Tag Archives: Petermann

Two Years Ocean Observing Below Petermann Glacier Greenland

A year ago today I last set foot on Petermann’s floating ice shelf. The 28th of August 2016 was a drizzly, cloudy day with water running over the surface of the glacier in small streams emptying into larger streams to form small rivers that merged into larger channels carved into the ice. Two years ago Keith Nichols and I set-up a weather station atop the glacier. Many friends helped. We connected copper wires, ocean sensors, and a surface station to collect data from sensors 100-m below the ice in 800-m deep water. The small 2015 project of opportunity keeps giving us hourly ocean data. I am still stunned by our luck and technology.

My Petermann story started in 2010 when a first Manhattan-sized ice cube broke off the glacier. Two days after a University of Delaware press release, the US Congress asked me to appear before one of its inquiring committees. I humbly acknowledged how little I knew then, but everyone else knew even less. In 2012 another Manhattan-sized glacier piece broke off. While satellite a image shows what happens, only hard ocean data and modeling explains why it happens. Two research proposals were rejected, sadly, to probe ocean physics with carefully designed experiments, but in 2016 Alan Mix invited me to an expedition to Petermann aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden. I gladly accepted, but I wanted to contribute something. That “something” became the Petermann Glacier Ocean Weather Observatory.

Alan needed holes drilled through the 100-m to 400-m thick glacier. Actually, he needed mud from 800 meters below the glacier. Keith Nichols of the British Antarctic Survey drilled those holes for Alan and collected the mud. My plan was to recycle the hole, that is, we dropped kevlar line, copper wire, and ocean sensors into the ocean and connected all to a weather station. David Huntley and I designed the system that included an Iridium satellite phone. Iridium phone calls ceased in February 2016, but a “service call,” that is, a helicopter site visit fixed the station. Chris Mooney and Whitney Shefte told the story for the Washington Post on 30 December 2016.

Ocean temperature at 95-m, 300-m, and 450-m below the sea surface as well as pressure at the bottom sensor near 810-m depth (~810 dbar pressure) updated through 27 August 2017.

The graph shows the entire 2-year long data record. Each gray vertical bar indicates a month between July 2015 and December 2017. The top record shows ocean temperatures just below the floating glacier ice. It was a surprise to see the data change from -0.3 Celsius to -1.6 degrees Celsius. The latter is close to the freezing point of salt water. Hence I interpret low-temperature events as meltwater pulse that swoosh past our sensor.

At 300-m we find a smaller range of temperatures near +0.1 degrees Celsius. Note the steady increase of temperature. Fluctuations are similar, but their absolute values increase with time. The linear warming trend becomes clear at 450-m depth, because the fluctuations diminish, but the warming does not. Temperatures at all depths increased over the entire two years of hourly observations.

The pressure record of the bottom-most sensor on the kevlar line perplexes me: During the first year the sensor slides into deeper water, because the kevlar stretches as all lines do when weighted down. In July 2016 the sensor sharply rises by almost 3 meters from 810.5 to 808.5 dbar to just as rapidly drop again to the 810.5 dbar value. The same feature occurs in the summer of 2017 also. It relates to the summer melt season, but how? I do not know.

The 2-year record is not perfect as the many gaps indicate. These result from electronic and mechanical failures that, I feel, are caused by long and harsh winters when temperatures dropped below -40 degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit. These cold temperatures challenge the best batteries during the 4-5 months of total darkness. On 20. December 2016 our batteries ran out and shut down the station. The sun revived our data gathering when the solar panels recharged batteries in March 2017.

The glacier also melts about 1-2 meters at the surface each summer. This surface melt tilted and almost crashed the station that we repaired last year today. In 2015 we had 2-m of pipe to fix into the glacier ice. In 2016 we replaced this with a 4-m pole that should survive two year’s of surface melt, I hope.

There are many, many people who all contributed in ways both small and large. It takes a village to raise a station on Greenland:

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.

Petermann Gletscher and Greenland Climate Change

Multi-media story of two old-style scientists on a Greenland data rescue mission. Keith (Nicholls) and I were joined by Chris Mooney and Whitney Shefte of the Washington Post who just posted

Testifying before the US Congress back in 2010, I refused to endorse the view that a first large calving at Petermann Gletscher in North Greenland was caused by global warming. Additional events and analyses of new data and old data, however, convinced me that climate change forces Petermann Gletscher into a new and unknown state.

