Tag Archives: physics

Canyon below Ice at Petermann Gletscher

The Grand Canyon of Arizona stands tall in the mind as the Colorado River carved itself into 6000 feet of rock. A similar canyon has been discovered in northern Greenland near Petermann Gletscher. The canyon without a name is buried under 6000 feet of ice, but its size and scale 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

Oceanography, Technology, and Ships

Sea-going oceanography is in transition. Times are exciting as we developed new tools, sensors, and ideas on how to observe the ocean and the stuff that lives in it, floats on it, and is submerged below it. I just learned about an awesome interview with Eli Kintisch which is posted as a podcast at the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

Better technology, but less money: Eli Kintisch discusses the crossroads facing U.S. oceanography.(Podcast)

I will write more about this, but I have to run off to meet with an electrical engineer to discuss ideas on how we perhaps can get data from bottom-mounted sensors out of the ocean in ice-covered seas instantly, rather than waiting 2-3 years to get instruments back with a ship.

Kintisch, E. (2013). A Sea Change for U.S. Oceanography Science, 339 (6124), 1138-1143 DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6124.1138

Seal with ocean sensor.

Seal with ocean sensor.

Elephant seal off Antarctica with ocean sensor transmitting data via satellite [Credit Lars Boehme]

Elephant seal off Antarctica with ocean sensor transmitting data via satellite [Credit Lars Boehme]

CCGS Henry Larsen in thick and multi-year ice of Nares Strait in August 2009. View is to the south with Greenland in the background. [Photo Credit: Dr. Helen Johnson]

CCGS Henry Larsen in thick and multi-year ice of Nares Strait in August 2009. View is to the south with Greenland in the background. [Photo Credit: Dr. Helen Johnson]

Arctic Sea Ice Cover and Extreme Weather Explained

Addendum Sept.-24, 2012: A New Climate State, Arctic Sea Ice 2012 (video by Peter Sinclair).

I just discovered an outstanding interview that Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University gave to a non-profit community radio station out of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Jennifer Francis Interview 20120910

She connects and explains global warming, its much amplified signal in the Arctic, the extreme record minimal Arctic sea ice cover this summer, and how the warming Arctic and its disappearing sea ice impacts our weather in the northern hemisphere by slowing down the atmospheric jet stream separating polar from mid-latitude air masses. She explains all of this in non-technical language without loss of accuracy.

Dr. Jennifer Francis, Rutgers University [Photo Credit: ARCUS]

If this program piques your interest and you want to read more, Andrew Revkin of the New York time has led an informed discussion at his New York Times blog Dot Earth. And finally, Climate Central presented and illustrated Dr. Francis’ observations and ideas rather well with graphics and videos.

Petermann Ice Island 2012 Breaking Up

Dr. Preben Gudmandsen pioneered some of the early micro-wave remote sensors 30-40 years ago that are now used routinely to monitor sea ice, snow, and glaciers. Despite being “retired” for over 20 years, this Danish professor of Electrical Engineering is still very active in all things related to Nares Strait from sea ice, oceanography, glaciers, and winds. He is one of the main instigators to set up the automated weather station at Hans Island.

Nares Strait bottom depth (in meters) according to the International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean (IBCAO, version 2, 2008). The black dot in the center of Nares Strait indicates Hans Island.

He also instigated the latest round of exchanges among “Friends of Nares Strait” about the fate of the ice island that broke off earlier this summer from Petermann Gletscher. He asked yesterday what may happen if PII-2012 reaches the sill separating northern Nares Strait and the Arctic Ocean from southern Nares Strait and the Atlantic Ocean. This sill is the deepest connection between the Arctic Ocean to the north and Baffin Bay in the south. The sill is in western Kane Basin off Ellesmere island and is about 220 meters deep.

