Tag Archives: radar

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

Cockpit’s View of Greenland’s Glaciers, Ice-Sheets, and Sea-Ice

The glaciers and ice-sheets of Greenland retreat and melt in a warming world. Towering almost 3000 meters above sea level the ice-sheet is so thick and heavy that it depresses the bedrock underneath below current sea-level. Monitoring the ice-sheet, outlet glaciers, and sea ice of Greenland, NASA’s Operation IceBridge flies aircraft packed with radars, lasers, and optical sensors each spring and summer all over Greenland. There are exciting blogs written by the scientists aboard as they live and work out of Greenland. And today I discovered that they also provide video feeds as their plane conducts measurements. Here is an example from yesterday:

I am not entirely sure on the exact location off south-east Greenland, perhaps this is the area near Helheim Glacier, e.g.,

Greenland's bed-rock elevation from Bamber et al. (2003) digital elevation model based on remotely sensed surveys of the 1970ies and 1990ies gridded at 5 km resolution.

Greenland’s bed-rock elevation from Bamber et al. (2003) digital elevation model based on remotely sensed surveys of the 1970ies and 1990ies gridded at 5 km resolution.

but this will become clear as soon as the data are released to the public. This usually happens within a few months. The wide and open data distribution and access is one of the greatest things about this mission. If you want to see where the plane is now, this is the screenshot I took just now (site)

Locations of NASA's P3 air plane near Jacobshavn Isbrae on April-10, 2013.

Locations of NASA’s P3 air plane near Jacobshavn Isbrae on April-10, 2013.

The evolution of Jacobshavn Isbrae retreat from 1851 through present. [From NASA's Earth Observatory]

The evolution of Jacobshavn Isbrae retreat from 1851 through present. [From NASA’s Earth Observatory]

Jacobshavn lost its buttressing ice-shelf during the last decade and now rapidly discharges ice from the Greenland ice-sheet directly into the ocean at a rapid rate. Most likely, the ice-shelf was melted by the ocean from below (Holland et al., 2008). This type of accelerated discharge raises global sea-level, because ice previously sitting on Greenland’s bedrock moves into the ocean where it eventually will melt. In response to the ice removed, the bed-rock rises as there is less mass above it to hold it down (Khan et al, 2010). All this has actually been measured by satellites (mass-loss) and ground-based GPS (bed-rock response). We live in a dynamic and rapidly changing world where our sensors and software show new patterns of physics that have never been seen before. There is so much more to discover …

Csatho, B., Schenk, T., Van Der Veen, C., & Krabill, W. (2008). Intermittent thinning of Jakobshavn Isbræ, West Greenland, since the Little Ice Age Journal of Glaciology, 54 (184), 131-144 DOI: 10.3189/002214308784409035

Holland, D., Thomas, R., de Young, B., Ribergaard, M., & Lyberth, B. (2008). Acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbræ triggered by warm subsurface ocean waters Nature Geoscience, 1 (10), 659-664 DOI: 10.1038/ngeo316

Khan, S., Wahr, J., Bevis, M., Velicogna, I., & Kendrick, E. (2010). Spread of ice mass loss into northwest Greenland observed by GRACE and GPS Geophysical Research Letters, 37 (6) DOI: 10.1029/2010GL042460

Petermann Glacier Ice Islands: Where are they now?

Two large calving events in 2010 and 2012 reduced the floating part of Petermann Gletscher by 44 km (28 miles) in length, 6 Manhattans (380 km^2) in area, and 42 gigatons in mass. But what’s a gigaton? Writing in The Atlantic Magazine, Julio Friedman states that if we put all people living on earth onto a scale, then we will get half a gigaton. So, Petermann’s two ice island weigh more than eighty times as all humanity combined. As a reminder, this is what the break-ups looked like:

Petermann Gletscher in 2003, 2010, and 2012 from MODIS Terra in rotated co-ordinate system with repeat NASA aircraft overflight tracks flown in 2002, 2003, 2007, and 2010. Thick black line across the glacier near y = -20 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008).

Petermann Gletscher in 2003, 2010, and 2012 from MODIS Terra in rotated co-ordinate system with repeat NASA aircraft overflight tracks flown in 2002, 2003, 2007, and 2010. Thick black line across the glacier near y = -20 km is the grounding line location from Rignot and Steffen (2008).

