the edge. Some cracks grow towards the center, but most do not. In both 2010 and 2012 Manhattan-sized ice islands formed when a lateral crack grew and reached the central channel. The LandSat image shows such a crack that keeps growing towards the center.

Segment of Petermann Gletscher from 31 May 2017 LandSat image. Terminus of glacier and sea ice are at top left.

And finally, let’s go back to the ocean temperature record that I show above. Notice the up and down of temperature that in 2017 exceeds the 2016 up and down range. Scientists call this property “variance” which measures how much temperature varies from day-to-day and from hour-to-hour. The average temperature may change in an “orderly” or “stable” or “predictable” ocean along a trend, but the variance stays the same. What I see in 2017 temperatures before breakfast each morning is different. The new state appears more “chaotic” and “unstable.” I do not know what will come next, but such disorderly behavior often happens, when something breaks.

I fear that Petermann is about to break apart … again.

Greenland Oceanography by Sled and Snowmobile

Wind chill matters in Greenland because one must see and breath. This implies exposed skin that will hurt and sting at first. Ignoring this sting for a few minutes, I notice that the pain goes away, because the flesh has frozen which kills nerves and skin tissue. The problem becomes worse as one drives by snowmobile to work on the sea ice which I do these days almost every day.

Navigating on the sea ice by identifying ice bergs with LandSat imagery. The imagery also shows polynyas and thin ice in the area. [Photo Credit: Sonny Jacobsen]

Mar.-22, 2017 LandSat image of study area with Thule Air Base near bottom right, Saunders Island in the center. Large red dots are stations A, B, and C with Camp-B containing weather station, shelter, and first ocean mooring. My PhD student Pat Ryan prepared this at the University of Delaware.

My companion on the ice is Sonny Jacobsen who knows and reads the land, ice, and everything living on and below it. He teaches me how to drive the snowmobile, how to watch for tracks in the snow, how to pack a sled, and demonstrates ingenuity to apply tools and materials on-hand to fix a problem good enough to get home and devise a new and better way to get a challenging task done. Here he is designing and rigging what is to become our “Research Sled” R/S Peter Freuchen, but I am a little ahead of my story:

Sonny Jacobsen on Mar.-27, 2017 on Thule Air Base building a self-contained sled for ocean profiling.

First we set up a shelter in the center of what will hopefully soon become an array of ocean sensors and acoustic modems to move data wirelessly through the water from point A in the north-west via point B to point C. Point C will become the pier at Thule Air Base while the tent is at B that I call Camp-B:

Ice Fishing shelter to the north-east of Saunders Island seen to the left in the background.

Next, we set up an automated weather station (AWS) next to this site, because winds and temperatures on land next to hills, glaciers, and ice sheets are not always the same 10 or 20 km offshore in the fjord. It is a risk-mitigating safety factor to know the weather in the study area BEFORE driving there for 30-60 minutes to spend the day out on the ice. It does not hurt, that this AWS is also collecting most useful scientific data, but again, I am slightly ahead of my story:

Weather station with shelter at Camp-B with the northern shores of Wolstenholme Fjord in the background. Iridium antenna appears just above the iceberg on the sidebar of the station. Winds are measured at 3.2 m above the ground.

With shelter and weather station established and working well, we decided to drill a 10” hole through 0.6 m thin ice to deploy a string of ocean instruments from just below the ice bottom to the sea floor 110 m below. Preparing for this all friday (Mar.-24), we deploy 22 sensors on a kevlar line of which 20 record internally and must be recovered while 2 connect via cables to the weather station to report ocean temperature and salinity along with winds and air temperatures. It feels a little like building with pieces of Lego as I did as a kid. Engineers and scientists, perhaps, are trained early in this sort of thing.

Weather station with ocean mooring (bottom right) attached with eastern Saunders Island in the background on Sunday Mar.-26, 2017.

Sadly, only the ocean sensor at the surface works while the one at the bottom does not talk to me. I can only suspect that I bend a pin on the connector trying to connect very stiff rubber sealing copper pins from the cable with terminations equally stiff in the cold, however, there are other ways to get at the bottom properties albeit with a lot more effort … which brings me to R/S Peter Freuchen shown here during its maiden voyage yesterday:

R/S Peter Freuchen in front of 10” hole (bottom right) for deployment of a profiling ocean sensor. The long pipes looking like an A-frame on a ship become a tripod centered over the hole with the electrical winch to drive rope and with sensors (not shown) over a block into the ocean. This was yesterday Mar.-28, 2017 on the way from Camp-B back to Thule Air Base.

The trial of this research sled was successful, however, as all good trials, it revealed several weaknesses and unanticipated problems that all have solutions that we will make today and tomorrow. The design has to be simple to be workable in -25 C with some wind and we will strip away layers of complexities that are “nice to have” but not essential such as a line counter and the speed at which the line goes into the water. There can not be too many cables or lines or attachments, because any exposure to the elements becomes hard labor. This becomes challenging with any gear leaving the ocean (rope, sensors) and splattering water on other components. Recall that ocean water is VERY hot at -1.7 C relative to -25 C air temperatures. This means that ANYTHING from the ocean will freezes instantly when in contact with air. Efficiency and economy matter … as does body heat to keep critical sensors and batteries warm.

A big Thank-You to Operation IceBridge’s John Woods for something related to this post that I wish not to advertise 😉