So, to answer that question one needs to know three things: Where is the ice island, how deep is the water where it is, and how thick is the ice island. Before I could assemble these three things, however, the ice island has already broken into at least three pieces. Luc Desjardins of the Canadian Ice Service answered first by pointing this out. He has access to the commercial RadarSat data that few others have. So, here is the latest from MODIS which answers the first two questions:

Petermann ice island 2012 (PII-2012) breaking apart on Sept.-1, 2012 near the sill of Nares Strait. Faint black lines are bottom contours of 200, 150, 100, and 50 meter depth (IBCAO-2). Bottom left has clouds, top right is the mountainous terrain of Ellesmere Island. The most southerly part of PII-2012 is the thickest as it was attached to the glacier earlier this year. The most northerly section connected to PII-2010 which passed a moored array in place near Hans Island on Sept.-22, 2010.

Petermann Ice Island 2012 as one piece on Aug.-30, 2012 19:20 UTC in Kane Basin over contours of bottom topography.

From the above two MODIS images over contours of bottom topography, the shallowest water that PII-2012 has seen is the 150-m contour to the east towards Greenland. It is possible, however, that PII-2012 may also have hit some shallow topographic feature not properly charted in IBCAO-2008 (there is a 2012 version, I just learnt) or not properly contoured by me. Lets move on the next question, how thick is this ice island?

From data we recovered 3 weeks ago I can say, however, that PII-2012 is thicker than 144 meters. I base this estimate on the ice island that formed in 2010 and that passed over our moored array on Sept.-22, 2010. It hit two ice profiling sonars at 75 meters and damaged the stainless steel guard cage designed to protect the sensors (which they did), e.g.,

Two Ice Profiling Sonars (IPS) aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen in Aug.-2012. The bent stainless steel protective frame was bent by the 2010 ice island that hit both instruments in Sept.-2010. [Photo Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

Another instrument moored deeper at ~360 meter depth sends out acoustic pings and measures how much sound comes back. A weak scatter like some microscopic plankton or grain of mud or sand in the water reflects little energy, but a hard surface like the ice floating atop reflects lots. And here is how a time series of this backscattered energy looks like when an ice island passes over:

A 24-hour segment of acoustic backscatter from a bottom-mounted acoustic Doppler current profiler is show to vary with time and height above the bottom. The dark red represents the sea surface and/or the bottom of ice floating on it. Vertical resolution is 8 meters, temporal resolution is 30 minutes for a 3-year deployment. The main purpose of this instrument is to measure ocean currents at the same spatial and temporal resolution as shown here for backscatter. PII-2012-B passed over the instrument on Sept.-22, 2010 and is here estimated to be about 144 meters thick.

The exact place of the mooring and the time that PII-2010-B was on Sept.-22, 2010 is shown in this MODIS image of that day:

Location of ADCP mooring site (red square) with Petermann Ice Island 2010 segment B overhead on Sept.-22, 2010.

If you like puzzles, then you will like physical oceanography or any field of science or engineering. If you like puzzles, you will correctly notice, that the flat segment of PII-2010-B oriented parallel to the shores of Ellesmere Island fits the flat segment of PII-2012 that also has a hook to the north. These two segments were indeed connected before they separated from the glacier in 2010 and 2012. This is the reason, that the thickest part of the 2010 ice island is the shallowest part of the 2012 ice island, because the ice gets thicker towards the grounding line of Petermann Gletscher.

And finally, if you like puzzles, then you should consider a career in physical oceanography or physics or mathematics or electrical or mechanical or civil engineering. These are fields where jobs and careers are plentiful and people live long and happy lives: Preben chose Electrical Engineering 70 years ago in Denmark, I chose physical oceanography 30 years ago in Germany, and Allison chose physics 3 years ago in the U.S. of A. Sadly, few American students chose to compete for these jobs and lives, because they need to take a “difficult” undergraduate major. Allison did, she picked physics and oceanography, and so can you.

University of Delaware summer intern Allison Einolf from Macalester College, Minnesota in Nares Strait in Aug.-2012 aboard CCGS Henry Larsen. Allison studies physics. [Photo Credit: Jo Poole, British Columbia]