It turns out that the smaller 2012 ice island is just as heavy as the 2010 island, because it is much thicker, about 200 m, 600 feet, or half the height of the Empire State Building in Manhattan. These thick and thin islands have since left Petermann Fjord and Nares Strait for more southern climes. The thinnest piece reached Newfoundland in the summer of 2011 where it melted away. Most of the thicker, larger, and heavier ice islands from Petermann and Ryder Glaciers now litter almost the entire eastern seaboard of Canada as the two largest pieces have split, broken, and splintered into many smaller pieces. Each of these still represents an exceptionally large and dangereous piece of ice that can wipe any offshore oil platform off its foundation. Luc Desjardins of the Canadian Ice Service now tracks more than 40 segments, some still bigger than Manhattan, some as small as a football field. The distribution along the 1500 km (1000 miles) of coast is staggering:

RadarSat imagery of eastern Baffin Island (bottom, right), western Greenland (top, right), and Nares Strait with Petermann Fjord (top, left) with pieces of Petermann and Ryder Ice Islands identified. [Credit: Luc Lesjardins, Canadian Ice Service]

RadarSat imagery of eastern Baffin Island (bottom, right), western Greenland (top, right), and Nares Strait with Petermann Fjord (top, left) with pieces of Petermann and Ryder Ice Islands identified as green dots. [Credit: Luc Lesjardins, Canadian Ice Service]

What stands out is that most pieces are close to the coast of Canada. This is expected, because often the ocean moves in ways to balance pressure gradient and Coriolis forces as we live on an earth that rotates once every day around its axis. This force balance holds both in the ocean and the atmosphere. We are all familiar with winds around a low-pressure system such as Hurricane Sandy where the winds move air counter-clockwise around the eye (the center of low pressure). This eye of low pressure in our ocean story is permanently near the center of Baffin Bay. Ocean currents then move water counter-clockwise around this eye. This results in a flow to the south off Canada and a flow to the north off Greenland. On a smaller scale this balance holds also, such as Delaware Bay or Petermann Fjord, but I will not bore you with the details of graduate level physics of fluids in motions … as important as they may be.

So, almost all the ice islands we see in the above imagery will make their way further south towards the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Some are grounded to the bottom of the shallow coastal ocean and may sit in place for a year, or a month, or until the next high tide will lift the ice off the bottom and move it back into deeper water. Some ice islands will keep moving rapidly, some will further break apart, but none will go away anytime soon. If you want to see some of Petermann’s Ice Islands for yourself, take the ferry from North Sidney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland and Labrador and head for the Great Northern Peninsula. That’s what I hope to do one of the next summers.

Johnson, H., Münchow, A., Falkner, K., & Melling, H. (2011). Ocean circulation and properties in Petermann Fjord, Greenland Journal of Geophysical Research, 116 (C1) DOI: 10.1029/2010JC006519

Münchow, A., & Garvine, R. (1993). Dynamical properties of a buoyancy-driven coastal current Journal of Geophysical Research, 98 (C11) DOI: 10.1029/93JC02112

Rignot, E., & Steffen, K. (2008). Channelized bottom melting and stability of floating ice shelves Geophysical Research Letters, 35 (2) DOI: 10.1029/2007GL031765

Petermann Glacier Shape and Melt Channels

Radars, lasers, and fancy computers all shape the way we see the shape of glaciers. An airplane flies along a line down the glacier with (1) a good GPS. It carries (2) a vertical laser that measures the distance from the plane to the surface below while (3) an ice-penetrating radar measures where the ice meets the ocean. All these data are distributed freely by the University of Kansas’ Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) that is part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge.

March-24, 2010 view of Petermann Glacier from NASA’s DC-8 aircraft. Photo credit goes to Michael Studinger of NASA’s IceBridge program who also blogged about this flight.

From CReSIS I gathered the data from Petermann Glacier before its break-up in 2010 and 2012. I show two flight tracks on a MODIS map for the same day that NASA’s DC-8 was collecting the shape data. There are two tracks as the airplane flies along the fjord out towards the ocean, turns, and flies back up inland. The seaward (red) track is slightly offset from the landward (black) track.

Petermann Glacier on March 24, 2010 from MODIS. The left panel shows the reflectance while the right panel shows the magnitude of the spatial gradient of this signal. Red and black dots are the flight tracks from which the shape of the glacier was measured by radar flown on a DC-8. The dark black line indicates where the glacier is grounded to bed rock ~500 meters below sea-level. The 3 boxes indicate location where the floating ice shelf terminated before 2010 (top box), after 2010 (middle box), and now (bottom box) due to the 2010 and 2012 ice islands. Top left are clouds, mountain shadows on left also.

The laser gives us the top surface of the ice while the radar gives us the bottom surface. Connect these two and we get ice thickness. Below I show how these ice elevations change along the glacier. The ocean is to the right near 65 km while the grounding line of the glacier is near -20 km, so the part of the glacier that is floating on the ocean was about 80 km in 2010, that’s about 50 miles. Now why is the red shape so different from the black line?