Petermann Gletscher Ocean Station Revisited

Standing on floating Petermann Gletscher last sunday, I called my PhD student Peter Washam out of bed at 5 am via our emergency Iridium phone to check the machine that Keith Nicholls and I had just repaired. We had prepared for this 4 months and quickly established that a computer in Delaware could “talk” to a computer in Greenland to receive data from the ocean 800 m below my feet on a slippery glacier. For comparison the Empire State Building is 480 m high. The closest bar was 5 hours away by helicopter at Thule Air Force Base from where Keith and I had come.

Cabled ocean observatory linked to a University of Delaware weather station on Petermann Gletscher, Greenland on 28 August 2016. View is to the north.

Refurbished ocean observatory linked via cables to a University of Delaware weather station on Petermann Gletscher, Greenland on 28 August 2016. View is to the north.

Remote Petermann Gletscher can be reached by helicopter only of one prepares at least two refueling stations along the way. Anticipating a potential future need, we had placed 1300 and 1600 liters of A1 jet fuel at two points from aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden in 2015. The fuel was given to Greenland Air with an informal agreement that we could use the fuel for a 2016 or 2017 helicopter charter. Our first pit stop looked like this on the southern shores of Kane Basin

Refueling stop on north-eastern Inglefield Land on 27 August 2016. Air Greenland Bell-212 helicopter in the background, view is to the north.

Refueling stop on southern Washington Land on 27 August 2016. Air Greenland Bell-212 helicopter in the background, view is to the south towards Kane Basin.

Helicopter flight path on 27/28 August 2016 to reach Petermann Gletscher (PG) via southern (Fuel-S) and northern (Fuel-N) fuel stops in northern Inglefield and southern Washington Land, respectively. Background color is ocean bottom depth in meters.

Helicopter flight path on 27/28 August 2016 to reach Petermann Gletscher (PG) via southern (Fuel-S) and northern (Fuel-N) fuel stops in northern Inglefield and southern Washington Land, respectively. Background color is ocean bottom depth in meters.

Upon arrival at the first (northern-most) Peterman Gletscher (PG) station we quickly confirmed our earlier suspicion that vertical motion within the 100 m thick glacier ice had ruptured the cables connecting two ocean sensors below the ice to data loggers above. We quickly disassembled the station and moved on to our central station that failed to communicate with us since 11 February 2016. Keith predicted that here, too, internal glacier motions would have stretched the cables inside the ice to their breaking point, however, this was not to be the case.

My first impression of this station was one of driftwood strewn on the beach of an ocean of ice:

Looks can be deceiving, however, and we found no damage to any electrical components from the yellow-painted wooden battery box housing two 12 Volt fancy “car batteries” at the bottom to the wind sensor on the top. Backed-up data on a memory card from one of two data loggers (stripped down computers that control power distribution and data collections) indicated that everything was working. The ocean recording from more than 800 meters below our feet was taken only a few minutes prior. In disbelief Keith and I were looking over a full year-long record of ocean temperature, salinity, and pressure as well as glacier motions from a GPS. This made our choices on what to do next very simple: Repair the straggly looking ocean-glacier-weather station, support it with a metal pole drilled 3.5 m into the glacier ice, and refurbish the adjacent radar station. We went to work for a long day and longer night without sleep.

Selfie on Petermann Gletscher on sunday 28 August 2016 after 33 hours without sleep. Weather station and northern wall of Petermann in the clouds. It was raining, too.

Selfie on Petermann Gletscher on sunday 28 August 2016 after 33 hours without sleep. Weather station and northern wall of Petermann in the clouds. It was raining, too.

When all was done, University of Delaware graduate student Peter Washam did the last check at 5:30 am sunday morning. Since then our Greenland station accepts Iridium phone calls every three hours, sends its data home where I post it daily at


The data from this station will become the center piece of Peter’s dissertation on glacier-ocean interactions. Peter was part of the British hot water drilling team who camped on the ice in 2015 for 3 weeks while I was on I/B Oden responsible for the work on the physical oceanography of the fjord and adjacent Nares Strait. Alan Mix of Oregon State University prepared and led the 2015 expedition giving us ship and helicopter time generously to support our work on the ice shelf of Petermann. Saskia Madlener documented the scope of the 2015 work in a wonderful set of three videos

Ocean & Ice – https://vimeo.com/178289799
Rocks & Shells – https://vimeo.com/178379027
Seafloor & Sediment – https://vimeo.com/169110567

A first peer-reviewed publication on this station and its data until 11 February 2016 will appear in the December 2016 issue of the open-access journal Oceanography with the title The Ice Shelf of Petermann Gletscher, North Greenland and its Connection to the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.

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.