Shape of Petermann Glacier’s floating ice shelf on March 24, 2010 (top panel) and ice thickness (bottom panel). Radar data from University of Kansas, Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) with EGM2008 geoid corrections applied by me.

Well, the two tracks were NOT the same and these data show that the glacier varies in thickness and shape at small scales. The floating ice-sheet has lots of topography. It has hills, valleys, channels, and troughs. It stuns me to see how long and how steep this one specific channel is: it changes by almost 200 meters in 2 km. That’s huge. We do not fully understand how these channels form, why they are there, if they change over time, or perhaps most importantly, how do they relate to the stability of this or other glaciers. A first theoreticial PhD thesis was recently submitted by Carl Gladish. It is thought-provoking, but it does not settle the issue. We do not even know how many such channels there are, but there are ideas on how to perhaps do this with data both in hand and more to be collected.

Simplifying future analyses, I changed my Petermann MODIS and CReSIS co-ordinate system from latitude and longitude to a distance in kilometers along and across the glacier. The standard MODIS “color” (lets call this f) varies as one walks the glacier in its along-stream (call this x) and across-stream (call this y) directions. The color f is a function of x and y which scientists write as f=f(x,y). Now compare this color f(x,y) with the SPATIAL CHANGE (call this the slopes) of color that I show in the right panel. The MODIS data are the same, but why do they look so different in the two panels?

Well, the slopes draw the eye to smaller scale features in the right panel. This technique sharpens edges, fronts, and small spatial irregularities that our eyes tend to skip over. Our brains are trained to integrate and to condense information looking for the largest patterns first. So, taking the difference between adjacent values to get slopes and shapes, I do exactly the opposite and make sure that small irregularities stand out:

Close-up of March 24, 2010 MODIS image from the grounding line (black line at bottom) to the location of the present seaward front of the glacier (black box at top).

Notice the many stripes along the glacier near the bottom (x=0) right (y=80) near where the red triangle is. I believe these structures relate to sub-surface melt-channels of intense ice-ocean interactions, but belief is not truth and as scientists we must proof our believes and truths in ways that other people can check by repeating the experiments or calculations. There is so much more fun work to do, but, sadly, there are only 24 hours to a day.

Oh, and a (British) submarine is perhaps on the way to dive under this ice-shelf to take a close look and lots of data of under-ice topography, temperature, salinity, and bottom topography, if we can get a ship and experiment to get it there. So much work to do … [to be continued]

Last Image of Nares Strait from Europe’s Environmental Satellite

The European Space Agency announced today that one of its primary environmental satellites died. For over a months now engineers could neither receive data nor send commands to the 10-year old veteran of earth science research whose design life was 5 years. The last image received for my study area between northern Greenland and Canada shows Petermann Gletscher and ice-covered Nares Strait:

The rectangle between Franklin Island, Greenland and Ellesmere Island, Canada shows the site where in August 2012 we hopefully will recover data from an array of ice and ocean sensing equipment that we put there in 2009.

It was during this 2009 International Polar Year expedition to Nares Strait that I discovered satellite remote sensing in a new way, that is, accessing the raw digits sent down to earth from the NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites that contain Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensors. These two sensors are as old or older than its European companion. MODIS are now the only optical sensors at better than daily resolution which check the land, ocean, and ice now that the European satellite is not talking with us anymore.

For me, the most spectacular use of Europe’s EnviSat was its ability to document how the 2010 Petermann Ice Island wiggled its way out of its constraining fjord into Nares Strait. A movie of daily radar images is attached:

Petermann Ice Island 2010 slow movement through Petermann Fjord, break-up on Joe Island, and swift movement southward in Nares Strait. Click on image to start movie.

Unlike its Canadian counterpart, RadarSat, the imagery from the European radar (ASAR) was distributed widely, free of charge, and became useful to research communities and a wider public. The Danish Meteorological Institute provides an archive of imagery from both US and European satellites for all of coastal Greenland that just lost its European imagery (http://ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/modis.uk.php). Unlike the now defunct EnviSat, RadarSat is a for-profit commercial enterprise unaffordable to scientists or a public. The Canadian government funded development, launch, and initial data processing before giving it away to a private corporation. Ironically, the largest paying customer for its expensive products is the Canadian Government, but the data are rarely used for public education or research. They may as well be secret.

So, the demise of EnviSat is sad news. It removes a semi-public eye in the sky. Lets hope, that its replacement by the European Space Agency receives the urgent attention that it deserves.